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Kenya Spare Iraq?

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Message Uzi Silber

Observers worldwide have been riveted and disturbed by the grizzly tribal riots in Kenya that erupted following national elections a few weeks ago that turned out to be rigged. Yet both Kenya's experience in multi-party democracy and a comparison of the origin and nature of the violence in both countries can provide insight for those fighting for democracy in Iraq.

I've got a soft spot for Kenya for two reasons: first, I've always been appreciative of a country that, following 1973's Yom Kippur War, defied the rest of Africa in refusing to completely sever ties with Israel. The enduring relationship is emblematized in the Nairobi Hilton, one of the capital's major landmarks, and erected by Solel Boneh, an Israeli construction conglomerate. The company incidentally has recently won a $100 million tender to build a vital highway from Nairobi to the port of Mombasa.

Secondly, a yeshiva (Jewish day school) buddy of my father's who pioneered and marketed Kenya safaris to non-aristocrats gave us one as a wedding gift. And so we've been privileged to honeymoon on the range, exploring Kenya's game parks and meeting its people.

Seen until now as a reliable frontline US-allied bulwark in the war against Islamic jihad, Kenya has sadly joined Iraq on the list of newly minted democracies struggling to preserve the gains they've achieved.

While the two are different in many obvious ways, the similarities between the two are compelling. Consider: both sprung from the British Empire, emerging as crazy quilts of overlapping tribes, ethnic groups and religious communities, enclosed by borders irresponsibly drawn by the British for their own reasons.

Furthermore, power and privilege in each has been concentrated in the hands of a single elitist ethnic group: the Kikuyu in Kenya and Sunni in Iraq, each representing only one slice of a diverse population.

Intriguingly, fateful national milestones in both countries have somehow managed to march in lockstep. In 1963, Kenya declared independence, while a coup in Iraq brought the Baath Party to power. Then in 1979, both states entered a period of despotism when the kleptocratic Daniel Arap Moi, a Robert Mugabe-lite, took over in Nairobi just as Saddam Hussein became absolute ruler in Baghdad. Both dictatorships lasted almost a quarter century, with the two countries starting out on the road to multi-party democracy in 2003.

Yet it was precisely at this key point that the paths of the two countries diverged: Kenya's elections marked what seemed to be the onset of a peaceful process of transformation to liberal democracy. Iraq, as we know, promptly descended into tribal chaos.

How and why did they take such different routes? A brief comparison of what transpired in the two countries since 2003 should shed some light. Kenya's transfer of power was relatively quiet and uneventful. This was somewhat surprising -- after all, the presidency was a very lucrative multi-billion dollar business for Moi. Yet relinquish power he did in 2003, to the freely elected Mwai Kibaki. Still, this wasn't some fresh face; Kibaki was a member of parliament from Moi's political party and most importantly, a son of the Kikuyu tribe, just like Moi.

And it is in the hands of the Kikuyu that ultimate power and privilege has remained. And despite Kibaki's vow to dismantle the ingrained culture of graft that was a prime feature of the Moi era, Kenya is still regarded as one of the world's poorest and most corrupt states. Nevertheless, Kenyans were genuinely thrilled with their newfound liberty, however flawed, and so long as elections were deemed free and fair by international observers, they were satisfied.

It is true that the Kenyan campaign leading up to the election was marred by violence – over 70 people were killed over the last months of 2007. But as polls opened a month ago there was a wide sense of optimism and confidence that the days of election rigging were past.

Meanwhile, Iraq's experience since its own liberation in 2003 was quite different for several crucial reasons. First, Saddam, unlike Moi, was violently overthrown by a military invasion. Secondly, the enormous Ba'athist controlled Iraqi military was disbanded wholesale, in contrast to Kenya's armed forces that remained under Kikuyu control. And finally, the once-dominant Iraqi Sunnis lost their leading position in the country to the majority Shiites, while, as we have seen, the Kikuyu retained power in Nairobi.

And now with Kenya's own implosion into a paroxysm of internecine warfare, it seems the paths of the two countries have converged once more. The scenes of carnage certainly resemble spectacles seen in Iraq, tapping, in the words of New York Times reporter Jeffrey Gettleman into an "atavistic vein of tribal tension...beneath the surface."

Lumping Kenya with Iraq as just another country torn by tribal violence would be easy -- but wrong. The violence in Kenya is qualitatively different from Iraq's, having appeared for a diametrically opposite reason. The Iraqi quagmire has been fueled by an array of terrorist forces intending to destroy Iraqi democracy. The Barbarism into which Kenya has descended, however indefensible, arose from an underlying populist urge to defend democratic freedoms. It represented a refusal by a majority of Kenyans to be disenfranchised by the Kikuyu.

Mwai Kibaki and his opponent Raila Odinga are former friends who once allied to depose Daniel Arap Moi. One day soon the two will meet to negotiate an agreement for a recount or even a new election, and the savagery will end. Iraqis won't be as fortunate – they'll have to fight on longer and harder to protect their ever-fragile democracy from those atavistic forces that live to destroy it.

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Uzi Silber writes the 'Jew's Muse' column in Ha'aretz. His work also appears in The Forward, Jerusalem Post, and The New York Times.
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