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Arabs eye democratic experiment

Major effects on region expected

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- A young man in a Saudi cafe worries that Iraq's elections could lead to civil war. On the banks of the Nile, a student strolling with his girlfriend dismisses the polls as an American sham. Yemeni students, chewing khat leaves, a mild stimulant, express hope that the United States will pressure other tyrannical regimes to change.

The Arab world paid close attention to the election yesterday in Iraq, which has major implications for the entire region.

The Iraq vote will almost certainly bring to power the country's long-suppressed Shi'ite Muslims, boosting the sect's influence in this Sunni-dominated area and worrying countries with Shi'ite minorities.

It will also mean a success for Washington's drive to bring democracy to Iraq, a precedent that could shake up the autocratic Arab world.

"Arab governments may not say it, but they don't want Iraq's democratic experiment to succeed," said Turki al-Hamad, a prominent Saudi columnist and former political science professor. "Such a success would embarrass them and present them with the dilemma of either changing or being changed."

Arabs had mixed feelings about the election. Many said US involvement reinforced their distrust.

"This election is an American movie, made to convince Iraqis to go to the polls so that the United States will stay in Iraq and control its oil," said Mohammed Fakhri, 28, a Jordanian who owns a mobile-phone store. "There will be . . . a government with Iraqi stooges serving US and Israeli interests."

An Egyptian flower vendor who gave her name only as Um Abdel Rahman dismissed the election as "a sedative for the people."

"Democracy is just a decoration," she said. "Women speak their minds all the time. I don't need to vote."

But others said they hoped the election would be a catalyst for the growth of democracy throughout the region.

The elections are a "good omen for getting rid of dictatorship," Yemeni political science student Fathi al-Uraiqi said, chewing khat with friends. "But I hope America is not driven by its own interests but by a genuine desire to spread democracy in the rest of the region."

The rise of Iraq's Shi'ite community was of major interest to their Shi'ite brethren in Saudi Arabia and a concern to the kingdom's leadership. The Shi'ite minority in the country, centered in its Eastern Province, has long protested about discrimination.

"People are glued to their TV screens" in Qatif and Ihsaa, Shi'ite-dominated towns in Eastern Province, said Muhammad Mahfouz, a Shi'ite editor of a culture magazine.

Shi'ite clergy prayed for smooth, safe elections during special services held Saturday for Ghadeer, which commemorates the day when, according to Shi'ite beliefs, the Prophet Mohammed named his son-in-law Ali as his successor.

Some of Iraq's Sunni Arab neighbors have expressed fears that a Shi'ite-dominated government in Iraq could join with Iran to form a Shi'ite crescent, threatening traditional Sunni dominance in the region and inspiring potential political claims by other Shi'ites.

The columnist Hamad, who lives in the Eastern Province, said a Shi'ite government in Iraq will give Saudi Shi'ites "the confidence to lobby more persistently for those rights."

But they "are not demanding self-rule or an alliance with Iran," he said. "They just want rights that citizens in any country expect."

Arab intellectuals, politicians, and writers differed over whether the elections would provide a good example for democratic reform in a region where free, fair elections are rare and where human rights groups operate with difficulty.

Arab League spokesman Hossam Zaki said the election was a step forward, but he added that Iraq, with its unstable security situation, was a "model to be avoided."

Lebanese politician Walid Jumblatt said the election can be judged only after the results are reported. But so far they have been "a bizarre model," with candidates campaigning furtively for fear of insurgent attacks and with Sunni Muslims boycotting the process.

An Egyptian student, Ahmed Abdel Rahman, spoke openly about not trusting Washington's intentions in Iraq, saying the new Iraqi ruler "will be a follower of America."

But when asked whether democracy can grow in Egypt, where President Hosni Mubarak is widely expected to seek a fifth term in power, the 20-year-old looked over his shoulder and said: "Let's talk about Iraq. Let's stay away from talking about Egypt."

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