Thursday, March 03, 2005

Dominoes of democracy in the Middle East?

The economist wonders whether there are really winds of change in the Middle East. Could it be that neo-conservatives were right in predicting a "domino effect" of democracy? First Iraq, then Palestine has elections, and then Lebanon throws out a pro-syria government?

They think not...

How far-reaching is this new spirit? The Arab world is large and diverse, so there is always a risk of connecting the dots in a way that produces a distorted picture. One oddity is that Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon—all three of the prime exhibits being used to make the case for democracy—happen to be under foreign occupation, by America, Israel and Syria respectively. Each is in many ways a special case....

The foreign occupation of Lebanon began in 1976, when Syria’s dictator, Hafez Assad, sent his army to intervene in Lebanon’s brutal three-cornered civil war between Maronite Christians, Muslims and Palestinians. The mass protests that forced Lebanon’s pro-Syrian government in Lebanon to resign this week would probably not have happened but for a powerful shock: last month’s murder of Rafik Hariri, the country’s former prime minister and most popular politician. This was the catalyst for a chain reaction. For the Lebanese, what some are calling a “cedar revolution” and others a “peaceful intifada” carries the promise of an end not just to Syrian occupation but also to a corrupt spoils system that has long sapped the country’s talent and morale....

In Palestine, too, the advance of democracy may have been helped by the weakness of the government. The Palestinian Authority (PA), created by the 1993 Oslo accords to run the occupied territories until a final deal on statehood was reached, is missing many of a sovereign state’s usual attributes. Israel controls natural resources, borders, coast and airspace, the currency, the collection of customs duties, and, in most areas, security and internal freedom of movement. Yet Palestine’s political system is vibrant and pluralistic....

An Arab democratic opening will be long and tortuous. The regimes that block it are strong, cunning and ruthless. The rhetoric of “resistance”—Islamist, Arab nationalist, anti-American, anti-globalisation, or whatever—retains a powerful grip. Many Arabs still support groups such as al-Qaeda. A huge amount still depends on the outcome in Iraq: a descent into chaos or the failure of the political process there could crush democratic stirrings throughout the region. For all these reasons, it is probably too early for the Americans to crow about an Arab year of revolutions. All the same, the distance between George Bush’s talk of freedom and Arab aspirations, which only recently seemed to yawn so wide, may at last be starting to close.




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