Countdown to Democracy

MY FIRST REACTION, when asked if I wanted to volunteer to monitor polling stations in Amman for the Iraqi elections, was: Great. I see the voting is open to a rather large Iraqi Diaspora. The friend inviting me to help out was not so positive. It was wonderful that Iraqis in places like Syria, Jordan and Iran would have a chance to cast ballots. What was less certain was die effect of polling stations in places like the U.S. and Britain.

I had few fears regarding die monitoring in Jordan. My friend’s caution made me feel less certain of the legitimacy of voting in the States and Britain, however. There was clearly a vested interest in such places to have the election turn out the way certain powers-that-be wanted it to turn out.

Like everytiiing else about Iraq these days, there were no black and white answers. There was no formula to apply to bridge the intercommunity rifts that seemed to yawn wider every month while the Occupation dragged on, and die body count rose. For many inside Iraq, to vote or not to vote was a decision with life or death consequences. Repeated tiireats by Zarqawi zealots made many Iraqis uncomfortable with the idea of showing up at polling stations in Iraq. In the days leading up to the election, the picture was grim and there was an unspoken expectation of terror on a grand scale waiting in the wings.


The phone call was unexpected. Manal Omar, director of die Iraqi office for Women for Women International, was at the Intercontinental Hotel downtown. Could Fawaz, Ahmed and I come over for a rundown of election monitoring basics? I knew from Ahmed and Fawaz that Manal just got told in no uncertain terms that her serious back problems required immediate surgery. My first thought was: Now? Right before the elections? I felt pretty sure that Manal was thinking along the same lines. Having spent a great deal of time in country as the nation tottered on the brink of anarchy, then having to work out of Jordan when things got too dangerous to continue working in Iraq, it seemed a perverse twist of fate that surgery and three weeks of immobile recuperation would sideline die normally energetic activist Falling, as it did, on the eve of the first real elections for Iraq since God knows when, it seemed cruelly ironic.

No matter how you sliced it, die role of the U.S. in this election could scarcely be called positive. In the U.S. there were a total of four or five voting stations for an Iraqi Diaspora that numbered in the thousands, according to Fawaz. Ahmed was a bit perturbed by elections here in Jordan as well, since the number of die-hard Baathists living in exile in Jordan was considerable. The ballet box might as well have Pandora carved in the side. There were so many variables at play and so many pieces on the board that no one could accurately predict the outcome. One could only pray that, like Pandora’s Box, the last thing to fly out of it would be hope. I also thought it wise to suppress the niggling thought which pointed out that – in certain Arabic dialects – pandora meant tomato.

Starting out on Friday morning, the eight of us decided to split the eight or nine polling stations in Amman so that each of our two carloads would cover half the cities vote sites. It turned out, as it often does, that the women went in one car, and the four of us “guys” as we are usually referred to, went in the other. This would cause strange looks for people working the voting stations. “Which NGO are you working for?” and three very unshaven, guy-looking individuals would grunt: “Women for Women International.”

It would be fair to say that no one knew what to expect as voting began on the ground. It had been a generation or more since Iraqis had been given the luxury of a vote of any kind. The rules and regulations were spelled out in detail in the observers kits we were given. If we were to sport the blue badges of International observers, some of the things we had to know included: “abstain(ing) from indicating any bias or preference … whether by wearing or displaying electoral material, participating in a partisan function, or any other act,” “refrain(ing) from carrying any weapons, or behaving in an inappropriate or aggressive manner,” and “refrain(ing) from communication with voters,” or “attempting to provide guidance or information to people involved in the electoral process.” The list of positive freedoms that our badges entitled us to were also numerous. In brief, we were to have unimpeded access to any and all aspects and locations where election related events were carried out; from the voting stations to the counting rooms afterwards. We had, it seemed, been deputized by the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq.

