Posted by: sean | July 5, 2006

Objects still in motion

Sometimes it’s interesting to go back and look at things you’ve written previously. Last night, I came across a piece on the Middle East (and Lebanon specifically) that I wrote when the US was patting itself on the back for pushing the region toward democracy.

Here it is:

Objects in Motion

January 2005

Reading the news in the English language world today gives one the impression that democracy is spreading like wildfire in the Middle East ? that “freedom is on the march.” Even many of those against the war in Iraq are starting to think that although they don?t like President Bush’s methods, it’s hard to argue with results. Apparently, the invasion of Iraq and the subsequent toppling of its mustachioed tyrant have pushed the Arab world in the direction of democracy, and as any first year physics student will tell you, objects in motion tend to stay in motion. So, according to Newton’s first law as applied to geopolitics, the Middle East was an object at rest, which would stay at rest until acted upon by an exterior force, that is to say, the United States.

Another part of Newton’s law is that objects in motion tend to continue in a straight line. Thus set in motion towards democracy, the Middle East cannot help but continue this noble trajectory. So, we hear, Afghanistan, Palestine and Iraq have all had democratic elections; Egypt and Saudi Arabia have begun to inch their way in democracy?s direction; and finally, the Lebanese population has decided to throw off the yoke of Syrian influence in order to fulfill its inevitable destiny of self-determination.

Recent Elections

Is this true? Has freedom been brought with cannons; has democracy been exported like processed goods? To be sure, the fall of the Taliban is a good start for Afghanistan; however, with the exception of Kabul, most of the country is currently in the hands of warlords and Taliban returnees. The west has a short attention span, and as a result, women are being forced to don their Burkahs again, and the opium trade is flourishing. The National Human Development Report, published this month by the United Nations Development Programme, describes Afghanistan as “a fragile nation still at odds if no longer at war with itself that could easily slip back into chaos and abject poverty.”

Democracy’s next stop is Palestine where the recent democratic elections saw the ascendance of Mr. Abbas, who was elected with a broad base of support from across the board. This, however, was due to Arafat’s death, not the invasion of Iraq. Furthermore, although most Americans don?t know it, Palestinians have had democratic elections before. They were held in 1996, and Arafat won 88 percent of the vote. His opponent was a woman named Sahima Khalil who headed a local NGO. A total of 692 candidates ran for the 88 seats of the Palestinian Legislative Council.

Which brings us to the elections in Iraq. While the elections were an enormous step for Iraqis, there were also enormous problems. Security was so bad that most of the candidates refused to campaign or even publicly admit to running for office for fear of assassination. While writing this, I learn that 47 people were killed by a suicide bomber in a Shiite Mosque in Mosul at a funeral, as was the Baghdad Chief of Police with his driver and guard in a separate incident. Add this to the 105 people killed two weeks ago outside a medical clinic in the town of Hillah, south of Baghdad, and democracy’s victory dance seems somehow less convincing.

It’s currently too early to know what to make of the political reforms in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Time will tell if Cairo’s move to allow a multiparty presidential election is genuine or just window dressing designed to give the presidency to Mubarak’s son Gamal. The amendment to Egypt’s constitution does not set term limits (Mubarak, who is 76, is on his fourth term), and it remains to be seen if the banned Muslim Brotherhood, the largest Islamic group in the country, will be allowed to participate or if the government will release imprisoned opposition leaders like Ayman Nour of the Ghad Party, who was arrested last January. Likewise, it is difficult to say whether the proposal for limited municipal elections in Saudi Arabia and Riyadh’s promise that women will get to vote not this time, but next time, is genuine reform or a charade to smooth over relations with the West, and namely the US. Furthermore, it is difficult to say if the invasion of Iraq served as a catalyst for these proposed changes or if they occurred independent of (or even despite) American intervention.

