Here's what fascinates me the most about the electoral experiment going on in Iraq: It tests whether the Arab world can move beyond regarding politics as a zero-sum game.
In recent Arab history, winners take all and losers go to jail.
"This is the first time ever that power has been transferred without a coup, a killing, or a hereditary shift," a senior Iraqi official told me by phone, "with the single exception of Lebanon."
Indeed, the Mideast has a sad history of rule by military generals or colonels, and authoritarian regimes have haunted countries such as Iraq, Syria and Egypt. Hereditary monarchies and sheikdoms have allowed limited experiments with elections, but real power remains in the hands of emirs and kings.
So the Iraqi experiment is new terrain, and it could provide a model for the region. Yet so far, Iraq's Arab neighbors, and most Arab publics, view this experiment with suspicion.
At the World Economic Forum in Davos, I heard outspoken Arab liberals dismiss the Iraqi elections because they were held under U.S. military occupation.
This critique misses the point. Free and fair elections (and Iraq's elections get a good grade) are a big step toward ending that occupation. The candidate most favored by U.S. officials -- current interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi -- got only 14 percent of the vote. And early elections were promoted most fiercely by the leading Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, over U.S. objections.
Consensus in neighboring Arab countries such as Jordan is that the elections were illegitimate because Sunni Iraqis -- 20 percent of the population -- didn't vote. This is indeed a serious problem. Sunnis make up the bulk of Iraqi insurgents, and Sunni leaders boycotted because of ongoing violence and fear of assassination.
But Iraqi Shiite leaders are willing to reach out to Sunnis -- to include them in deliberations for a new constitution, and in cabinet positions. And Sunnis will have a chance to participate in December elections.
Dismissing the Iraqi ballot because the Sunnis opted out doesn't hold water. But this surface rationale reflects a deeper realization that haunts Sunnis, inside and outside Iraq.
A free election makes it impossible for a (Sunni) minority to rule a (Shiite) majority. Full stop.
Sunni Iraqis -- who held power throughout Iraq's history -- can't accept their minority status. Sunni Arabs in other countries, many of whom look down on Shiites or fear their links to Shiite Iran, can't accept the idea of an Arab state with Shiites in power.
The idea that minority Iraqi Sunnis must now become part of a broad political coalition or must accept a political role commensurate with their numbers is a foreign concept. In Arab politics, power has been held by families, or tribes, or military power -- not by majority rule.
Shiite leaders compare their situation to what happened in South Africa, where the white minority had to get used to a reduced share of power.
"White parties boycotted elections in South Africa," I was told by Ibrahim Jafaari, the leading Shiite candidate for prime minister, "but the elections went on.
"In the new government," he said, "there will be an equilibrium which reflects the equilibrium in society. Those with large numbers will have a larger role in government. Those with smaller numbers a smaller role.
"But those with the larger size will represent all of Iraq," not just their community.
Adil Abdul Mahdi, another Shiite prime ministerial candidate, added that "South African whites didn't give up the first day."
Of course, the operative question is whether Iraq's Shiite majority and its humbled Sunni minority will regard themselves as Iraqi citizens working to build one country. Or whether Shiites will be vengeful in victory and Sunnis will continue to reject their reduced role.
Ayatollah Sistani has played a role resembling that of South Africa's Nelson Mandela, insisting that Shiites not pursue revenge when Sunni insurgents target Shiite mosques, as they did Friday. But the cleric won't have a role in government and thus can't provide the reassurance to Sunnis that Mandela as president offered to South African whites.
That reassurance will have to be provided by guarantees incorporated into Iraqi's new constitution, which will be drafted by the newly elected parliament. We can't know whether those guarantees will seem persuasive to skeptical Sunnis.
Right now, Iraq's Sunnis -- and Sunni Arab neighbors -- look at Iraq's elections through old Arab glasses, expecting the new holders of power to repress those who have lost. They don't see Iraqi Shiites as a majority elected to office, but as the latest group to seize power -- with American backing.
That kind of thinking will have to shift before Iraqi's democratic experiment can succeed -- and inspire the region to change.
-- Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.