Thursday, February 24, 2005

Democracy Comes Knocking in Lebanon, Egypt and Palestine

The article below was written by Rami G. Khouri, Executive Editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut. It is published here with the permission of the author.

By Rami G. Khouri

Some exciting and important forces are exerting themselves in parts of the Middle East, and some historic occupation-liberation dynamics are taking place in other parts of this region - and it is important not to mix up these two very different things.

A wave of analyses from many parts of Europe and North America is suddenly trumpeting events in Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine and Egypt as part of a common awakening in which Arabs and Muslims are asserting their humanity and dignity by voting in elections or demanding more democratic rights. That is only partly correct. We have three very different historical and political processes at work here, and they may well end up one day at the same final destination of stable, democratic and prospering societies. I hope so, as do the many people in this region who have worked for this goal for many decades, at great personal danger to themselves in most cases.

So the first point to be made from within this region is that it is a refreshing treat to hear foreign governments and analysts now commonly advocating and applauding democratization forces in this region, instead of feeding the tyrants who jailed and killed democrats. I hope that the wave of promoting democracy, freedom and free market economics is not, like its predecessor era of propping up criminals and thugs, merely a transient and self-serving phase that fits the needs of the times as seen from Washington, London, Paris and Moscow.

The second point to be made is that domestic autocracy or tyranny and foreign occupation are equally bad but very different contexts. Iraq and Afghanistan are the easiest of the five situations to decipher. Evil regimes there were removed by the force of foreign armies, and the natives are being given a chance to reshape their societies through Western-style elections.

These are noble and historic endeavors, though still deeply controversial as to their origin, implementation, intent and consequence. Time will tell how they evolve.

The Palestinians are a unique case for they have suffered the longest foreign military occupation of the past three generations of world history.

So they continue to battle the Israeli occupation with all means available to them, from diligent self-improvement and acquiescent complacency, to nonviolent protest and active diplomacy, to armed struggle against Israeli troops and terror against Israeli civilians. Palestinian society for decades has been prevented from enjoying democratic elections primarily because of the Israeli occupation. In the meantime, Palestinian political life has almost always been defined by an impressive component of pluralism and internal checks-and-balances, with some obvious lapses here and there, to be sure.

To applaud the Palestinians for suddenly practicing democracy in their recent elections is hypocritical nonsense and slightly insulting to boot. Those who know and follow the Palestinian people would know that the will to live in decency and dignity has been a defining national and personal characteristic for all the decades that these people have been occupied by Israel, ignored by the Arab states, or duped by Western and Eastern powers.

The impressive Palestinian historical struggle for freedom against Israeli usurpation and occupation, and simultaneously against Western powers' colonial manipulations, towers over the recently held Palestinian presidential election like the Empire State Building towers over a U.S. Postal Service mailbox in central New York.

The conduct of the Lebanese and Egyptians is probably the most noteworthy and truly historic of the five cases mentioned above. For here we have people truly fighting against enormous local odds, at great danger to themselves, to live in freedom, equality, opportunity and dignity.

Egyptians in small numbers are challenging the desire of their president, Hosni Mubarak, to run for a fifth consecutive six-year term. His inclination to be a president-for-life, with a ruling party and security sector that perpetuate their control of all major aspects of political, economic and military life, is an insult to the right of ordinary Egyptians and other Arabs to be treated like adults, rather than children. Egyptians have had enough of executive authority that is not rotated peacefully and regularly, for this results in mediocrity, stagnation, corruption, national deterioration and degradation of the human spirit itself - all of which are clearly visible in contemporary Egypt. The slogan used by those who oppose Mubarak's fifth term is "enough."

Tellingly, that same word "enough" this week also appeared on posters and walls all around Beirut, where ordinary Lebanese and political leaders alike have launched an impressive rebellion against the present Lebanese government and the Syrian regime that is its selector, patron and backer. As has happened in Egypt, a threshold of fear of incumbent government authorities - both Syrian and Lebanese, in this case - has been shattered. The assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri accelerated to a historic pitch the now widespread, explicit and vocal calls for the Syrians to leave Lebanon and the Lebanese government to resign.

This is a rare genuine grassroots, populist, spontaneous Arab movement to change an existing power structure, and so it is qualitatively significant in terms of modern Arab political history. Perhaps the most significant aspect of it is that it is also the first contemporary instance of Arabs defining their political values, goals and activism, boldly setting out to build a better society, and then seeing Western powers support them in their endeavor. This sure beats U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld giving aid to ensure Saddam Hussein's survival in the 1980s and then sending in the Marines two decades later to remove him from power.

By all means, then: Bring on democracy, support Arab democrats, oppose Arab autocrats, end Israeli occupation, promote Arab self-determination and, above all, please, make a reasonable effort to recognize the differences, and relationships, among all the above.

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