Al-Ahram Weekly Online   27 January - 2 February 2005
Issue No. 727
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Sinan Antoon

Democracy and necrology

The dead do not vote, writes Sinan Antoon*. But neither, in Iraq, are they counted

Each act in the ongoing and seemingly never-ending Iraqi tragedy has a climactic scene, at times imaginary, at times painfully real. We are now approaching one such scene, and it could well go under the working title "the elections". Initially advertised as the glorious peak beyond which the promised land of democracy lies, the climb is proving to be rocky, if not lethal. The crescendo, as callously scripted and clumsily performed as the overarching narrative, has been disrupted and disturbed, as it was bound to be, by the sounds of explosions, bombings, suicide and other daily pleasantries that accompany Rumsfeldian liberation or its Zarqawian variant. Perhaps Iraq's tragedy is to be plagued by too many liberators. The discursive and rhetorical crescendo and celebratory noise is increasingly drowned out by voices of doubt and dissent from, and on behalf of, those excluded from the process, those who have not been assigned even a step on which to squat backstage.

Click to view caption
Iraqi police and US soldiers secure the area following a car bomb explosion in front of a Shia mosque in Baghdad (photo: AP)

The logistical mayhem involved in all aspects of the election process and the utter lack of security are among the many obstacles and grounds for questions that will haunt the results for decades to come. And this is to ignore the congenital defect of a sloppy election conceived by, and under, military occupation and lacking even the façade of any international body that might guarantee its legitimacy. Its ominous birthmark spells civil war in capital letters. If anything is guaranteed by these elections it is the institutionalisation of sectarian politics. That the international monitors who are supposed to ensure the fairness of these elections will carry out their task in Amman, Jordan, hundreds of miles away from the Iraqi border, underlines just what a parody is going on.

While not all these dissenting and doubtful voices are necessarily motivated by a genuine commitment to democracy, or a wish to ward off the spectre of a long and bloody civil war, many of them are, and legitimately so. The irony of ironies is that distance seems to endow the electorate with added weight. Iraqis living in, for example, London or Detroit, most of whom are unlikely to return to Iraq anytime soon, if at all, can have a say in these elections. But many of those living (and dying) in Falluja, Mosul and other towns and cities in the provinces lumped under the so-called Sunni triangle, and who are much more likely to be immediately affected by the results of these elections than those of us living abroad, will not be able to vote even if they want to do so. I am not suggesting that Diaspora Iraqis should have no say in the future of their home country, nor that they should not be actively involved in its politics. On the contrary, and I believe that time will show that they, like other Diaspora communities, have a critical role to play in coming decades. But their influence and electoral weight should not surpass that of citizens living inside Iraq.

As I write this it is being reported that of the 300,000 citizens who lived in Falluja before its annihi/liberation, only 10,000 have returned. What these returnees found was a city of ghosts, a city where a standing house is a rarity.

There is no running water or electricity. Corpses were left for stray dogs and large sectors of the city are still off limits to any and all for obscure reasons. The grand promises of reconstruction and rehabilitation once the city was "liberated", issued by the US and Iyad Allawi's regime a few months ago, have evaporated into thin air. Families were told that they would be given $100 as compensation for their houses and a lifetime's worth of belongings. What a cruel joke. I, for one, do not blame them for not being enthusiastic about democratic horizons as they rot in refugee camps outside the city and acclimate to the not so pleasant life of "the internally displaced".

It is not only Fallujans, Mosulites or even predominantly Sunnis who will boycott the elections or be unable to vote. There is a very diverse and representative block of voters, numbering almost 100,000, none of whom will cast a single ballot. The dead, unless they live in Florida, cannot vote. The figure of 100,000 is the estimated number of civilian casualties killed since the war as suggested by a survey carried out by researchers from Johns Hopkins, Columbia and Al-Mustansiriya universities.

The United States is "not interested" -- those were Colin Powell's words -- in the numbers of civilian deaths.

"We don't do body counts," said General Tommy Franks, the war hero.

Not only that, the Iraqi Health Ministry was ordered to stop its own count. What else would one expect from a government that works very hard to shield the citizenry from the sight of its own soldiers' coffins returning home.

As usual, some were quick to dispute the methodology of this survey, more concerned with technicalities than civilian deaths. Stalin was on the mark in saying that "one death is a milestone, a million is a statistic". Like a drop on the screen, the story and figures were quickly cast aside, so we can clearly see the road to freedom ahead, unadulterated. A hundred thousand darkies do not score that high on the civilised world's Richter scale of compassion. There are so many other ongoing tragedies, from Darfur to Palestine and elsewhere, on at this vast multiplex, all demanding the attention of spectators in the civilised world. I, like many others suspect, sometimes silently address the 100,000 dead Iraqi civilians: Had you been birds, your disappearance might have caused much more outrage. You could have flown en masse over a metropolis and clouded its skies for a few hours in protest. Meteorologists and bird- watchers surely would have noticed. Had you been trees, you would have made a beautiful forest the destruction of which would have been deemed a crime against the planet. Had you been words, you would have formed a precious book or manuscript the loss of which would be mourned across the world. But you are none of these. And you had to pass quietly and uneventfully. No one will campaign for you in these elections. No one cares to represent you. No absentee ballots have been issued or sent. You will have to wait decades for a monument, or a tiny museum. If you are lucky in provoking retroactive guilt your names will be inscribed on a wall somewhere. But until then, you may welcome more to your midst and form a vast silent chorus of ghosts, condemning the spectators and the actors. Exeunt Omens!

* The writer is a US-based Iraqi poet and novelist

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