The view from Morocco

An American writer abroad looks at Iraq through the lens of the Middle East and sees a kaleidoscope of hope and failure, promise and despair.

By Mark MacNamara

Published January 30, 2005 12:42AM (EST)

The view of Iraq on election eve suggests a dervish nation whirling toward civil war. "This is the calm before the storm" is a refrain heard by commentators in the Iraqi press. "Doomed" is a word you also hear. But even with optimism in such short supply, you can still look at the Iraqi people as though they've just come out of a prison psycho ward after serving 30 years on false charges. And you think: give them time to adjust, give them a moment to trust somebody, and they just might make it.

We live in a small university town in the Middle Atlas Mountains of Morocco. My wife teaches high school English. I teach a college journalism course. My 10-year-old son is in school. For weeks, I've been watching and reading news of Sunday's elections in the local Iraqi press. I've been particularly interested to see Iraq without the traditional American news filters.

The view of the elections from Morocco is like the view across a room through someone else's bifocals. You have only the vaguest sense of Iraq. The truth is, the elections have never been a big story here. That may be difficult to understand when you live in the United States, the world's news hopper. But it may be American-centric to think otherwise.

Moroccans may show little interest in Iraq because they have a low opinion of America, but it's more, I think, because what happens there doesn't affect them politically or, more importantly, emotionally. What is of far greater interest is anything involving Israel. The obsession with the Israel-Palestine conflict is mind-boggling.

You could argue that Israel serves as an excuse, a distraction from failure in Morocco. That may be partly true. Certainly, the endless stories of incursion become one more source of despair that promotes a sense of being powerless. Even young kids -- and these are from well-to-do, educated families -- give strong opinions on Gaza and the West Bank. Misguided opinions, you could say, but ones that are strong and clear.

Not incidentally, some high school kids see Osama bin Laden as a hero because he challenged the United States. Moreover, the notion that someone called up 4,000 Jews working in the World Trade Center and told them not to come to work on 9/11 is an accepted story. "Where did you hear that story?" you ask. "I don't know." "I heard it on TV." "My parents told me." "Everybody knows that." It's like asking whether the sun is out.

Ariel Sharon is forever Beezlebub, and by extension, so is Bush. But this has nothing to do with Bush and Iraq. That's a separate matter, and many Moroccans seem undecided about Iraq. One academic, a Sunni, the predominant faith in Morocco, told me, "I was against the invasion, but I just pray Bush doesn't pull out now." He nearly wept at the thought. But why? "The Sunnis would be slaughtered. It would be the end." I was surprised, because many Moroccans will tell you they are Muslims first; sect is not important to them.

In the last week, the big stories in Le Matin, the French-language Moroccan daily, include the repatriation of two gravely ill soldiers kept for almost 20 years in Algeria. The Sahara is always a pressing story in Morocco. That's another injustice so close to the heart, Moroccans can barely discuss it. And then there was a story about developing tourist possibilities in Ouarzazate province. That comes higher than a news service story about the most recent violence in Iraq.

One reason the Iraq elections may be so lightly regarded is that Morocco has its own problems. I stumbled on a rally in Rabat in late December. The peaceful rally was held by 1,500 or so unemployed academics who believe the government has not done enough to provide new jobs. With the appearance of baton-wielding soldiers came the realization that the government does not quite trust the people, even the educated.

"Jobs" is a rallying cry from the phosphate mines in Khouribga to the top universities. Invariably, the best students go to Europe or America to find jobs. In effect, the low skilled and the most skilled are leaving. And you wonder, who is left to build and staff a democracy?

But what's the view of the elections in the Iraqi press? No view, from any quarter, seems accurate. The news is contradictory and confusing, even to Iraqis. Best not to cling to a single view. Better to swing with rumor and the dazzle of daily history. If you believe the elections are in the hands of Iranian ayatollahs, Saudi princes, the Mossad, or functionaries in Damascus, you can make an argument for each. If you've always believed nothing can stop civil war in Iraq, you can find agreement not only from Iraqi pundits but also Hazim al Shalan, the Sunni Iraqi defense minister, who, when asked to summarize the situation last week, said simply, "Chaos."

In another interview, he brazenly listed the various mistakes the United States had made during the occupation: disbanding the Iraqi army, focusing on the Shiites (which frightened the Sunni), and then creating religious parties, when he had always thought the American ideal was to separate religious institutions from secular ones.

