Election Day started a bit too early for me. I was startled from my sleep at 3:15 by a call from a friend in Sadr City who was in a state of frenzy. He told me that the water had been poisoned and people were being taken to the hospital in dozens. The mosques were using their loudspeakers to warn people to avoid drinking tap water. While he was talking to me, the same warning came from a mosque nearby. A state of panic invaded the house, phones were ringing and we received reports of people dying and others unable to reach the hospitals.
Because of my sleepiness and my optimism at the electoral process, I fluctuated between a doomsday feeling—visualizing the impact of water poisoning in Baghdad, based on a Zarqawi Web statement a few days ago that warned terrorism will hit Baghdad in different ways—and a refusal to think about it, because of the calmness and the certainty within of the elections going well.
Eventually, the water-poisoning rumor died down after official denials and a conversation with a doctor in one of the hospitals in Sadr City confirmed that all the people who went in had psychosomatic reactions to the warning.
Getting ready to go and vote this morning, I remembered how I felt on Jan. 30 this year. I woke up then to the sound of a nearby explosion and was convinced that I was going to die because the center we were going to vote in would be attacked, and yet I felt compelled to go. It wasn’t a question of choice. It was my first opportunity to vote, and the communal experience was brilliant. It confirmed a sense of belonging that I had never felt before, that transcended identity and ideology.
Today was not so novel. It happened all too quickly, and yet I could not be indifferent to the excitement around me. I went to vote with my family, and once those ballots disappeared into the box, a different dynamic set in: anticipation and speculation until the results come through. A sense of normalcy has taken away the sense of euphoria that was there a year ago; Iraq is no longer a newly born democracy but is getting to be more and more established.
The streets were empty of vehicles, except for police cars, but they were filled with children cycling around and playing football. No doubt the three-day curfew was inconvenient for some people. Fadia, a mother, said that it was the idea of not having the freedom to move around that bothered her more than anything else.
The poisoned-water incident was all but forgotten with all the local TV stations reporting from various election centers across the country. More rumors kept circulating throughout the day, presumably generated by the various political parties, of rigged ballot boxes here and there; there were even rumors of some coming from Iran. These rumors, whatever kernel of truth they carried, suggested to me the gradual transition from an environment of rumors to an environment of information. Iraqis are clearly empowered by voting, and all those that wanted to vote and couldn’t vote due to some technical mishap in a particular center were fighting to vote. Yet despite a sense of empowerment, conspiracy theories, deeply entrenched because of the former dictatorship, kept manifesting, along with people’s fear of the hidden hand. The presence of the insurgency no doubt fuels these sentiments. And yet, the more routinized governance becomes through elections, the less fear people have. The high level of participation suggests that empowerment will overcome the conspiratorial mindset.
Everyone who voted expressed hope and determination for a better Iraq. Well, what else could they do? This is, after all, their homeland and their future. There is nowhere else to go.
Telephones brought reports on developments from across the country throughout the day. There seems to be high participation among the various communities, particularly the Sunnis. One candidate from a strongly Sunni list told me that many feel it was a great shame to lose their voice last time, and they regret not having participated. That seemed to me to complete the first and most important cycle of a new Iraq. For a country that has all but been declared dead by so many, it is no small feat to have gone through three elections and drawn up a constitution in less than a year.
With the 6 p.m. deadline for voting looming, the fact that there is uncertainty about the end result is a sign of democracy at work.