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Sprigs of Democracy
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Don't look now, but while the critics continue to naysay, democracy is sprouting right under their noses.

From Tom Friedman yesterday:

I spoke the other day with Amal Rassam, an Iraqi-American anthropologist, who has been spearheading this effort. Since April, U.S. Army officers and Ms. Rassam's teams from RTI International, an NGO, have gone out to all 88 neighborhoods of Baghdad, met with local leaders and helped them organize, through informal voting, 88 "interim advisory councils." Then the 88 councils elected nine district councils, and the nine district councils elected an interim 37-member Baghdad city council. For the first time ever, a popularly based city council, including women, is demanding to set budgets, set priorities and decide who will police their neighborhoods, and is making the city's managers accountable to them.

Similar town councils have been set up all over Iraq. U.S. and British teams have been schooling the Iraqi councils in how to hold a meeting, set an agenda, take a vote and lobby. They have also provided seed money for women's groups and all sorts of other civil society organizations that Iraqis are scrambling to start. They have not unearthed any W.M.D., but they have unearthed a lot of aspiring Iraqi democrats.

Friedman relates the story of two Iraqi women who, emboldened by their roles in the burgeoning grassroots democracy in Iraq, have demanded that Iraqi women be involved in the drafting of Iraq's Constitution.

There's the very real possibility that Iraq could be the first country among its neighbors to treat women with respect and dignity, rather than as second-class citizens.

And Afghanistan, seemingling under the radar, has continued the steady march toward substantive self-governance as well.

Consider this story.

The Afghan government banned warlords Sunday from taking part in politics, a move that would prevent some of the country's top leaders from participating in next year's pivotal elections.

The new law is seen as crucial to helping the country become a stable democracy, as Afghanistan has long been dominated by private militias whose rivalry kept the country at war for 23 years.

"Nobody with armed forces behind them can continue their political activities," Justice Minister Abdulrahim Karimi told a new conference Sunday.


Approved by the government Saturday, the law also dictates that a political party must have at least 700 members before it can be registered.

"This is another important step toward democracy," Karimi said.

The measure comes as political leaders start to position themselves for general elections in June.

I would imagine, and hope, that when elections take place in Afghanistan next year, the world press will give it the attention it deserves, though I doubt Al-Jazeera will be falling over themselves to cover it. More than likely, there will be attempts to disrupt the elections. I wouldn't be surprised if there was a spate of bombings either in Afghanistan or elsewhere, with the intent of distracting attention away.

But I also don't think it will work. I think the first Afghan election is going to send shockwaves through the Arab world. Arabs are going to see other Arabs lining up to choose who governs them, and admonitions about differences in cultures (i.e. insinuations that some people actually like living under ruthless thugs) will look pale and stupid.

So it's happening in the Middle East, at least the important part. Democracy is taking root, even as critics wring their hands and point out only the bad. There are huge difficulties to deal with in both of these countries, but are they worth the price? I have no doubt that the potential positive effects far outweigh the risks.

We've lost nearly 100 troops since the end of major combat operations. We've spent a lot of money, and we're going to spend a lot more...especially if the international community continues to refuse to help. The rest of the world likes us less than they have in a long time.

Is all that worth a freely elected government in Afghanistan next year? Is it worth 88 city councils in Iraq, composed of all religious and ethnic groups, as well as women? Is it worth transforming a country from a hive of terrorists into an ally? Is it worth freeing a country from a genocidal madman, turning it from a belligerent threat into a stable, democratic state?

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