Another recent story, lost among gorier headlines, that supports this pervasive sense of hopelessness is that the head of the Committee of Islamic Scientists, a Sunni, says he now has been marked for death. His enemies could be Shiites or Sunnis. But that the head of such an organization has become a target suggests the essential battle between faith and reason.

On the other hand, if you think the situation is hopeful, there is evidence to back you. The local daily newspaper, Al Mada, conducted a survey last week in eight of the principal districts of Baghdad. Of 300 people polled, 67 percent expressed their intention to vote; 25 percent said they would not; 9 percent were undecided. Religion was a factor. In the largely Shiite district of Al Sadr City, 71 percent said they would vote. In the Sunni quarter of Athamia, 24 percent were sure to vote. Older voters were much more likely to vote than younger ones.

Moreover, the speaker of the Traditional National Assembly, Fuad Maasoum, claims that at least 65 percent of registered voters will come to the polls. He's the highest-ranking Kurd in the interim administration. He didn't say what his estimate was based on, but a Baghdad University research center conducted a poll that suggested 70 percent of registered voters intended to vote if the conditions were secure.

Another sign of hope is that the Shiites, who are expected to dominate, have reached out in recent weeks to the Sunni establishment. Abdul Azziz Al Hakim, head of the Shiite Council of Islamic Revolution, has said repeatedly that even if the Sunnis don't participate, they will have seats in the Assembly.

But if you think most Iraqis, civil war aside, must be too undone by the military cesarean that they couldn't care less about the birth of a democracy, that view is supported as well. Another poll taken by Al Mada found that not one of the 300 people they polled in Al Sadr City knew there was going to be an election at all.

One person, Aref Hussein, interviewed in, said, "It is perhaps the first election in the world in which you will have to vote for people you don't know, haven't heard them talking, haven't seen their pictures and do not even know their names."

Another person interviewed, Mohammed Jassem, noted, "You can sell your vote on the open market and stay away from the elections. Religious figures and symbols are so ubiquitous that one doubts whether we have anything else here. And there are threats not only from the insurgents but from political factions, those in the government and those outside."

If the process is unclear and the candidates unknown -- parties are known by numbers and symbols, not by person or platform -- the whole environment is crawling with rumors. Mawjd Shamari, the head of Baghdad's tribal council, was quoted earlier this week to say, "We have information that 40 million voting cards have been issued at a time when there are only 14 million eligible voters." It's been said that assembly seats have already been decided upon and that the actual results will be destroyed or hidden. Another rumor in the Shiite community is that Defense Minister Hazim Shalan plans to kill all the Shiite leaders if they win. On the Sunni side, Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi calls voters "infidels." He was rumored to have been caught. He was seen in Fallujah. Nothing is substantiated. Nothing is true.

One other piece of depressing news: the International Organization for Migration reports that only 188,000 Iraqis expats out of 1 million have registered to vote.

The one view of Iraq that all evidence supports is that the security situation in Iraq is much worse than what is conveyed in the West. There is simply no way to overestimate the lawlessness. One personal anecdote I heard is that for every bombing incident reported, ten others occur. Then consider this.

Iraq4allnews recently reported that the expectation of the provisional government was for 150 car bombs and 200 suicide bombers on Election Day (if you want emergency help, there's a 10-digit cellphone number to call).

The Health Ministry has called for medic tents to be constructed as soon as possible to deal with the Election Day carnage. Indeed, many doctors are questioning why an election would be held when so many people may die in the process.

Meanwhile, the government-sponsored TV channel, Al Iraqiya, plays a kind of patriotic music video, with Baghdad appearing magnificent, the Round City in all its glory and the city you expected it to become, featuring all-night ballets and the outrageously lavish parties of the Caliph Al Mamun in 825. Ironically, the montage on Al Iraqiya was shot in Saddam's time.

As it is now, the city is like a ravaged actress best not photographed for everyone's sake. Wreckage everywhere. Tank treads have destroyed many sidewalks. No one is clearing the garbage.

On another channel, a city official is complaining that Baghdad's 40-year-old sewage system, which doesn't serve about 25 percent of the city anyway, is barely working. The sewage isn't moving because there's no power, even for emergency generators. I am watching this program in the apartment of an Iraqi academic, who tells me there's nothing wrong with the sewage system; it's just a bureaucrat trying to explain away his ineptitude.

