“Here is another ballot, go vote again and let him take your picture,” Nabil al-Janabi, the Iraqi chargé d’affaires in Beirut, said while handing me a paper on the Day of the Great Crawl, when we — Iraqis at home and abroad — were required to vote for the only presidential candidate, Saddam Hussein.
It was in October 2002, and since I had to drive to the Iraqi Embassy in the upscale Beirut suburb of Hazmiyeh, I requested half a day off at The Daily Star. When the desk editor learned why I was cutting work, he said, why not write a story? “I will arrange for a photographer to meet you there.”
I arrived before the photographer. After a security check, I was let into the embassy’s main lobby, where dozens of Iraqi voters were sitting in utter silence. The embassy, whose staff came from Saddam’s feared intelligence agency, could not rise up to make the reelection of Saddam, 23 years into his presidency, into a happy occasion.
The staff distributed ballots with the question: “Do you approve of the renewal of the term of President Saddam Hussein?” There was a “yes” box, and, surprisingly, a “no” box.
A staffer then said, “Brothers and sisters, whoever wants to vote behind the curtain, feel free to do so.” We were all scared to mark the ballot behind a curtain, so we checked “yes” in full public view. We were then led into an adjacent room, where a single ballot box stood on a table. On the wall was a picture of Saddam, decorated with colorful lights.
I was keeping my fingers crossed for my newspaper’s photographer to arrive by the time I dropped my paper in the box. But he arrived late and I told him I wish he could have taken my picture voting. Mr. al-Janabi, who overheard our conversation, offered me a new paper ballot, and I voted a second time, while Mohamed took a picture of me. I still have it on my computer.
On Sunday, I will be driving to Arlington, Virginia, to vote for Iraq’s second post-Saddam Parliament. This time I have a choice of more than 6,000 candidates.
The election is the fifth national vote since 2005, a year in which Iraqis voted for a National Assembly, then approved the Constitution, and then elected their first Parliament. Last year we voted in provincial elections.
In 2002, I interviewed Mr. al-Janabi as part of my assignment, and I can never forget my fear. What would be appropriate questions for a “mock election” story? Should I ask about when to expect results? Or was such a question offensive because there was no doubt that Saddam would score a sweeping victory? Should I ask about logistics, or would that give away their scam?
In the evening, I read Iraqi official statements claiming a 100 percent turnout, with Saddam receiving all the votes. I thought: My parents had not voted, because the embassy did not know they had just arrived from Baghdad, yet Iraqi officials were still claiming that all Iraqis had cast ballots for the “perfect president.”
Since 2002, all has changed. I called my parents in Beirut yesterday. My mother plans to vote for ticket number 319. In the background, I heard my father saying “no, no, 337, they did a good job on the oil contracts.” My father was wondering if he could vote for different people from different tickets.
Democracy has transformed most Iraqis from people who either voted scared or were apathetic to Saddam’s fake election, into people who are driven to vote by a sense of ownership of their country.
Iraqis realize that their democracy is not the best, but they also know that practice makes perfect.
Since 2002 Iraqi elections have been evolving. While still not perfect, democracy is striking root.
Meanwhile, what Iraqis like me have learned is that transformation from autocracy to democracy would not have been possible without the 4,700 brave American and allied servicemen and women who lost their lives, and the many others who were wounded, for the sake of Iraq’s freedom.
Families of these heroes should know that many of us are grateful to their sons and daughters, and to the United States and its allies at large, even if they do not hear thank you often from Iraq or its leaders.
It is on days like Sunday that these sacrifices most strongly comes to Iraqi minds.
Hussain Abdul-Hussain, Washington correspondent for the Kuwaiti daily Al Rai and a visiting fellow with Chatham House, London.