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Politics

A Silver Lining for the Middle East

3 March 2005

A Silver Lining for the Middle East?

By Gwynne Dyer

Does the US invasion of Iraq have a silver lining? Is democracy about to spread through the Middle East, toppling one odious regime after another? And will they be replaced by moderate, peace-loving, America-loving governments? Paula Dobriansky thinks so, and she claims that the non-violent demonstrations in Beirut and the resignation on 1 March of the pro-Syrian Lebanese government prove her case.

Ms Dobriansky, a core neo-conservative, is undersecretary of state for global affairs in the Bush administration. On 28 February, she greeted the demonstrations in Beirut with the following claim: “As the president noted in Bratislava just last week, there was a rose revolution in Georgia, an orange revolution in Ukraine, and most recently, a purple revolution in Iraq. In Lebanon, we see growing momentum for a “cedar revolution” that is unifying the citizens of that nation to the cause of true democracy and freedom from foreign influence.”

The “purple revolution” is a phrase invented by Bush administration flacks to link the January elections in Iraq, conducted under foreign military occupation and largely boycotted by the country’s Sunni Arabs, with the spontaneous non-violent uprisings that have brought democracy to several dozen other countries, from the Philippines to Ukraine, over the past two decades. Whatever else it may be, Iraq is not a case of spontaneous non-violent revolution against tyranny. On the other hand, the Lebanese protesters who are demanding the withdrawal of Syrian troops from their country do fit that general pattern: there seems to be a case to answer here.

This hypothesis of “democratic infection” is bolstered by the recent men-only partial municipal elections in Saudi Arabia and the announcement by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak that opposition parties will be allowed to run candidates in the next presidential election. But those are token gestures to deflect American pressure by regimes that are inextricably tied to the United States.

A free adult-suffrage election for an Arabian parliament and government in the near future is about as likely as a defeat for Mubarak in his campaign for a fifth term as president of Egypt in September. Lebanon, by contrast, is undoubtedly a genuine “people power” event (to use the original phrase coined in the streets of Manila in 1986).

Lebanon has long had the institutional forms of a democratic country, although the deep sectarian divisions of the country — Maronite Christian, Orthodox Christian, Sunni Muslim, Shia Muslim and Druse — distorted everything, even the constitution. For the past fifteen years, however, the Syrian intelligence services, backed up by a substantial Syrian military force in the country, have had the last word on everything that happened in the country.

The Syrian army first entered Lebanon in 1976 (with the blessing of the United States) soon after the outbreak of the Lebanese civil war. Thirteen years later its continued presence was legitimised by the Taif treaty that brought the war to an end, and the Syrians insist that their presence is vital even now to “stabilise” the country and keep the Lebanese from going for one another’s throats again. And unless the Syrians pull out, we will never know whether that is true or not.

Syria’s President Bashir al-Assad is under severe pressure to withdraw from many quarters (notably the US, France, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia), but he is under equally strong pressure at home to stay. The revenues that Syria creams off in Lebanon help to sustain the moribund Syrian economy, and a humiliating defeat in Lebanon could pave the way for a challenge to the Baathist regime in Syria itself. And some governments in the region fear that a full Syrian withdrawal might indeed turn Lebanon back into a playground of Palestinian and Islamist militias in short order.

But to return to the original question: are the Lebanese responding as one to an example of democratisation that has been set by the United States occupation of Iraq? Well, they are certainly not responding as one. The Shia community, which is closely allied to Syria and accounts for almost half of Lebanon’s population, has been virtually absent from the Beirut demos and from the talks that have produced a “united” opposition front.

As for the example that the US is setting in Iraq, Lebanese opinion was probably well represented by Walid Jumblatt, the Druse leader who has become the spokesman of the “democratic opposition.” When the Iraqi resistance fired rockets at the Baghdad hotel where visiting US Assistant Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz was staying last year, Jumblatt expressed the wish that the rocket had hit Wolfowitz personally (and was denied a US visa as a punishment). These people are not US puppets.

Lebanon could come out of this free, prosperous and democratic, or it could slide back into some kind of civil war (though probably a very different one from 1975-90). The Syrian regime, in power for 36 years, could also fall, though what might replace it is entirely unclear. Even the identities of the people who triggered the current crisis by murdering former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri with a giant bomb on 14 February are not clear.

Most Lebanese instantly suspected the Syrians, since Hariri opposed their presence in Lebanon, but they would have had to be extremely stupid to risk the reaction that has actually occurred. And if not the Syrians, then who? Don’t even go there.

Long-congealed positions are starting to melt in the Middle East, and a wave of something is about to sweep through the area, but it isn’t necessarily democracy.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 5 and 12. (“This hypothesis…1986”; and “Most…there”).