Still, the infrastructure is coming apart. For example, manhole covers are worth $75 on the black market. Many have been stolen and a few children have reportedly fallen in the system and drowned. Electricity is available infrequently. Gasoline, kerosene, and gas are available only on the spot market and at prices beyond what most Iraqis can pay. There are also shortages of drinking water and basic foods. A price of a loaf of bread has risen from 25 dinars a year ago to 100 dinars. One of the jokes around Baghdad is that prices are good -- for the next hour only.

Against the backdrop of these realities and partial truths, half a dozen political ads appear with increasing frequency directed at voters. The ads have all the panache, precision and sentimentality of the 1984 Morning in American campaign. In one, scenes of tanks leaving the country. Kids come out with their soccer balls. The line, "They will leave, we will stay, we have the future."

In another, demonstrators approach an intersection from four directions. One group represents the religious parties; another, secular parties, and so on. The demonstrators raise their fists; they look threatening. They arrive at the intersection. Kids emerge out of the different groups, they know each other, they hug. They bond when adults can't. Tagline: "Vote for Iraq; Iraq is one country."

On the "Oriental channel," Al Sharqiah, there are brief parodies of life in Iraq. "Saturday Night Live"-like skits satirize the upcoming anniversary of the Iraqi army, the wacky world of hospitals that have no power, no equipment and no place to put patients. And then the various shortages, paranoias and bombings, and the absolute obsession that everyone seems to have with getting money for some service, even if its just standing around.

Perhaps more important than the degree to which the Sunday elections can be judged democratic will be the degree to which they are perceived to reflect Iranian influence. A political mirage in the Arab world these days, as well as in Washington, is a Shiia crescent from Tehran to Beirut. The idea has been gathering momentum since Jordan's King Abdullah, in an interview with Chris Matthews, warned of the consequences of Iranian influence in the elections. "If it was a Shia-led Iraq that had a special relationship with Iran," the king said. "And you look at the relationship with Syria, Hezbollah, Lebanon -- then we have this new crescent that appears that would be very destabilizing for the Gulf countries and actually for the whole region."

The king has also charged that Iranians have been flooding across the border to vote in the elections. One estimate in the Iraqi media is that 4 million voters have crossed the border. Since the king's trip to Washington, Jordanian-Iranian relations have cooled. Iran's foreign minister, Kamal Kharrazi, did not attend a Jordanian-hosted meeting of Iraqi neighbors on Jan. 6. Moreover, the king has drawn fire from the likes of Egyptian journalist Mohamed Hasanin Hikal, who commented in early January, "Instead of talking about Iran, the king of Jordan should condemn the Zionist regime for building nuclear weapons and warn about the expansionist policies of that regime in the region."

The local Iraqi media has not focused on Iranian influence, although the issue does appear from time to time. One story last week questioned why Ibrahim Jaafari, a vice president in the provisional government, was visiting Tehran. Apparently, he had gone to win support for the elections. The Iraqi story noted, "Iraqis wonder whether their government needs to appease all neighboring countries before holding elections." The article went on to suggest that Ibrahim's real agenda was to attract support for the Al-Daawa party, which "Iranian intelligence agents have infiltrated in massive numbers."

The Dawaa party, which is Shiite, is a secretive organization that was among the first to use suicide bombers, back in the early 1980s, and apparently tried to assassinate Saddam Hussein nine times. Its platform is for a pluralist democratic system; they oppose both U.S. and Iranian involvement in Iraqi affairs.

Iraq's Sunni defense minister, Shalan, reportedly in an interview with an Egyptian newspaper, Arab Struggle, commented last week that the Shiite party lists were drawn up in Tehran. He has also joined those who charge that his personal nemesis, Ahmad Chalabi, one-time chairman of the Iraqi National Congress and a leading Shiite candidate in the elections, is an Iranian agent. Mr. Shalan has promised to arrest Chalabi, who is apparently in the Shiite stronghold of Basra.

Chalabi has made charges of his own, namely that the Iraqi provisional government sent $300 million to Beirut to purchase arms. The government claims the deal was transparent and sanctioned by the United states and at least one Beirut bank involved in the deal claims the deal was sound.

While the Iranian connection has not been in the news, there have been letters published from southern Iraq that describe the Persian presence there. These two letters were received by Fateh Abdulsalam, a journalist with

Sami Askar: "Persian is now the language of choice and not Arabic. Persian is not restricted to trading. It is becoming the language of day-to-day affairs. You need Persian to communicate with the militiamen. You rarely know what these fighters want. Their hearts seem to be made of stone and their hostile eyes spell vengeance. They are like occupation forces."