Lebanon and the “Cedar Revolution”

As for Lebanon, images of Beirut’s youth, both Muslim and Christian, banding together and waving cedar flags are comforting to the West, especially after last year’s UN Security Council Resolution 1559 called for the Syrian government to withdraw its 14,000 troops and cease its interference in Lebanese affairs. The same resolution called for the disarmament of Hezbollah, the Shia Islamic party/militia accredited with pushing Israel out of Southern Lebanon. The opposition demonstrations, which led to the resignation of Prime Minister Omar Karami (who was reelected by the Parliament nine days later), drew immediate comparisons to the “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine, leading many in the western press to dub the protests the “Cedar Revolution” and give the credit to American intervention in Iraq. The truth, however, seems to be much more complicated.

Opposition to the current government in Beirut and its backers in Damascus, has been building for some time now. It followed the September 2004 move by Syria to influence the Lebanese National Assembly to amend the constitution to give pro-Syrian president Emile Lahoud an additional three years in office, lengthening his mandate from six to nine years. This was the second time that Syria had pressured Lebanon’s Parliament into making constitutional changes in favor of Lahoud, the first being in 1998 by allowing him to run for president immediately after resigning as the head of the Lebanese Armed Forces. Finally, former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, who resigned in protest of the constitutional amendment in 2004, was killed in a car bombing last month. This is what sparked large demonstrations against the government and Syria in Beirut. It is true, however, that the US, along with France, supported the UN Security Council Resolution calling for the withdrawal of Syrian forces. But unless the assassination, which has been largely attributed to Syria by outsiders as well as the Lebanese opposition, was the work of the US, it’s hard to say how the Bush administration can take all the credit for the Lebanese opposition movement.

Lebanese history and politics are very complicated, and the huge pro-Syria counter-protest organized by Hezbollah this week illustrated this fact. Lebanon, a country that is a little over two-thirds the size of Connecticut and has just under 4 million inhabitants, is highly sectarian. There are 17 officially recognized religions in the tiny country, and the government is based on what is called a sectarian balance. This means that the constitution stipulates the religion of the major office holders and the religious makeup of the Parliament. Concretely, this means that the president is always a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister must be a Sunni Muslim and the position of Speaker of the Parliament is reserved for a Shia Muslim. Likewise, the Parliament itself is balanced along sectarian lines, with the 128 seats being split evenly between Christians and Muslims and being subdivided to allow for 27 seats each for Shia and Sunni Muslims and 8 and 2 seats for the Druze and Alawi Muslim sects, respectively. Of the 64 Christian seats, 34 are reserved for Maronites. Although there has not been an official census since 1932, about 59 percent of Lebanese citizens are thought to be Muslim.

In addition to the 17 sects, there are also as many as 1 million Syrian workers and about 400,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. The Palestinians, a largely Sunni group that makes up over 10 percent of population in Lebanon, suffer from the delicate sectarian balancing act. Even those born in Lebanon are not granted Lebanese citizenship; they are barred from 73 job categories (including medicine, law and engineering), and are not allowed to own property. Unlike other foreigners in Lebanon, they are denied access to the public health system. Moreover, they are refused work permits and the right to own land. Ostensibly, this is in solidarity for the Palestinians’ right to return to the occupied territories or within Israel, but in reality, it is more likely due to the fact that allowing Palestinians to participate in the running of the country would tip the balance in favor of the Muslims in general and the Sunni in particular.

This multifaceted mishmash that constitutes Lebanese society means that things are much more complex than the pictures of the “Cedar Revolution” let on. For starters, the Syrian force was installed in Lebanon for a reason: to end the civil war and stabilize the war-torn country. And while Damascus certainly takes advantage of its influence in Lebanon with less than altruistic intentions, it is unclear what a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon would mean exactly. While the Druze, the Christians and the Maronites, and, to a lesser extent, the Sunnis, are all united against what they perceive as a common enemy, it is impossible to know if this unity will continue once Syria leaves, thus creating a power vacuum. This is why not all of the pro-Syria protesters are Hezbollah supporters or even Shia. Some Palestinians, for example, want Syrian troops to stay, simply because they fear another civil war as a result of the Syrian departure.

So before the world starts patting the Bush administration on the back, we should stop to reflect on the causes, and more important the consequences, of the current events in the Middle East.