As we went to various locales, there were various small differences between how each site carried out their responsibilities. What was fairly uniform was the high level of security at the sites. We caught on, after the second polling station, that we should leave all contents of pockets, wallets or folders in the car. The constant frisking, signing in and security checks made for a time-consuming emptying and filling of pockets, bags or folders if we didn’t Of course, it also felt highly secure.

Being the historical oddity that it was, there were numerous representatives of the fourth estate on hand. The Iraqis I was working with, as well as most of the voters, shied away from the press. Before the third site we visited I had already been interviewed by press, TV and print media. My colleagues seemed amused by my apparent craving for the spotlight I kept insisting that it looked good – in a highly contested election like this one – that someone “international” show that there was indeed monitoring and that things were proceeding smoothly. There was little I could say to dissuade my colleagues from their initial point of view, so I was left to bear the burden of the paparazzi alone.

There were, to be sure, the occasional oddities and questionable moments, and yet these led to a process of on the spot judgments that required the ultimate aims of the elections to remain in the foreground. When one polling station gave us rough numbers of local Iraqi residents and the amount of registered voters, the next replied that such figures were secret I picked up the hefty list of candidates and parties to use as a reference for writing on the election process and was begrudgingly allowed to take one. Despite the fact that the list of candidates was also secret Such secretiveness was taken less from the concept of anonymous voting and more from the sense of the need to save lives, whether in Amman or Baghdad.

What couldn’t be clearly captured from the photos and newshounds that came out of election stations was the palpable excitement and optimism of the process, and its meaning to a people denied so many choices for so long. There was an odd mixture of pride, disbelief and hope in the faces of election employees and voters alike. We were treated with perhaps more deference than we deserved; so strong was the need to make this election look right in the eyes of the world. Fortunately, such respect didn’t go to our heads. It couldn’t when we were repeatedly asked who we worked for:

“Which NGO are you with?”

“Women for Women,” one of us always said trying to sound secure in our masculinity.

Then the long pause and stare as they stared at us, pen poised over the sign-in sheets. We would repeat it again. They wrote it down.

“I think they are catching on,” I whispered to Ahmed. “They realize we’re not women.”

“You think so?”

“I told you we should have shaved …”

For once, it seemed, the women would have an easier time of it


We have been on call for three days, and it is now late Sunday night I am waiting to find out when the counting begins and what we do next if it hasn’t begun already. This is all so new to everyone that the feeling of flying by the seat of our pants can’t be avoided. There are reports to submit and debriefings in the days to come. One thing remains certain. Whatever the outcome of the election, there is a historical resonance missing in most elections. This could make or break U. S. administration claims at delivering “democracy” to Iraq. It is naturai to expect that the death toll in Iraq this week will climb exponentially. At the end of the day, whatever you feel about this election you have to admit that it is necessary for Iraqis to be able to decide on how they will decide their futures.

There are noticeable absences in the list of hundreds of candidates. There is no mention that I can see of the Baath and Communist parties beginning to proliferate in Iraq. There are Islamic parties, which makes the exclusion of certain more radical factions noticeable. In many respects it is a very American election. Anti-American parties have either denounced the elections or have been excluded from the process by a very “occupied” Iraq. But at least there are a lot more choices than the usual two presented to American voters.

As the clock moves toward Monday morning, I decide not to tune in to any news broadcasts. There is an odd jagged feeling of exhausted excitement but not much I can do if I hear of any last minute outbreaks of violence in Iraq. I can, if necessary, watch some of the counting process, but from all appearances up till now, the concern for legitimacy and democratic process is so prevalent that – whatever the outcome the process itself was successful. Nothing’s perfect but you can’t blame people for trying. It’s a start Something that Iraq has been seemingly waiting for forever. There’s little more to say than the traditional Iraqi farewell: Fi at?aa? Allah. May God protect you. For a couple of days we saw light at the end of the tunnel. Whether or not it was a mirage, only time will tell.

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    A piece previously published in the print issue of Islamica Magazine between 2003-2009. The following has been an effort to digitize and archive as a free service. Author citations can be found at as we continue to work on improving the digital archives here.

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