With the dawn of 2006, last year's early euphoria about elections across the Middle East should yield to more sober assessments of the prospects for democracy in this troubled region - and to more sophisticated understanding of the difference between electoral politics and genuine democracy.
There were more elections held in the Middle East in the past year than ever before. Presidential elections took place in the Palestinian Authority in January of last year, and parliamentary elections are scheduled there this month. Municipal elections were held in Saudi Arabia in a series of rounds between February and April. June saw parliamentary elections in Lebanon and presidential elections in Iran. What were billed as Egypt's first contested presidential elections took place in September, and Egyptians went back to the polls to vote in parliamentary elections in November and December. Iraqis exercised the franchise fully three times in 2005, voting in January to elect an interim government; in October to approve the constitution, and in December to elect a parliament.
For the Bush administration, and for many hopeful Americans, this was good news. Although the administration criticized the Iranians for having failed to include all the presidential candidates who had applied to run, the comparable elections in Egypt, in which several candidates were authorized to oppose incumbent President Hosni Mubarak, who was running for his fifth term, were hailed as a milestone. Despite the flaws, it appeared that democracy was finally coming to a region long associated with autocratic government, and the United States was delighted. As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in a speech in Cairo in June, "Liberty is the universal longing of every soul, and democracy is the ideal path for every nation."