In Middle Eastern elections, no one bats an eyelid when the leader gets 110 per cent of the vote

Even the worst dictatorships - usually supported by us, the 'democrats' - want to play the game
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Democracy. Ah, how the Middle East would love to have some democracy! On the supermarket shelf - and I can assure you, there are plenty of supermarkets in the Middle East - a couple of boxes of democracy would be a good buy, along with three boxes of human rights and four boxes of justice.

Democracy. Ah, how the Middle East would love to have some democracy! On the supermarket shelf - and I can assure you, there are plenty of supermarkets in the Middle East - a couple of boxes of democracy would be a good buy, along with three boxes of human rights and four boxes of justice.

That, by the way, is the right order. But I absolutely (I am using, of course, the favourite adverb of Lord Blair of Kut al-Amara) support democracy in the Middle East.

Arab elections are among the quaintest of the Middle East's attempts to reproduce the Western-style "democracy" their dictators claim they already possess. In 1993, for example, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt (our good friend) "won" 94.91 per cent of the vote for his third six-year term in office. His fourth six-year victory in 1999 brought him a measly 93.79 per cent. His predecessor, Anwar Sadat, claimed a thumping 99.95 per cent victory for political reform in a 1974 referendum.

Saddam Hussein supposedly gained 99.96 per cent for his presidency in 1993 - the identity of the errant 0.04 per cent of voters was not disclosed, although they had obviously thought better by 2002 when Saddam's minions announced a clear 100 per cent vote.

In 1999, Hafez Assad of Syria scored what the official Syrian news agency Sana called a "slashing victory" of 98.97 per cent for a new seven-year term in office - a mere 219 brave citizens voted against him - though he did not live to complete it. After this, Abdelaziz Bouteflika's 73.8 per cent victory in Algeria in 1999 and Mahmoud Abbas's 62.3 per cent as Palestinian president in 2005 were modest enough to believe.

In 1992, a popular joke in Damascus had it that George Bush Snr, facing defeat at the polls in the United States, asked the Syrian security services to arrange an Assad-style victory for the Republicans. They did. Assad's goons duly flew into JFK and Americans voted 99 per cent - for Assad.

But I should add that an equally popular legend in Damascus would have one believe that the Syrian minister of the interior announced in 1948 that President Kuwatly had won 110 per cent of the vote. Kuwatly, so the story goes, immediately fired the minister of the interior.

But you get the point. Even the worst dictatorships in the world - usually supported by us, the "democrats" - want to play the game. "Popular" support was always a sine qua non of thugs. Thus we always knew - when we read that a country was a "popular democratic republic" that it was a police state, whether that be the German Democratic Republic or the Popular Democratic Republic of Algeria. The more brutal the regime, the more "popular" and "democratic" it became.

The problem, of course, is that we accepted this. We went along with the GDR and, indeed, the "popular" Cambodia of the Khmer Rouge - even at the United Nations - provided they were on "our" side which, at the time, meant that they were either anti-Soviet or anti-Chinese.

So all the tired, hopeless states we bred in the Middle East got away with it. Nasser's Egypt and Gaddafi's Libya - and, later, Saddam's Iraq - were all originally welcomed by Britain and the United States after the initial overthrow of their kings (Farouk and Idriss and the Iraqi regent Feisal). True, Jack Straw, my favourite Trot, branded Gaddafi a "statesman" after he vowed to dismantle the non-existent weapons of mass destruction he claimed to possess, but that was only a few weeks before the Saudis discovered that Gaddafi was planning to assassinate Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, one of George W Bush's best friends in Arabia - enough of this story, because it has not been told.

So how do we "real" democrats behave? February 3, 2003 was a snow-blasted day in New York, the steam whirling out of the road covers, the US secret servicemen - helpfully wearing jackets with "Secret Service" printed on them - hugging themselves outside the fustian, asbestos-packed UN headquarters on the East River.

Exhausted though I was at the time after travelling thousands of miles around the United States, the idea of watching Secretary of State Colin Powell - or General Powell as he was now being reverently redubbed in some American newspapers - make his last pitch for war against Iraq before the Security Council was an experience not to be missed. In a few days, I would be in Baghdad (the "democratic" nation we originally supported) to watch the start of this frivolous, demented conflict.

Powell's appearance at the Security Council was the essential prologue to the tragedy - or tragicomedy if one could control one's anger - the appearance of the Attendant Lord who would explain the story of the drama, the Horatio to the increasingly unstable Hamlet in the White House.

There was an almost macabre opening to the play when General Powell arrived at the UN, cheek-kissing the delegates and winding his great arms around them. CIA director George Tenet stood behind Powell, chunky, aggressive but obedient, just a little bit lip-biting, an Edward G Robinson who must have convinced himself that the more dubious of his information was buried beneath sufficient piles of moral fury and fear to be safely concealed.

Just like Bush's appearance at the General Assembly the previous September, you needed to be in the Security Council to see what the television cameras missed.

Because there was a wonderful moment when the little Jack Straw entered the chamber through the far right-hand door in a massive power suit, his double-breasted jacket apparently wrapping itself twice around Britain's most famous ex-Trot. He stood for a moment with a kind of semi-benign smile on his uplifted face, his nose in the air as if sniffing for power.

Then he saw Powell and his smile opened like an umbrella as his small feet, scuttling beneath him, propelled him across the stage and into the arms of Powell for his big American hug.

You might have thought that the whole chamber, with its toothy smiles and constant handshakes, contained a room full of men celebrating peace rather than war. Alas, not so. These elegantly dressed statesmen were constructing the framework that would allow them to kill quite a lot of people, many of them Saddam's little monsters, no doubt, but a very considerable number of innocents as well.

When Powell rose to give his terror-talk - all lies, of course - he did so with a slow athleticism, the world-weary warrior whose patience had at last reached its end. Straw was the obedient schoolboy, clapping first the moment Powell had ended his lies. Lord Blair of Kut al-Amara supported every word of it.

Long live our democracy. Let's hope the Arabs embrace our glorious traditions.

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