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Political logjam broken in Middle East

Trudy Rubin Philadelphia Inquirer

B ack in January 2003, I wrote about liberal Arab intellectuals who had adopted a “big bang” theory about the coming Iraq war.

They preferred any change at all to the political paralysis that gripped the Middle East. They felt squeezed between the repression of authoritarian rulers and the growing popularity of Islamists. They felt an Iraq war would break up the Mideast’s political logjam.

And they were right.

The logjam is broken, the wood hurtling downstream. The Iraq war — and Iraqi elections — precipitated a political chain reaction whose end we can’t foresee.

It’s much too early to predict an outbreak of democracy. Some Arab governments may become more accountable to their people, some may become more Islamist. But, definitely, the region will change.

What’s fascinating to watch is how this chain reaction is progressing in ways that no one — including U.S. officials — could have predicted.

Internal pressure for political change had been building for years within the Arab world, though meaningful elections took place in only a few Arab countries.

“People were fed up with having their lives run by other countries dominating or occupying them,” says Rami Khouri, editor-at-large of the Beirut Daily Star. “People want to be more involved in running their own affairs.”

Unexpected events contributed to the pressure for change. The sudden death of Yasser Arafat in December opened the door for Palestinian elections, which wound up being held in January just before the Iraqi ballot.

Televised scenes of both Palestinian and Iraqi elections — one held under Israeli, the other under U.S. occupation — set the Arab world buzzing. Could national elections be held in Arab countries only under occupation?

In fact, the Palestinians had long sought elections, which the United States and Israel opposed as long as Arafat was still around. And in Iraq, the United States repeatedly postponed a vote until Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani forced a ballot.

Some Persian Gulf states, along with countries such as Jordan and Morocco, have held limited elections. But in no Arab country could voters choose their top leaders, who hold the real power.

So the sight of Palestinians and Iraqis electing their governments jolted the Arab world.

The Palestinian and Iraqi elections alone might not have been enough to inspire a broad “Arab awakening.” Many Arabs doubted their legitimacy because they were held under occupation. Others downplayed the Iraq vote because Sunnis largely boycotted the ballot and Shiite parties won it; most Arab countries are predominantly Sunni and fear the ascendancy of Shiites to power in Iraq.

It took the “cedar revolution” in Lebanon to provoke real political excitement in the Arab world. The massive car bomb that killed Lebanon’s former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri sent tens of thousands of Lebanese into the streets waving their flag with its green cedar emblem.

Hariri was killed — and most Lebanese blame Syria — because he urged Damascus to pull its troops out of Lebanon. His death sparked a spontaneous outpouring of civic anger and forced the pro-Syrian Lebanese government to resign.

The Lebanese example has electrified Arab opinion. In Lebanon, there is no U.S. or Israeli occupation; the occupiers are Syrian Arabs. Nor can other Arabs dismiss all of the demonstrators as members of minority groups; Hariri was a Sunni, and the opposition coalition includes many Sunnis, along with Christians and Druze.

And there is a link with Iraq. Some Lebanese opposition leaders say the sight of Iraqis voting was what inspired them to come out on the streets.

The Cedar Revolution thus sets a precedent for more nonviolent Arab political action. Says Khouri: “What is going on in Lebanon might indeed spark more grassroots activism elsewhere.”

The chain reaction continues. Egyptian President-for-life Hosni Mubarak has announced that competition will be permitted in the next presidential election, though no one is yet certain whether this is mere window dressing.

What’s also uncertain is what the “Arab awakening” will mean for U.S. interests. In Lebanon, free and fair elections will give a big share of power to Hezbollah, a Shiite party that the U.S. government labels as terrorist.

Many Egyptians believe Islamists would win a fair election in their country. Iraq’s election will probably result in a moderately Islamist government that wants women’s status to be defined by religious law.

Khouri isn’t worried. He notes the old argument that you can’t push Arab governments to reform because the result might be victories for Islamists. But he says that argument “is weakening.” The really big Islamist threat, he says, is Osama bin Laden, so “mainstream Islamists are not seen as such a big threat anymore.”

Indeed, President Bush seems to have concluded that our past preference for Arab stability over democracy has backfired. So the Mideast chain reaction will continue — wherever it leads.

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