Saturday, October 23, 2010

Transcend This!

Basra, Iraq, during the electoral festivities

Casual Notes on the Jordanian, Lebanese and Egyptian Parliamentary Elections.
Truly, the seasonal migration to electoral la-la land is by far the most joyous of our trips in this Middle East. Thankfully, the moment is upon us yet again in Jordan (November 9) and Egypt (November 20), and we’ve barely had time to get over the last ones in Iraq (March 2010) and Lebanon (June 2009).

The passport photos usually do the trick, but it’s the slogans that clinch it for you every single time. A quick car ride through Amman’s circular street life and a big, fat album of reasons for Jordan’s still barren marriage with democracy falls in your lap. A moving queue of funny looking people, a medley of hilarities, and you immediately grasp why, after 21 years of parliamentary elections, Jordan is no more democratic today than it was in 1989, when the golden age of political liberalism officially commenced.

“Jordan is for all Jordanians, and all Jordanians are for Jordan.”
“Your voice equals your honor.”
“Yes, total respect is correct.”
“Yes, the nation is for everyone.”
“Daughter of the nation, sister of everyone.”
“Authority (al Haibah) is paramount.”
“The Right of Return is sacred.”
“Without slogans.”
“Let your voice boom.”

“The roads are for the streets and the streets are for the roads.”
“Yes, yes, and yes, yes.”
“Yes before no, and two no’s don’t equal yes.”
“We know you, you know us, give us your vote.”

(The last four are a friend’s personal contribution to the national effort).

Nothing in these panoramas of idiocy is alien or new. Watching them whizz by you is like a moment of déjà vu that keeps rewinding itself. This has been—and, one seriously suspects, shall be—Amman and Baghdad and Beirut and Cairo and…during every electoral fest.

The tendency on the part of well meaning folks inside and out is, of course, to blame the powers that be. But I think they’re way too miserly. In nonsense alone, this is a recurring embarrassment of riches for which a good chunk of the country’s elite is no less to blame than the state itself. If Jordan disappoints today, it disappoints because of them just as much as it does because of its government. If this is a carnival of fools, the jokers are not only the ones composing the silly tunes, they’re the ones dancing to them.

The odd thing is that as far as pretenses go—a regional indulgence of serious mass appeal—our elections don’t do too well. For all the vote buying, the feasting, the sectarian agitation, the busing en masse and the under-the-table, behind-the-curtain deals, voters are always the dullest guests in these parties. From Egypt’s eternally depressed but not necessarily depressing 20-25%, to Jordan’s somewhat more perky 41% (1989) to 54% (2007) range, to Lebanon’s typical split-the-difference 53%, voter turnoff is always outpacing voter turnout. And we all know, because living here makes us know, that this apathy is not that of the satisfied and comfy.

Really, how extraordinary is it that in a recent poll in Jordan, 62% of those polled stated that “they accepted or agreed with the new [electoral] law,” although 66% “were entirely unaware” of it? Who said Jordanians don’t have a sense of humor?

Which brings to mind the best banner yet of any election (I forget the year), made in—where else?—Egypt:

“Iddi sotak aw matiddihoush,
al-Nabawi Ismail mayhimmoush”

“Whether you cast your vote [for me] or not
Al-Nabawi Ismail cares not.”

(The proud owner of the slogan is none other than al-Nabawi Ismail himself, Egypt’s one time interior minister).

So the obvious question is: for whose eyes is this pretense, because it clearly is not for us?

If you’re in Jordan, you might want to head northwest to Lebanon for an answer.


In September 2010, The International Foundation of Electoral Systems (IFES), an outfit that busies itself with, well, matters electoral, awarded Mr. Ziad Baroud, our Interior Minister, The Charles T. Manatt Prize.

Apparently, IFES was genuinely—and, one has to add, rightly--impressed with the low violence and efficiency of the June 2009 parliamentary elections in a notoriously violent and inefficient locale.  If only for the relatively smooth running of the electoral show, Mr. Baroud, by far the most digestible Lebanese interior minister yet, deserved one of those Kindergarten gold stars on his forehead.  

But (read this paragraph very slowly) in awarding Mr. Baroud the prize, IFES, without even a hint of irony—as is often the habit of all clueless Western organizations--stated that its purpose is to “highlight that democracy work transcends political parties and national borders.”

Remember that Japanese giggling box that sounds like a bunch of cackling chicken?

Indeed, who better than Baroud for this honor, since Lebanon does not have anything remotely resembling a political party and since our national borders stand now where they’ve always stood, as mere markers of a betting arena? Might as well get a prize for it, we’ve been doing this kind of transcendental democracy work for so long; come to think of it, since that glorious day when “independent” Lebanon came to be in 1943.

Don’t think this is a joke, as hilarious as it all is. Over $1 billion dollars was spent on the 2009 Lebanese elections, $900 million of which came straight from Saudi Arabia’s coffers into Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s March 14 camp. This in a country of four million, give or take, with a GNP of  $31 billion and approximately 3.2 million eligible voters, 53% of whom voted. For a touch of context, you might want to give the cost of the 2008 US presidential race a fleeting thought: $2.3 billion, expenses and all.

That this obscene amount of money was spent on a contest whose results were preordained to be utterly meaningless in a tiny, systemically confessional state, where so-called parliamentary and cabinet majorities can never govern without the active acquiescence of the so-called minorities, is remarkable commentary on the importance of window dressing in a country that is itself a window dressing.

It would be unjust, though, to pick on IFES alone, when we should be picking on them all. As is the case with IFES, for the European Union, the Carter Center and countless other Western agencies in the democratic licensing business that congratulated Baroud on a job well done but counseled “more reforms,” democracy is the sum of so many items on a score sheet. Just because the elections don’t matter, are bought, are unrepresentative, have practically no bearing on policy and say practically nothing (or all the wrong things) about a country’s actual progress on the democratic footpath doesn’t mean that efficiency, order and all around good effort on voting day don’t count.

I mean, without these scores how would the West be able to tell the difference between the goner and the redeemable amongst us? Frankly, this alone makes it all worthwhile.

Dead serious business, the “work of democracy” for our regimes and a West desperate to keep the conversation going, lest we all be found out. As dead serious and deadly, in fact, as the peace process itself. Imagine the carnage if the halls should ever fall silent.


Lara said...

2 years ago, we would have been keen to hear or know the western's feedback on our any type of progression. As for now, congrats to Minister Baroud and all. Fortunately or unfortunatley there is no audience to clap, or is there? :)

Anonymous said...

How come "funny" is only fleeting and then you discover that what you've read is irrevocably sad? How much more could $900 million do then finance a fake election? Maybe it could create a party that someone, like a "majority" would like to go to.