Those who have been wondering when the worldwide march of democracy would finally reach the Middle East got the beginnings of an answer this week. In a scene reminiscent of the velvet revolutions that swept Eastern Europe more than a decade ago, the people of Lebanon took to the streets last Monday to protest Syrian meddling in their country and won the resignation of the government hand-picked for them by Damascus. Whether or not the Lebanese can win the next round and push Syria out entirely remains unclear. Still, the very sight of a popular movement forcing political change is nearly unprecedented in the Middle East, and hopes were high there and around the world that it would be just the first step toward a broader thaw.
The Lebanese uprising came just two days after a milder democratic shock in Egypt, where President Hosni Mubarak announced that he would put his 24-year reign to the test this fall by allowing multiparty presidential elections for the first time. Nor was that all. Two weeks earlier, Saudi Arabia stuck a toe cautiously into the democratic stream, staging unprecedented elections — male voters only — for municipal councils of uncertain authority in a few regions of the country. More regions were to vote this week.
In the background, of course, are the elections in Iraq on January 30 and in the Palestinian Authority on January 10. Both elections followed the abrupt departures from the scene of long-ruling despots, Saddam Hussein and Yasser Arafat, each of whom had become a deeply destabilizing influence in the region. Both elections were emotional moments of popular outpouring that riveted the attention of the world community. Both are now seen as watershed events that helped tip the balance in the Middle East, leading to a widening circle of democratization.
Democracy, in turn, is widely seen as opening the door to peace and stability in the troubled region. At least, it’s widely seen that way within the Bush administration. And since the invasion of Iraq, what the Bush administration wants is on everyone’s mind, particularly in the Middle East.
The proposition, however, is a dicey one. Democracy is a very good thing. So is peace. But it’s not clear that one leads to the other.
It’s true that prospects for peace between Israelis and Palestinians have picked up in recent months, and the emergence of a new Palestinian leadership is part of the reason. Israel and the Palestinian Authority are now entering a halting dialogue over Israel’s plans to withdraw from Gaza and the northern West Bank and hand the territories over to Palestinian rule. America, Europe and the United Nations have embraced the dialogue as the rebirth of the Middle East peace process, even going so far as to declare at a conference in London this week — in which Israel did not participate — that the sides were now ready to embark on the so-called road map to full Palestinian statehood.
Nor are the Western powers the only ones leaping onto the revived peace train. Egypt and Jordan, the first Arab countries to make peace with Israel, moved this week to return their ambassadors to Tel Aviv after a four-year break. The president of Tunisia, long a leader of the Arab moderate camp, formally invited Israel’s Prime Minister Sharon to visit Tunisia next fall, to attend an international conference on the information revolution. Even Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister spoke this week, in mixed tones of hope and skepticism, of a possible “Sharon miracle” opening the way to regional peace.
Spreading democracy could have an impact on the emerging thaw, but not necessarily in the way democracy enthusiasts tend to think. In Tunisia, for example, news of the president’s invitation to Sharon this week prompted a broad coalition of democratic opposition groups to mobilize in protest, insisting a Sharon visit would bring “continued shame” on their country and vowing that the Israeli leader would “have to walk on our bodies” to get there. The protests are unlikely to have much of an impact, since Tunisia’s president, Zine al-Abidin Ben Ali, rules over a Mubarak-style autocracy in which dissenters have little voice.
On the other hand, if the spirit of Beirut begins to spread through the region, there’s no telling what would happen to autocrats like Ben Ali. Or, for that matter, to Mubarak himself.
Mubarak’s one-man rule during the past quarter-century has allowed him singlehandedly to maintain the peace with Israel, despite its deep unpopularity among Egypt’s main opposition groups. If Egypt were caught up in a sudden wave of democratic reform, it could spell the end of the Egyptian-Israeli peace, arguably Israel’s most important strategic achievement of the past three decades.
Democracy is not as unknown in the Middle East as the self-styled realists of the West make it out to be. Too many of us forget the popular, Prague-style street rising in Iran in 1979 that led to the abdication of the hated shah and the creation of the Islamic republic under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, then a beloved, exiled opposition figure.
Free elections were held in Algeria in December 1991. The army, however, canceled a second round, scheduled for a month later, after a radical fundamentalist group, the Islamic Salvation Front, swept the polls and threatened to set up an Iranian-style theocracy. Democracy, it turned out, was not the handmaiden of freedom in Algeria and Iran. Majority rule is no guarantor of human dignity.
Given the actual record, it’s hard to imagine how the notion of democracy as a key to Middle East peace ever took hold among Western policymakers. But then again, not so hard. The demand that democracy precede peacemaking has always been a diversionary tactic by hawks in Jerusalem and Washington seeking desperately to forestall the hard compromises Israel must undertake to achieve peace with its neighbors.
No one who cares for the cause of humanity could fail to be stirred by the courage of the Lebanese people who took to the streets this week to protest tyranny and terror. For their own sake they deserve to breathe the air of democracy and freedom. Good people everywhere should stand with them.
But democracy in Lebanon — or Egypt, or Saudi Arabia — will not bring peace between Israelis and Palestinians any closer. Peace will come when the leaders on both sides make the tough decisions required of them — as Ariel Sharon has begun to do, and Mahmoud Abbas has promised — and show the determination and leadership necessary to make their decisions stick.