Coups at the ballot

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What could be more just with respect to a people’s sovereignty than its free choice of a representative government? US President George Bush wants the world to believe that this maxim inspires Washington’s activity vis-a-vis Middle East elections. He declared the alleged electoral successes in Palestine and Iraq as the opening stages of a Middle East political reformation.

Notwithstanding Bush’s determination to free Arabs, the Palestinian and Iraqi elections were coups: They empowered candidates pliable to Washington’s Middle East strategies, in states with strong opposition to US policies. The elections proceeded though the electorate had insufficient information to make rational choices. It was the occupiers’ policies, not popular will, that determined who could campaign freely, how campaigns were run, who could vote, and the numbers that voted.

In the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Israeli constraints on most candidates enabled the victory of Mahmoud Abbas, the American and Israeli favorite. A popular Fatah challenger, Marwan Barghouti, could not campaign because he was in an Israeli jail. Other candidates campaigned under extreme hardships imposed by the Israeli army. The Israeli army on a few occasions beat or arrested Mustafa Barghouti, who finished second to Mahmoud Abbas. Gazan contenders were denied entry to the West Bank. Candidates from other parties suffered similar handicaps.

Israel granted Abbas total freedom of movement. He was able to rally Fatah support through his access to Palestinian media and visits to the towns and refugee camps. He also received help at the ballots by Palestinian Authority workers who manned the polls. As Palestinian turnout appeared low at poll closing time, PA poll workers kept them open later to enhance turnout figures. Abbas won handily.

Israeli restrictions on Palestinian movement prevented many Palestinians, especially in Jerusalem, from voting. A former CIA official reported that, “Israel will allow 5,376 Palestinians to vote in five post offices in their occupied capital. The rest will have to travel outside the municipal borders to polling stations in the West Bank,” an act that could lead Israel to refuse their return into Jerusalem. This restriction on Jerusalemites probably hurt Mustafa Barghouti, whose community service and endorsement by secular Palestinian parties made him popular in Jerusalem.

The Iraq elections offer similar lessons, hinting that freedom’s bell is not ringing as loudly as Bush thinks.

In Iraq, the US pushed for the elections in January, despite the deteriorating security situation. The fighting between the American army and the insurgency, and the growing number of kidnappings under the occupation made it dangerous for Iraqis to leave home. Many Iraqis were trapped in their houses. Consequently, they could not assemble at political rallies or speeches to hear the candidates’ ideas.

The same danger applied to Iraqi candidates. Most candidates could not campaign publicly as they feared reprisals from the insurgency. They were in any case little known to the Iraqi electorate, whose knowledge of non-Ba’ath parties during Saddam Hussein’s regime was scant. The candidates’ names were publicized only online, then only days before the election. How could Iraqis cast informed votes without knowing the candidates’ positions?

The US pressed forward with elections anyhow, thinking that a large turnout would vindicate the American occupation.

The American occupation used its power over the Iraqis to force voter turnout. Dahr Jamal reports Iraqi complaints that officials threatened to cut their monthly food ration if they did not vote. The extortion of Iraqi support for an American-initiated process undermines Bush’s claim that the elections are for Iraqis’ benefit only.

Bush does not care that it is illegal under the Geneva Conventions for an occupying power to tamper with a conquered nation’s government. He has instigated coups, under the cover of elections, that have empowered partners who will accept Israeli settlement of the West Bank and American bases in Iraq.

Mahmoud Abbas’ political biography suggests that he will endorse Sharon’s plans to annex Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Abbas is an architect of the Oslo Accords that enabled Israel to build many of the settlements that have strangled Palestinian towns. The Bush administration is counting on him to disarm the Palestinian resistance and accept Israeli conquests.

The US is building a dozen permanent bases in Iraq; time will tell how the new Iraqi government will deal with the American presence, though the government itself is dependent on American troops for protection from the insurgency. The elected Kurdish leadership, with a long history of CIA support, has captured many seats in the Iraqi parliament. The Kurds are the most likely to accommodate the US bases in Iraq. Though some of the other elected political parties want the Americans to leave Iraq, they need American protection. Iraq’s insurgency pronounced its clear opposition to those participating in the election. The “success” of the Iraq coup partially depends on how much more responsive the Iraqi government will be toward American demands for bases and oil than toward the demands of the insurgency and the Iraqi people.

Previous American-supported coups in the Middle East–Iran (1953) and Israel’s Lebanon invasion (1982)–ended in disaster for the US and its clients. Manipulating the strings of a new set of puppets with a ballot will endear the Arab peoples neither to the US nor the new governments.

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