Skip to comments.The winds of change
Posted on 03/05/2005 4:22:03 PM PST by MadIvan
On the eve of the second anniversary of the Iraq war, Toby Harnden in Beirut, Damien McElroy in Damascus and Philip Sherwell in Washington report on the ripple of democracy across the Middle East
In a sea of red and white, the young students swayed joyously to the music pumping out from speakers stacked on the stage in Martyrs' Square, Beirut. "Oh, Lebanese arms, hold on tight," they sang in Arabic. "We are back, with our hands held together. Lebanon will return."
A Muslim, wearing a protest scarf wrapped around her hijab, grasped her children to her side. Behind her, a nun walked past, her head nodding in time as if she were in a trance. Each woman was clutching a Lebanese flag, at the centre of which is the cedar tree - a symbol of immortality.
In Washington, the demonstrations, in defiance of a ban on public gatherings, have been heralded as part of a democratic dawn in the Middle East. The term "cedar revolution" has been minted for the protests and has even been adopted, albeit cautiously, by the Martyrs' Square demonstrators.
There are signs that tectonic plates could be shifting throughout the Middle East. Eight million people voted in Iraq in defiance of those who vowed to kill them for doing so. Municipal elections are being held in Saudi Arabia. President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt has permitted opponents to stand against him as he seeks to be re-elected for a fifth term. After the death of Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, and the democratic accession of Mahmoud Abbas, there is fresh optimism that a lasting peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians could be on the horizon.
During Lebanon's bloody civil war, Martyrs' Square, named after nationalists who were hanged there by the Ottomans in 1916, marked the dividing line between Christian East and Muslim West. Now, it is the scene of a new unity as Maronite, Druze, Shia and Sunni gather each night to proclaim their patriotic demands. Daubed on the marble plinth where the statues still bearing the scars of bullets and shrapnel from the civil war stand are the slogans of the hour: "Nazi Syria"; "Syria = Terrorist"; and "Syria, It's Your Time to Suffer".
The Beirut protests, a demonstration of anger at the Syrian influence in Lebanon, scored their first big success last week when the pro-Syrian Lebanese prime minister Omar Karami resigned. They erupted after a car bomb killed Rafik al-Hariri, the former prime minister, and 18 others on Valentine's Day. Syria, which has 14,000 troops and thousands of intelligence agents on the soil of its tiny neighbour, has been almost universally blamed for carrying out or at least permitting the murder. Mr Hariri had resigned four months earlier in protest after his arch-enemy Emile Lahoud's presidency was extended for a second term at the behest of Damascus.
President Bashar al-Assad, installed as leader in Damascus when his father died in 2000, is isolated internationally. The 39-year-old British-educated ophthalmologist travelled to Riyadh last week to find that not a single Arab country backed his insistence that Syrian forces, present since 1976, should remain in Lebanon.
The protests which have attracted tens of thousands are laden with portents for the rest of the Arab world, where authority is seldom defied so openly. Some go as far as proclaiming that what is coming to pass is the vision of Washington's neo-conservatives - the Republican revolutionaries who saw the invasion of Iraq as a way of destabilising the Middle East so that freedom could emerge. Ken Adelman, a former US ambassador to the United Nations and influential neo-conservative, trumpeted the "historic events" taking place. "For the first time, people are talking about democracy and human rights in that region. It is a tribute to this president and it's near miraculous."
Certainly, in Martyrs' Square, there is a heady sense of history in the making. "Like most Lebanese, I was against the Iraq war," said Mireille Nammour, 65. "At first it was as if they had stirred up the devil. Now it seems it has created something good that is unstoppable. I never thought I would see this here."
Maria Salam Badran, 40, said the demonstration had been modelled on the "orange revolution" in the Ukraine and that the sense of change in the Middle East was an impetus. "It's part of the mood that's all over this region. We are doing this with the help of Bush and the Europeans and the United Nations."
For Joe Arida, 16, the atmosphere, reminiscent of a rock concert, enhanced the attraction of being there. "We all meet here every night," he said. "The issue is serious, though. We are tired of occupation. We want to be free."
In Damascus last week, the mood was very different. Soldiers in red berets patrolled the streets and stony-faced intelligence agents in ill-fitting suits stepped from the shadows to question people about where they were going.
Abdulaziz Al-Meslat, the leader of the secular Al Nahda party, played with his cuffs as he explained that the scenes in Beirut were not an inspiration for the self-styled Syrian opposition but a concern. "We must change our ideas, not our regime," he said carefully. "We have an accumulation of negatives facing Syria. Demonstrations like these in Beirut are, for a country like ours, an alarm bell. It's a very precarious situation."
In Damascus, it is said that anyone can be an opposition leader if they possess a desk, and air-conditioner and carefully calibrated loyalty to the Assad regime. A 140-strong group of intellectuals last month signed an open letter calling for a withdrawal of troops from Lebanon but this was little more than a cry in the wilderness. There is no "troops-out" graffiti on the ubiquitous marble monuments to the Assad dynasty. Students are keeping their heads down.
The Assad government may be isolated and shaken by recent events but it is also defiant. Mehdi Dallagh, a Syrian cabinet minister, lists the charges against Damascus - support of terrorism against Israel, the murder of Mr Hariri, a role in the Iraqi insurgency. "I would not be surprised if they blamed us for planning the tsunami," he says.
