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.
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.