Taking off our glasses

This remains true for Iraq and is equally true for the potential hornet’s nest that is Lebanon. I would like to hope that the Lebanese have finally renounced sectarian violence after 15 years of civil war and almost as many years of peace, and that the power vacuum left by the departing Syrians might be filled by a more democratic representation of the people. I’d like to hope that the Palestinians will be afforded the same rights as the other groups in Lebanon, and that the country will finally be mature enough to see past the sectarian politics of the “confessional system,” leaving people free to vote for policies instead of religions.

Likewise, I hope that Afghanistan will be able to stabilize itself with the help of the West as well as that of the Middle East. And I hope that Palestine and Israel will come to a peaceful and democratic conclusion to the past violence, and that Iraqis will exercise their will with voting booths instead of car bombs. (Incidentally, a referendum on the American military presence would be an excellent start.) I hope that women and men in Egypt and Saudi Arabia will get a real chance to vote for what they believe in and that if given that chance, they will not vote to abolish democracy.

But I?m not so sure that these hopes are realistic; I’m afraid that some of them, if not most of them, are premature. So, in the meantime, we should stop counting our chicks before they hatch and instead start protecting the eggs. This means trying to understand the region and, to my mind, admitting that maybe democracy can’t be exported like Coca-Cola or dropped attached to smart bombs. Democracy must be grown at home, and to do so, the soil needs to be tended to and the seeds watered with care. This means acknowledging and supporting the democratic movements that have sprouted through the cracks of the authoritarian asphalt, like the Palestinian elections in 1996; Qatar’s independent media and 1999 elections for the Municipal Council; and Bahrain’s 2003 Advisory Council elections in which six women were elected. In all three of these elections, both men and women were allowed to vote.

Another important way for the West to support homegrown democracy is to help independent local media outlets in the region. And in order to do this, the US, in particular, needs to admit that while it regularly receives harsh criticism from the Qatari television outlet, Al Jazeera, so do the governments of Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Algeria and the Palestinian Authority, amongst others. In the end, offending governments is sometimes the sign of a strong independent media. So rather than bombing the Qatari news channel, as a Pentagon spokesman admitted the US had done in Afghanistan, and pressuring Doha into selling the station, the US should be trying to support more independent voices in the region like Al Jazeera.

Supporting democracy also means supporting the right to true self-determination in the countries that have been objects of the Bush administration’s nation-building projects ? even if the Iraqis vote the US forces, military bases and all, out for good. It means using American power evenhandedly and standing up for real freedom and democracy, even when it might not be convenient for short-term American self-interest, as in Palestine and Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, true democracy in the Middle East requires the West, and especially the US, to take off its rose colored glasses when looking at the region. The US should have known that it would not be greeted with open arms in Iraq and that the occupation, and all the things that have come with it, would quickly turn many Iraqis against America. The US should also know that any belligerent behavior or rhetoric toward Iran will only result in an across-the-board nuclear solidarity throughout the Islamic Republic. And finally, the US should know that Lebanon is a nation walking on a tightrope, and that if it shakes the rope and disturbs the performer’s delicate balance, it should make sure that there’s a safety net below. One idea would be to support broadening the mandate of the UN forces already in Lebanon, and filling their ranks with troops from countries seen as being neutral in the situation — Scandinavian countries, for example — in order to diffuse any potential conflict between the different sects.

It’s too soon to say what the long-term effects of the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq will be, but one thing is sure: the Middle East was not an object at rest, which the US hurtled toward democracy with strong but clumsy hands. The region had already begun its slow and uphill journey toward freedom in places like Qatar, Bahrain and Palestine, and whether this movement has been helped or hindered by American intervention remains to be seen. The important thing is for the US to be evenhanded and realistic, knowing that there is only so much it can do with its already tarnished legitimacy, which resulted from its bogus rationale for war in Iraq and its subsequent utilization of torture. It’s better to be pleasantly surprised if the worst-case scenario doesn’t come true than to have our rose colored glasses blown off our smug, self-righteous faces by a volley of car bombs.


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