Blogger Sees Arabs Hopeful over U.S. Election

You might think living 6,000 miles from Washington would be too far to follow the U.S. midterm elections. But if you lived anywhere in the Arab world, you would have found coverage nearly as complete and detailed as it was in America.

Marc Lynch, who monitors the Arab media for his blog and who teaches at Williams College, says this year's reporting in the Middle East reached new levels of sophistication.

The mainstream Arab media, including al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya, "were covering it down to the detail of individual congressional races, and they were looking at the implications for specific committees."

The focus was on how the elections would affect Arab issues, especially Iraq. But it also reflected, Lynch says, the growing degree to which people in the Arab world see American politics as part of their own.

As the election approached, Lynch sensed skepticism on the television and Internet services he reviews. After all, their Arab producers had watched, as Americans had, Bush's victory in 2004 despite his growing unpopularity. It seemed to confirm a fact of political life in their region -- the ruling party never yields power.

The sentencing of Saddam Hussein to death by hanging just two days before the election only added to that skepticism. The timing, Lynch says, was "universally seen as the result of Republican political calculations, and it really discredited it."

But as the election results came in Tuesday night, Lynch says many Arabs were both surprised and delighted. A guarded optimism is growing in the region, although it's tempered with real concerns. He says the Democratic victory has given Arabs hope for a "more rational foreign policy and maybe a chance to really start dealing with Iraq in a more serious fashion."

Arabs also marveled at the election of the first Muslim to the U.S. Congress -- Minnesota Democrat Keith Ellison, who will be sworn into the House of Representatives with his hand on a Koran.

"That a Muslim could be elected in America," Lynch says, "at a time when bin Laden, and many more than bin Laden, are spreading the idea that this war on terror is a crusader war of Christianity against Islam is really very powerful."

On the morning after the Democratic success, both al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya broke away from regular programming for live coverage of President Bush's news conference. Arabs were glued to their TVs, as Americans were, while the resignation of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was announced.

But there's concern over a hasty, politically-driven Iraq policy change, too.

"There are also lots of people really worried about the impact of a really quick American pullout," Lynch says, adding that they fear the Iraq insurgency would rush into that void and destabilize the entire region.

Al Qaeda, for its part, was silent in the days leading up to the election. Many Arab media-watchers, and jihadi supporters in particular, waited for some message. Lynch says one jihadi Internet forum was so certain al Qaeda would weigh in that it took an online poll on who would send the message and in what media.

There is still speculation about what that initial silence means, and whether a message would have helped or hurt the Republicans.

On Friday, two days after the election, an audiotape surfaced attributed to al Qaeda in Iraq chief Abu Hamza al-Muhajir. Predictably, al-Muhajir claimed the election was a victory for al Qaeda. He gloated over Republican losses, taunted Rumsfeld, challenged Bush's manhood, and said only a coward would flee Iraq now. But in the same breath, al-Muhajir said he hoped the U.S. would stay -- because al Qaeda likes to kill Americans.

Lynch says the lesson of the America election is sending an even louder and stronger message than that from al Qaeda, and he is optimistic. He sees a growing awareness in the Arab world that America is not an unchanging monolith and may not pose a permanent threat to Arab states.

"I'm always very relieved when I see this kind of enthusiastic monitoring of elections and the sense that Arabs feel they have a stake in it," he says. "That means that some significant part of the Arab mainstream believes that elections can make a difference. And that means that almost by definition they're not buying into the al Qaeda point of view."