Middle-East tide of democracy is encouraging

Freedom Newspapers

It is fairly easy to see that something important is happening in Lebanon, a move in the direction of independence and the idea of a civil society with democratic underpinnings that is reflected elsewhere in the Middle East. It is more difficult to figure out why it is happening just now, what forces have converged at this moment.

Even more difficult is to guess how things will turn out when some of the dust settles.

The simplest explanation, and the most gratifying for many Americans, was expressed in a column by Peter Brookes of the conservative Heritage Foundation: “Inspired by President Bush’s re-election inaugural address, the recent Iraqi and Palestinian elections, and Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, Lebanon’s own Red and White (or Cedar) Revolution is under way.”

Perhaps it’s that simple, that a tide of democracy is sweeping over the region — there have been municipal elections in Saudi Arabia and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has promised elections sometime soon — inspired by President Bush and American success in Iraq.
More likely, however, it’s a bit more complicated.

Claude Salhani, now UPI international editor, spent 20 years of his 30 years as an international correspondent in the Middle East. He notes there has been a growing movement within Lebanon against military occupation by Syria. Syrian troops entered Lebanon in 1975 as “peacekeepers” during a civil war, and Syria has used those troops (and numerous intelligence operatives) ever since to exercise effective control of Lebanese politics.

After 30 years, the Lebanese have simply had enough of Syrian domination. Before 1975, they had an independent and relatively democratic country that was widely viewed as the most sophisticated and cosmopolitan place in the Middle East.

Last month’s assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who had recently joined the anti- Syrian coalition, served as a catalyst to solidify that opposition and to unify the widely disparate groups that made it up.

“Would these dramatic events have happened in Lebanon if Saddam Hussein were still in power?” Salhani asked. “Perhaps; the potential forces were in place. Did the elections in Iraq give them courage? Probably.”

Whatever the reasons, an exciting opportunity exists in Lebanon. The United States and France are united in demanding that Syria withdraw troops and intelligence operatives from Lebanon. The United Nations and the European Union agree. Syrian President Bashar Assad — whose regime may be on shaky ground for domestic reasons — has said (hardly for the first time) that he will withdraw troops soon.

Pitfalls could well lie ahead. Some experts say the Syrian economy depends on continuing occupation of Lebanon, so resistance to withdrawal could become predominant. Significant bloodshed is possible.

The United States can hardly go wrong in pressing for Syrian withdrawal and the re-establishment of an independent democratic regime in Lebanon. But getting there will not be easy and ironically enough, France may be in a better position to push for independence than the United States is. The world continues to surprise us.