Mar 3rd 2005
Two years after the invasion of Iraq, the Arab world is beginning to
show tantalising signs of change. But it is too early to talk of a year
of revolutions, as the three prime exhibits being used to make the case
for democracy--Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine--are in many ways special
SINCE the American invasion of Iraq in March 2003, many of those who
vehemently opposed it have mocked America's neo-conservatives for
having believed that the Iraqis would greet their foreign liberators
with flowers and gratitude. Now it is the turn of the neo-cons to mock.
A lot of people in the anti-war camp predicted that the war would cause
upheavals across the Middle East, fanning hatred of the West and
tipping friendly regimes into the hands of Islamist extremists.
It hasn't worked out that way. On the eve of the war's second
anniversary, the Middle East does indeed seem to be in the grip of some
sort of change. But, right now, much of the change seems to be pushing
in a welcome direction, towards a new peace chance in Palestine and the
spread of democratic ideas around the Arab world.
Arabs everywhere were affected by the spectacle in January of Iraqis
defying terrorists to cast their vote and elect a new government, and
of Palestinians managing to hold a free election even while under
Israeli occupation. The past week has brought even more transfixing
scenes, as Lebanese thronged the streets of Beirut with their flags in
an unprecedented show of "people's power", forcing the country's
pro-Syrian government to resign. At the same time, Hosni Mubarak,
Egypt's president for the past 24 years, has astonished his countrymen
by calling for constitutional changes to allow rival candidates to vie
for his position for the first time.
To the instigators of the Iraq war, all this is manna from heaven.
Having failed to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, George Bush
and Tony Blair have been forced to emphasise instead the gift of
freedom their toppling of Saddam Hussein delivered to its people. This
"gift" was hardly free: chaos and murder continue to stalk Iraq. This
week alone, at least 120 people were killed in a single suicide bombing
in Hilla. And yet the Iraqis do still seem impressed by the novelty of
being able to vote a government out of power.
In Bratislava a fortnight ago, Mr Bush drew a link between Iraq's vote,
Czechoslovakia's "velvet revolution" of 1989, Georgia's "rose
revolution" at the end of 2003, and Ukraine's recent "orange
revolution". He would say that. But a growing number of Arab voices are
chiming in, too.
In a widely noticed interview, Walid Jumblatt, the leader of Lebanon's
Druze, told the WASHINGTON POST that Iraq's election was the Arab
equivalent of the fall of the Berlin wall. Hisham Kassem, a former
publisher of the CAIRO TIMES, called the elections the "start of a
ripple effect". Khaled al-Meena, the editor of Saudi Arabia's ARAB
NEWS, says that if elections can be held under foreign occupation in
Iraq and Palestine, it should be much easier to hold them in Arab
states said to be "free".
How far-reaching is this new spirit? The Arab world is large and
diverse, so there is always a risk of connecting the dots in a way that
produces a distorted picture. One oddity is that Iraq, Palestine and
Lebanon--all three of the prime exhibits being used to make the case
for democracy--happen to be under foreign occupation, by America,
Israel and Syria respectively. Each is in many ways a special case.
A CEDAR REVOLUTION?
The foreign occupation of Lebanon began in 1976, when Syria's dictator,
Hafez Assad, sent his army to intervene in Lebanon's brutal
three-cornered civil war between Maronite Christians, Muslims and
Palestinians. The mass protests that forced Lebanon's pro-Syrian
government in Lebanon to resign this week would probably not have
happened but for a powerful shock: last month's murder of Rafik Hariri,
the country's former prime minister and most popular politician. This
was the catalyst for a chain reaction. For the Lebanese, what some are
calling a "cedar revolution" and others a "peaceful INTIFADA" carries
the promise of an end not just to Syrian occupation but also to a
corrupt spoils system that has long sapped the country's talent and
Broad-based popular movements such as this are unlikely to emerge soon
in other countries. Lebanon's experience is in many ways unique.
Famously fractious, the Lebanese are well educated and politically
sophisticated. Their central government is weak, meaning it lacks the
instruments of control enjoyed by other Arab states. It cannot co-opt
enemies with oil money, because it has none. It cannot suppress
protests effectively, because it lacks even a trained force of riot
police. And it cannot silence dissent, because Lebanon's vibrant press
has remained in private hands. The enthusiastic, non-stop coverage of
the Beirut INTIFADA on opposition TV channels emboldened tens of
thousands of ordinary citizens to ignore government bans, and take to
Just now, something else distinguishes the Lebanese: they have a focus
for their anger. Mr Hariri had come to embody the country's post-war
reconstruction. His assassination united Lebanon's multiple factions in
outrage. A beleaguered minority movement, led by Christian and Druze
politicians who once fought each other, was reinforced by members of Mr
Hariri's own Sunni Muslims, as well as thousands of others whose
indignation transcended the old sectarian loyalties.
