Monday, February 28, 2005

Democracy's Drift Throughout the Middle East

Lebanon's Goverment Says It Will Step Down

The AP has just reported via the NYTs that Lebanon's pro-Syrian government is stepping down as 25,000 protesters assembled outside of the parliament today shouting, "Syria out." This comes just two weeks after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, which many believe Syria had a hand in.


2005 may be the year the Middle East embraces democratic reform. In a mere two months, we've seen the successful Iraqi elections, Egyptian President's Hosni Mubarak's announcement on Saturday calling on parliament to amend the constitution so as to allow direct, multiparty elections, as well as the election of Mahmoud Abbas as head of the Palestinian Authority in early January.

First off, I don't want to get all triumphalist. In Iraq, things are increasingly fractious as the Kurds and the Shiites try to create a government as insurgents continue to attack (today over 100 Iraqis were murdered by insurgents as a suicide bomber ran into a queue of men trying to join the National Guard). Although encouraging signs are emerging from Israel/Palestine, no one can know whether a terrorist attack from either side's fanatics will derail the nascent peace process. Lastly, many critics see Mubarak's call to amend the constitution to allow freer elections as merely a ploy to create the illusion of liberalization while paving the way for his son, Gamal, to succeed him. Columnist and political analyist Ibrahim Eissa told the NYTs that Mubarak's call for reform was:

...a way to improve his image with the Americans and to please them with some formal changes...While at the same time he is keeping everything else unchanged, like the emergency laws, imprisoning the opposition, the state controlling the media and political parties existing just on paper. This is deception.

And no doubt it probably is "deception."

But taking a more macro view of these trends, one can't help feel that the people of the Middle East are tired of empty promises and are taking matters into their own hands, protesting in open defiance of the state and violent extremists. As long as popular civil society organizations and defiant politicians can withstand the repression that follows from their actions, a freer Middle East may not be a mirage of our President's rhetoric.

The thing now is whether the U.S. will help this democratization trend along or will we resort to undermining these democratic developments if they begin to harm our strategic interests.

One more thing: Although I don't think there's anyway to measure how much Iraq and the President's rhetoric plays into this rising tide of democratic sentiment just yet, I'm impressed how well his oratory on freedom is meshing will current events -- even if it's empty policy wise.

-- M. Wood