MANAMA, Bahrain -- There is nothing more beautiful than watching people get to vote in a free election for the first time -- particularly in the Arab world, where elections have been so rare.
That's what happened in Bahrain on Thursday, as this tiny island nation off the east coast of Saudi Arabia voted for a parliament that will, for the first time, get to share some decision-making with Bahrain's progressive king, Sheik Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa.
As I visited polling stations, what struck me most was the number of elderly women who voted, many covered from head to toe in black burqa-like robes. Many of them illiterate, they would check the picture of the candidate they wanted to vote for and then stuff the ballot in the box -- voting less for a politician than for their own empowerment.
One appeared to have her grandchildren with her. As she voted, her grandson, who looked about age 10 and wore a soccer outfit, tried to explain to his little sisters what a voting booth was. Thus are seeds of democracy planted.
This is the first election ever in the Arab gulf region in which women were allowed to run and vote, and their husbands have quickly discovered what that means. The king's wife, Sheika Sabika -- in an unprecedented move in this conservative region -- campaigned publicly for women to go out and vote. She visited a Shiite Muslim community center and an elderly woman stood up to say: "Thank you. [Because we can now vote] for the first time our husbands are asking us what we think and are interested in what we have to say."
It's true that Bahrain's young king has been planning this transition to a constitutional monarchy for several years, as part of a move to spur economic growth and overcome Bahrain's legacy of Sunni-Shiite tension. He prepared the way by releasing all political prisoners, inviting exiles home, loosening reins on the press and repealing laws permitting arbitrary arrests.
Nevertheless, this election is about something larger than Bahrain. It is about how the Arab world confronts the forces that produced 9/11, and Bahrain's neighbors are watching.
What the more enlightened Arab leaders understand today is that with the mounting pressure of globalization, population explosions and dwindling oil revenues, their long acceptance of political and economic stagnation -- which they managed with repression and by refocusing anger onto Israel and America -- is becoming unsustainable. While the first big explosion happened in New York City, these regimes know that unless they get their houses in order, and on a more democratic track, the next explosion will be on their doorsteps.
Not a single person I spoke to at polling centers mentioned foreign policy. Most said they hoped the parliament would improve the economy, end corruption by senior ministers and give people a voice. "Things have changed in the whole world and we can't just sit around and watch and have no forum to express our views -- the pace of change dictates this upon us," said Dr. A.W.M. Abdul Wahab as he waited to vote.
The Bush team needs to pay attention to the Bahrain experiment because it is a mini-version of what nation-building in Iraq would require. Like Iraq, Bahrain is a country with a Shiite majority, which has been economically deprived, and a Sunni Muslim minority, which has always controlled the levers of power. Historically in this part of the world, democracy never worked because of the feeling that if your tribe or religious community was not in power, it would lose everything.
By electing one house of parliament and appointing another, the Bahraini king is taking the first tentative steps to both share decision-making and nurture a political culture in which the country will not be able to move forward without the new lawmakers' building coalitions across ethnic lines. The same would be needed in Iraq, only on a much larger scale.
I heard Harvard's president, Lawrence Summers, say once that "in the history of the world, no one has ever washed a rented car." Ditto for countries. So many Arabs today feel they are just renting their governments. They have no ownership, and so don't feel responsible for solving their own problems.
Bahrain took a small step last week toward giving its people ownership over their own country, and one can only hope they will take responsibility for washing it and improving it. Nothing could help this region more. There is hope.
Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times. His column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays in The Sun.