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Democracy's Dilemmas | The Nation

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Democracy's Dilemmas

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In what is being called the "cedar revolution," demonstrators in Beirut brought down the pro-Syrian government at the end of February and forced Damascus to announce the withdrawal of its 14,000 troops from Lebanon. This and other developments of recent weeks--municipal elections in Saudi Arabia and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's announcement of plans for competitive elections--lent support to the view that there is a new democratic opening in the Middle East. This is indeed welcome news. But it would be wrong to ignore the complexities of the situation, especially in Lebanon (where the prime minister who had just resigned was set to be reappointed) or to credit the Bush Administration's war on Iraq for the encouraging signs, as Beltway triumphalists are doing.

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Pressure for elections and democratic reform has been building in many Arab societies for more than a decade. Just a few years after the low point reached in 1991, when elections were effectively canceled in Algeria, the cause of democratic reform got a boost in 1996 with the first Palestinian Authority elections in the occupied territories and with the Iranian elections the following year, which brought a reformer to power. Jordan, Kuwait and Morocco followed suit with parliamentary elections of varying degrees of openness. In Egypt and other Arab countries, democratic reform has become the major concern of a new generation of activists.

Official Washington was so preoccupied with Iraq and Islamist extremism during much of this period that it missed the signs of stirrings and lent them very little, if any, support. Then, too, many activists avoided any identification with Washington, fearing it would compromise their legitimacy. Even today, they doubt the Bush Administration's sincerity in its new emphasis on freedom and democracy, believing it may be a stalking-horse for further US attacks on any government deemed a potential threat to Israel.

In Lebanon, popular resentment against the Syrian occupation had been slowly building for some time. The original rationale for the Syrian presence--to serve as a peacekeeping force during the civil war--evaporated with the Taif Accords in 1989, which ended the civil conflict. But for years afterward, the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon deflected criticism of Syria's presence, since Syria was a leading backer of Hezbollah's guerrilla resistance against the Israelis, which was supported by most Lebanese. The turning point came after Hezbollah drove out the Israelis in 2000. That and the death of Syrian President Hafez al-Assad emboldened first the Lebanese Christians, then the Druse and Sunni population, to speak more openly against the heavy-handed Syrian presence. The assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, along with Syria's earlier pressure on Lebanon's parliament to amend the constitution to extend the term of President Émile Lahoud, coalesced anti-Syrian sentiment into a potent force for self-determination.

But this force aroused powerful domestic countercurrents: Lebanon's Shiites, who make up 40 percent of the population, avoided the demonstrations, suspicious that the United States is pressuring Syria to withdraw not to advance democracy in Lebanon but to weaken Syria and to force Hezbollah to disarm, thus depriving Lebanon of its strongest deterrent against Israeli aggression. On March 8 Hezbollah demonstrated its political and popular strength by organizing a massive rally of some 500,000 in support of the Syrians, dwarfing the crowds celebrating the cedar revolution. The Hezbollah demonstration showed that democracy and self-determination in Lebanon are not as straightforward a matter as the White House would have us believe. If it is to be successful, the Lebanese movement against the Syrian occupation will have to assuage the fears of the Shiites, rooted in longstanding US policy in the region. If the democratic movement thrives in Lebanon, it will be as much despite US pressure as because of it. Neoconservative strutting or, worse, interference could doom it.

It would also be a mistake to conclude that the cedar revolution in any way vindicates or legitimizes the US invasion of Iraq--the costs of which, as the occupation approaches the end of its second year, include 1,500 US troops and 100,000 Iraqi civilians dead and at least $200 billion spent. Rather, the larger lesson may be less about US-inspired democracy than about Arab self-determination and the rejection of occupation. If Syria withdraws its forces, a spotlight will be focused on the US occupation of Iraq, and on Israel's occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights. This will put more pressure on Washington to prove its bona fides on questions of Arab self-determination.

The other important lesson of the cedar revolution is that the concerted action of a broad international coalition built around a United Nations Security Council resolution is far more effective in promoting change in the Middle East than is Washington's blustering and warmongering. France and the United States worked closely on UN Security Council Resolution 1559, calling for Syrian withdrawal, and Egypt, Jordan and several members of the Arab League added their weight.

The onus is on Washington to prove that its new rhetoric is not a disguise for an aggressive campaign for Israeli and US dominance in the region. It will have to show that it can live with election results, even if those results take an anti-American, anti-Israeli direction and even if they create governments that don't share our liberal values. Washington will also have to prove its good intentions by showing that it can bring equal pressure on its friends and allies in the region--Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia--to enlarge their limited democratic openings, and on Israel to expand and accelerate its withdrawal from the Palestinian territories. An early test will come in the spring elections in Lebanon, where Hezbollah is poised to make a strong showing, and in the West Bank and Gaza, where Hamas is likely to challenge President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah movement. Washington considers Hezbollah and Hamas terrorist organizations, a view not shared by most European allies or by people in the region.

The triumphalists have given very little thought to these issues. What should be clear from our experience in Iraq, however, is that the dangers and dilemmas of democratization will increase if Washington pursues a military campaign against Syria and Iran while ignoring nascent reforms in places where US encouragement can make a positive and peaceful contribution.

Although the triumphalists are wrong in arguing that the democratic opening grew from the Iraq War and wrong to ignore the risks of instability and Islamist extremism the Bush agenda has helped create, they're right about one thing: In an age of satellite television and the Internet, it will be hard to put the genie of democracy back in the bottle. Washington must now act more responsibly than in the recent past, and it must work with its European allies and Middle Eastern countries themselves to make the emerging democratic process more liberal and more orderly.

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