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How Iraqi democracy might look

Some Arab countries blend monarchies with parliaments and elections to form 'Oriental democracy.'

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There's an old joke Arabs like to tell that illustrates the condition of democracy in the Arab world. A flunky to an Arab dictator breathlessly informs his leader that 99.9 percent of the population reelected him in a nationwide poll in which he was the only candidate.

"That means only 0.1 percent of the people didn't vote for you, Mr. President," he says. "What more could you want?"

"Their names," comes the cold reply.

President Bush says one of the justifications for unseating Saddam Hussein is to bring democracy to Iraq, which, it is hoped in Washington, will spread to the rest of the Arab world.

That is no easy task, however, in a region with few democratic traditions. The phrase "tribes with flags" has been used to describe the Arab world, where the concept of the modern state, imposed by European powers in the 20th century, has sat uncomfortably with Arab traditions of loyalty to one's sect, feudal overlord, or religious leader.

Many ordinary Arabs, while appreciative of democratic values, have little faith that democracy is feasible in the Arab world.

"It's not a good idea for an Arab country to become democratic. I am against it," says Rima Zeitoun, a teacher here. "Arabs tend to be tribal and feudal. If you don't have a strong leader forced on them, to keep them living in harmony, they will fight against each other continuously."

That line of thought, however, wins little sympathy from some Arab intellectuals and academics who maintain that democracy can be successfully introduced to the Middle East as it has been elsewhere in the world.

"It's a grave mistake to assume that Arab democracy is simply something that Arabs cannot have when everyone else can have it," says Michael Young, a Lebanese political analyst and commentator in Beirut. "Democracy can work, free markets can work. I don't think you are destined in the Arab world to either have a Saddam [Hussein] or a Bashar [al-Assad, president of Syria]."

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