For weeks a western chorus has been celebrating a new dawn of Middle Eastern freedom, allegedly triggered by the Iraq war. Tony Blair hailed a “ripple of change”, encouraged by the US and Britain, that was bringing democracy to benighted Muslim lands.
First the Palestinians, then the Iraqis have finally had a chance to choose their leaders, it is said, courtesy of western intervention, while dictatorships such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia are democratising under American pressure. And then in Lebanon, as if on cue, last month’s assassination of the former prime minister triggered a wave of street protests against Syria’s military presence that brought down the pro-Damascus government in short order.
At last there was a democratic “cedar revolution” to match the US-backed Ukrainian “orange revolution” and a photogenic display of people power to bolster George Bush’s insistence that the region is with him. “Freedom will prevail in Lebanon”, Bush declared this week, promising anti-Syrian protesters that the US is “on your side”. The foreign secretary, Jack Straw, is expected to join the cheerleaders for Arab democracy in a speech today and warn the left not to defend the status quo because of anti-Americanism.
The first decisive rebuff to this fairy tale of spin was delivered in Beirut on Tuesday, when at least 500,000 – some reports said it was more like a million – demonstrators took to the streets to show solidarity with embattled Syria and reject US and European interference in Lebanon.
Mobilised by Hizbullah, the Shia Islamist movement, their numbers dwarfed the nearby anti-Syrian protesters by perhaps 10 to one; and while the well-heeled Beiruti jeunesse dorÃ©e have dominated the “people power”
jamboree, most of Tuesday’s demonstrators came from the Shia slums and the impoverished south. Bush’s response was to ignore them completely. Whatever their numbers, they were, it seems, the wrong kind of people.
But the Hizbullah rally did more than demolish the claims of national unity behind the demand for immediate Syrian withdrawal. It also exposed the rottenness at the core of what calls itself a “pro-democracy” movement in Lebanon. The anti-Syrian protests, dominated by the Christian and Druze minorities, are not in fact calling for a genuine democracy at all, but for elections under the long-established corrupt confessional carve-up, which gives the traditionally privileged Christians half the seats in parliament and means no Muslim can ever be president. As if to emphasise the point, one politician championing the anti-Syrian protests, Pierre Gemayel of the rightwing Christian Phalange party (whose militiamen famously massacred 2,000 Palestinian refugees under Israeli floodlights in Sabra and Shatila in 1982), recently complained that voting wasn’t just a matter of majorities, but of the “quality” of the voters. If there were a real democratic election, Gemayel and his friends could expect to be swept aside by a Hizbullah-led government.
The neutralisation of Hizbullah, whose success in driving Israel out of Lebanon in 2000 won it enormous prestige in the Arab world, is certainly one aim of the US campaign to push Syria out of Lebanon.The US brands Hizbullah, the largest party in the Lebanese parliament and leading force among the Shia, Lebanon’s largest religious group, as a terrorist organisation without serious justification. But the pressure on Syria has plenty of other
motivations: its withdrawal stands to weaken one of the last independent Arab regimes, however sclerotic, open the way for a return of western and Israeli influence in Lebanon, and reduce Iran’s leverage.
Ironically, Syria’s original intervention in Lebanon was encouraged by the US during the civil war in 1976 partly to prevent the democratisation of the country at the expense of the Christian minority’s power. Syria’s presence and highhandedness has long caused resentment, even if it is not regarded as a foreign occupation by many Lebanese. But withdrawal will create a vacuum with huge potential dangers for the country’s fragile peace.
What the US campaign is clearly not about is the promotion of democracy in either Lebanon or Syria, where the most plausible alternative to the Assad regime are radical Islamists. In a pronouncement which defies satire, Bush insisted on Tuesday that Syria must withdraw from Lebanon before elections due in May “for those elections to be free and fair”. Why the same point does not apply to elections held in occupied Iraq – where the US has 140,000 troops patrolling the streets, compared with 14,000 Syrian soldiers in the Lebanon mountains – or in occupied Palestine, for that matter, is unexplained. And why a UN resolution calling for Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon has to be complied with immediately, while those demanding an Israeli pullout from Palestinian and Syrian territory can be safely ignored for 38 years, is apparently unworthy of comment.
The claim that democracy is on the march in the Middle East is a fraud. It is not democracy, but the US military, that is on the march. The Palestinian elections in January took place because of the death of Yasser Arafat – they would have taken place earlier if the US and Israel hadn’t known that Arafat was certain to win them – and followed a 1996 precedent. The Iraqi elections may have looked good on TV and allowed Kurdish and Shia parties to improve their bargaining power, but millions of Iraqis were unable or unwilling to vote, key political forces were excluded, candidates’ names were secret, alleged fraud widespread, the entire system designed to maintain US control and Iraqis unable to vote to end the occupation. They have no more brought democracy to Iraq than US-orchestrated elections did to south Vietnam in the 1960s and 70s. As for the cosmetic adjustments by regimes such as Egypt’s and Saudi Arabia’s, there is not the slightest sign that they will lead to free elections, which would be expected to bring anti-western governments to power.
What has actually taken place since 9/11 and the Iraq war is a relentless expansion of US control of the Middle East, of which the threats to Syria are a part. The Americans now have a military presence in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and Qatar – and in not one of those countries did an elected government invite them in. Of course Arabs want an end to tyrannical regimes, most of which have been supported over the years by the US, Britain and France: that is the source of much anti-western Muslim anger. The dictators remain in place by US licence, which can be revoked at any time – and managed elections are being used as another mechanism for maintaining pro-western regimes rather than spreading democracy.
Jack Straw is right about one thing: there’s no happy future in the regional status quo. His government could play a crucial role in helping to promote a real programme for liberty and democracy in the Middle East: it would need to include a commitment to allow independent media such as al-Jazeera to flourish; an end to military and financial support for despots; and a withdrawal of all foreign forces from the region. Now that would herald a real dawn of freedom.