Talisman Gate

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Three Doors

Copyright 2004 The New York Sun, One SL, LLC
All Rights Reserved
The New York Sun

December 23, 2004 Thursday


LENGTH: 1069 words

HEADLINE: Three Doors

BYLINE: Nibras Kazimi


The barbarians are at the gates. The Shias are coming. Flee, flee. That was the basic message carried by the excitable king of Jordan during his last visit to Washington. As Abdullah II made the beltway rounds warning of a "Shia Crescent" emerging in the Middle East as a result of a Shia victory in Iraq's upcoming elections, he sought to rehash memories of better days when Iran used to be the menace and people like him still mattered to American interests. What is really on his mind is the Democratic sickle likely to cut a swath through the region.

The elite club of Arab rulers is about to run into affirmative action: it has to let in its first popularly elected member. They had welcomed newcomers in the past, usually midranking military officers who got introduced to the local CIA or KGB station chief and pulled off a lucky coup. All memberships are lifelong, and gender exclusive. Now, the Iraqi who gets the most votes automatically becomes a member and ceases to be one after his or her term - not life - expires. What is the Middle East coming to?

Before the liberation of Iraq, the former foreign minister of Egypt, Amr Mousa, who is the secretary of the Arab League, warned that marching into Baghdad would open up the gates of hell. Sounds bad, but he is absolutely correct if understood in the parlance of Arab rulers: Hell to them is a place where people are motivated by inspiration, whereas their heaven is teaming with citizens motivated by cattle prods.

Democracy in Iraq is going to play out in real time. The whole Middle East will be watching, and its youth are going to be offered the "What's behind door no. 3?" option. Door no. 1 leads the young Middle Easterner to a welcoming committee of Arab rulers: you can immigrate, break down, or get co-opted. If you don't like things as they are, then Stockholm is beautiful this time of year. Otherwise, do drugs or vegetate watching soap operas and rant against Israel. But if you play your sycophantic cards well then you can have the leftovers and the distinct honor of washing the dirty dishes.

Door no. 2 opens up to a damp cave some where near Kandahar. Osama Bin Laden greets the newly arrived Middle Easterner: "Here is the RPG and its user manual, and a copy of the Koran autographed by the author's agent - moi. "You are instructed to make your way back to Arabia and get on with the business of slaying the infidels. In due course, you will die and go dine in the company of the Prophet Muhammad. You will be given the option of "smoking or nonsmoking" as the Angel Gabriel leads you to your table. Should you stay alive, then you get to enjoy the rides of Wahhabi-Land theme park; "pick up your cotton candy and stand in line for the magic act, oh boy, you're in luck, it's a beheading!"

Behind door no.3 is the prospect of a functioning democracy. Sure, it is messy and littered with chads, but you get to keep your dignity. Moreover, you might end up with the opportunity of a better life. Parliament will force that obnoxious royal highness to auction off his Ferrari, and the proceeds may go towards purchasing 30 Hyundais for regular citizens like you. If you are a woman in Saudi Arabia, you will finally get to drive a car. Or, maybe you will put to use that high-tech education and launch your own business. Part of the overhead that was once earmarked for graft and red tape may pay for a Maserati for the owner. Or it may buy a new boiler for the orphanage down the street. It's up to you, young man. And if things don't turn out great, then vent your pent-up frustration at the ballot box or pen a letter to the editor. Just put away the rocket-propelled grenade launcher; things may turn for the better, every four years or so.

There's a demographic bulge of late teenagers in the Middle East, according to the available surveys, and each young man or woman has three options: the status quo, Al Qaeda, or democracy. The lack of public participation in the terror-inspired chaos sought by Mr. bin Laden in Saudi Arabia should be encouraging to many in policy circles. But it is too early for high-fives. The reason that Mr. bin Laden's message has not been gaining ground is that regular Saudi folks are waiting for President Bush to deliver on his new promise of change through democracy. To believe that they will remain content with the status quo is to misunderstand the whole phenomenon of Al Qaeda: people are angry at America in part because America maintains the current order and pays the utility bills at the club of Arab rulers.

Al Jazeera and other press outlets owned and managed by the Arab rulers advise their viewers that they should be angered by Israel and Abu Ghraib. But most ordinary Arab families are discerning hints of the future from coverage of the Iraqi elections: "Is America serious and on my side? Or is it on the side of King Abdullah & Co?"

However, being the political equivalent of a moralistic vegetarian among cannibals can be damaging to your health. Three Saudi democrats, Matrouk Al-Faleh, Ali Al-Dumaini and Abdullah Al-Hamed, are finding this out the hard way. Their crime: believing America's promise of a new democratic Middle East, and spreading the word. They are charged with the same slew of bad deeds leveled by King George III against the first American patriots. The Saudi authorities seem to think that these three democrats should rot in jail, where they have been since last March - their lawyer also got arrested recently - while a fellow called Khalid Al-Harbi gets to hobble out of incarceration. Do you remember Mr. Harbi? He appeared on television shortly after September 11 in an audience with Osama Bin Laden to personally convey his congrats. Here's another hint: he had no legs. Well, the Saudi government had the gall to issue a press release saying that he had been set free last month. Apparently, Saudi prisons are not wheelchair accessible. How nice of them to let him go.

This is a slap in the face of Mr. Bush if ever there was one. Adding insult to injury, the club of Arab rulers has made common cause with Al Qaeda against his experiment with democracy in Iraq. Will the sheriff emerge from the saloon guns ablaze, or will a State Department spokesman deliver a sharply worded yet narrowly reported denunciation? Every young Middle Easterner is waiting for the Texan to make his move, before they make their own through one of three doors to the future.