Commentators in the Syrian state-controlled media claim that a neo-conservative blueprint to impose American values on the Middle East by destabilising Syria is circulating in Washington. Perhaps ominously, this theory is also gaining currency in Beirut. "After Iraq, the next step for the neo-conservatives running the Bush administration is to destabilise Syria by manipulating the opposition in Lebanon," said Bassem Yamout, a pro-Syrian Lebanese MP.
The Beirut demonstration was "becoming like a party", he said dismissively. "If you want to have a date it's always in Martyrs' Square now. Unfortunately, it's an American-guided process.
"What you are seeing on television is only a small part of this country. The demonstrators do not represent a majority view. Maybe we'll get to the point where this majority will go onto the streets and show its real strength. If this happens, matters will escalate."
For the time being, Lebanon is without a government. Elections are due in May. In the meantime, Mr Lahoud is resisting pressure to resign and only a partial withdrawal of troops is being proposed by Mr Assad. Even with the troops gone, Syrian influence will still pervade. Powerful pro-Syrian forces in Lebanon, such as Hizbollah, the populist Shia movement listed as a terrorist organisation by the US State Department, are determined that Mr Assad's regime should be preserved.
There is little sign that there is any democratic awakening on the cards in Syria. "It is very difficult to be part of a worldwide movement to promote liberty and democracy," said Mr Al-Meslat. "Syrian minds are metered to think in one direction by a government structure that is built to preserve its own interests."
So far, Mr Assad has scorned Mr Bush's calls for democratic reforms, instead seeking a strategic alliance with Iran. Danielle Pletka, vice-president of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank with close ties to the White House and neo-conservatives, said the Syrian regime was "frozen in time".
While momentous changes were happening, she argued, it would be premature to declare victory. "Since the Iraqi elections, we've seen shock waves spread through the Middle East. It's still early days, but it's a significant trend and goes in the opposite direction of the past 50 years.
"But the hardest times could be ahead. The more we succeed, the more opposition we'll face from the dictators out there. A lot hangs in the balance right now."
Mr Bush's language has been increasingly tough. On Friday, he said that a full Syrian withdrawal and not "94 per cent" was "non-negotiable" and had to happen before the May elections. "I don't mean just the troops out of Lebanon," he said, "I mean all of them out, particularly the intelligence services."
A leading opposition figure in Lebanon, however, warned that Syrian determination to resist was not to be underestimated. "I can't tell the kids in the square this because they would get demoralised," he said wearily, asking to remain anonymous for fear of assassination.
"But Bashar Assad will kill us one by one and will use Hizbollah to the end to keep Lebanon. Every inch he moves from Beirut means he loses his prestige and maybe even his position in Damascus. Do you think he's going to leave that easily?"
If Bush as any more victories, if anything else good happens in the Middle East, if America has any more successes--the Democrats will become suicidal. (Should we stop them?)
I think he's far too stupid and his arse is already caught in the rat trap.
They're probably negotiating with Assad right now to find out how much the security council veto is worth to him.
ClintLovell..you are the negative one. Isn't it about time that Germany and France saved face? Stepped up to the plate? Showed they have a backbone to match their mouth?
They talk big..but....
does America have to do it all again for Freedom?
It's funny watching the democrats try to deny the success of president Bush while attempting to take credit for it at the same time.If anything good comes out of the middle east it will be in spite of the constant opposition of the democratic party.One thing that they made clear over the past year is that everything going on in the middle east is all Bush's doing and they were against it from the beginning.
Everybody knows that's Bush's fault! Geez!
The Democrat Party is the party of a self-destructive decadence that has infected the West, notably Western Europe, like a plague, and will, if not overcome, destroy the West and, with it, Western Civilization.
This infection became epidemic during the hippie movement of the 1960's, which had some good things to offer, notably the Civil Rights Revolution and the end of institutionalized racism in America, but was as fundamentally a tantrum of overindulged, shallow, pleasure-seeking dillitantes who reveled in irresponsibility, iconoclasm for its own sake, intentionally confused morality, and the most superficial of possible approaches to everything from art to spiritual beliefs to logic to everything.
These people now dominate American academic institutions, Leftist politics, the mainstream newsmedia, and the Democrat Party. They are as shallow as ever. One of the most odious things about them is their vacuous unawareness of just how shallow they are.
However as time passes, these people become more and more irrelevant as it becomes more and more obvious that they have nothing to offer other than their tired, old, worn-out, self-indulgent tantrum.
The reason they hate President Bush with such venom is because he is their antithesis. He rejected them and everything that they stand for. His sheer clarity, depth, fundamental morality, sense of responsibility, honor, decency, and insistence on truth and substance rather than appearances, by their very existence, make a mockery of these silly, selfish Leftists and their entire latter-day hippie movement.
The November 2, 2004, election was a profound rejection of these people and their silly movement by the American people.
Whether or not the people of Western Europe come to their senses and reject them and their decadence in favor of honor, decency, strength, health, and continued ascendancy, in time to save themselves, remains to be seen.
However, the American people have taken a firm stand against decadence, and this will propel us into the future and make the ultimate realization of the America Dream--liberty, justice, peace, and prosperity for all the people of the world--a very likely ultimate reality.
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