Dawood H. al-Basri: "We in Basra feel that we are isolated from Iraq ... Simply no one recognizes the existence of a government. Even municipal officials would not listen to you unless you spoke in Persian to them ... There are killings at night and threats during the day. You are told either to shut up or leave. My cousins are seriously thinking of leaving following threats from Islamic militants."

For their part, Iranian newspapers seem much less interested in the Iraqi election than their own presidential elections, scheduled for June 17, as well as the growing sense that America is moving beyond the talking stage in its plan of "regime change -- one way or another," as David Gaffney, president of the neoconservative Center for Security Policy, put it last November.

On Jan. 20, the Iranian Times asked 601 people, "If war breaks out between Iran and the U.S., whose side will you be on?" "America, for freedom and democracy," drew 18 percent; "Iran, because I will defend my country against any foreign invader," 40 percent; "None, war will bring hell," 36 percent; "Not sure," 6 percent.

In Morocco, a humanities college dean told me, "This is a culture of despair." Which I have found to be true, on many levels. But in the geology of emotions, underneath despair is a culture of mistrust, and below that cultures of fear and doubt. "You see, this is the problem," a middle-aged academic told me. "I trust you more than I trust another Moroccan. And I've only known you a short time. How can that be? Because in this country we don't trust ourselves at all. We are the last people we trust. In this country, your circle of trust extends to the immediate family and then to cousins and tribal members and then only very rarely beyond that."

Mistrust is part of the social and economic fabric. In the small town where we live, the pharmacist refuses to take a check from the Bank Populaire, a large nationwide bank. Neither will the owner of the superette, and from his window, you can see the entrance to the Bank Populaire. "Have you had many people who have written bad checks?" I ask the pharmacist. The reply is ambiguous, as though perhaps she doesn't want to admit she has taken bad checks or else the fear of bad checks is pervasive.

One other anecdote: In a journalism class on Friday, I was talking about the virtures of the fourth estate. One of the students frowned. She pointed to recent stories about the tragic human rights record of Morocco's King Hassan II, and how, much to Morocco's credit, it was unearthing its dark history from the early 1980s.

"Yes," said the student, "but we don't need to know everything right away. I would like to be told in another way..." She searched for the word. Another student filled it in. "Softer." "Yes," said the first student, who went on to say that the situation in Iraq was similar. "America wants everything to happen so fast. But we can't take it in. We can't digest all these things so fast. Democracy, particularly when you haven't had it -- it's too much all at once."

When I get lost in the labyrinths of Arab culture and politics, I go back to "Islam and Democracy: Fear of the Modern World," by Fatema Mernissi. She is one of Morocco's great scholars. Her take is that Arab civilization is at a point where it's difficult to imagine democracy, difficult to conceive of cities without corruption, hard to see through the towering walls of ethnic and religious separation. Nevertheless, she believes that fundamentalism is a dying idea and that there is room for optmism in general, if Arabs can resist the victim mentality and if the United States can be seen as just as well as strong.

She quotes an assistant who told her about Saladin's famous strategy. Saladin, a Kurd born in Tikrit, is one of the most noble and far-thinking figures in Islamic history. He is perhaps best known for retaking Jerusalem from the Crusaders in 1192. After defeating the Christians, he offered a peace treaty based on security and a mutually profitable business agenda. "A good military leader," Mernissi's assistant told her, "is one who can imagine turning a conflict into equal opportunities for both adversaries. In a situation where people can make a living trading peacefully, violence becomes an absurdly costly choice."

A lot of people here say that. "You shouldn't have become hung up on ideology," an Iraqi in Rabat told me. "People were told they were Baathists the way the pope blesses the masses. No one cared about that. Just give people jobs. If they can just wear a jacket, go to an office, drink tea for a few hours, talk to people, it's enough."

He said the same should go for Iran. "Bide your time. Appeal to the people who have had enough. Do business as best you can."

In the end, your view of these elections on Sunday becomes your hope, and perhaps vindication of what you predicted all along. And if you believe in the will of Allah, you might simply say, "Inshallah," and leave it at that.

Arabic translation assistance by Abdeljhani El Khroufi.

Mark MacNamara

Mark MacNamara is a freelance writer living in Morocco.

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