Lebanon's anger has a cause as well as a martyred hero: freedom from
domination by Syria, whose regime many Lebanese instinctively blame for
the crime. Over the years, Syria's occupation helped to smother the
flames of civil war and bolster Lebanon's resistance to Israel's
occupation of the south. But the war is long over, the Israelis have
gone and the Syrians have overstayed their welcome. They are blamed now
for imposing some of the ills that afflict other Arab countries, such
as grotesque corruption, intimidation of political opponents, and the
subversion of the courts. When the Lebanese demand the return of
national sovereignty, it is as much a call to restore local freedoms as
for Syria's troops to leave.
DEMOCRATS IN PALESTINE
In Palestine, too, the advance of democracy may have been helped by the
weakness of the government. The Palestinian Authority (PA), created by
the 1993 Oslo accords to run the occupied territories until a final
deal on statehood was reached, is missing many of a sovereign state's
usual attributes. Israel controls natural resources, borders, coast and
airspace, the currency, the collection of customs duties, and, in most
areas, security and internal freedom of movement. Yet Palestine's
political system is vibrant and pluralistic.
Ironic, but no accident: Israel's occupation is directly responsible.
The two INTIFADAs bred a powerful grassroots movement, subverting the
Middle East's usual authoritarian tendency. Yasser Arafat's periodic
attempts to placate Israel by cracking down with his brutal security
services alienated the population, as did graft among his officials. In
polls done for January's presidential election by the Palestinian
Centre for Policy and Survey Research, 26% of voters rated corruption
and lack of reform as the most serious problem facing Palestinians,
only slightly behind the occupation (31%) and poverty (33%).
Arafat's death has triggered a quiet cascade of mini-revolutions.
January's presidential election delivered a predictably solid victory
to Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), his designated successor in the ruling
Fatah party, but also a strong showing to Mustafa Barghouti, an
independent without any of the benefits of a party structure, previous
political jobs or slyly-used state funds.
In the early rounds of the municipal elections, Hamas, the main
Islamist party, did unexpectedly well. This July it can expect to win a
hefty minority in the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), whose
current members smell pretty ripe to ordinary Palestinians after a
decade in their seats.
Hamas is popular for its armed efforts in the second INTIFADA, which
most Palestinians believe forced Israel's planned withdrawal from Gaza,
and for its broad network of local social services, trumping those of
the PA. It also did well because many would-be Fatah candidates grew so
sick of the old leadership's habit of overriding internal primaries and
imposing its own people that they ran independently, thus splitting the
vote for the party. But these habits are changing: a frightened Fatah
is beginning to heed its younger members' calls for reform.
And there was another upset last month when the Palestinian prime
minister, Ahmed Qurei (Abu Alaa), tried to appoint a cabinet packed
with Arafat loyalists. Shrewdly, rather than press Mr Qurei to make
changes, Mr Abbas sat back and let him get into a showdown with PLC
members who wanted their turn. The end result: a "technocrat"
government, made up of politically inexperienced but professional
people, and few Arafat cronies or PLC hacks in sight. How well it will
govern remains to be seen, but Palestinians love it: shortly after the
government was sworn in, a Ramallah street vendor was heard hawking
Reform of the PA has been on the agenda since well before Mr Abbas.
Salam Fayyad, the Authority's determined finance minister, has spent
nearly three years cleaning up the books, and says its revenue
collection has gone up from $45m to $75m a month, even as the economy
has withered under the INTIFADA. Mr Abbas, mindful of Fatah's plight
and the fact that his own poll rating was close to zero before he
became the party's candidate, is carrying on with those plans.
The PA outlined them at a meeting this week in London with donors and
Middle Eastern governments. Pension reform will help slim down the
civil service, which until recently was a sponge for unemployment, by
encouraging desk-jockeys to retire. There will be clear procedures for
appointing judges and a shake-up in the court system. The dozen-or-so
security services (not even PA officials agree on the exact number),
which functioned as private fiefs, will be slimmed down, smartened up
and brought under central control. There will be tweaks to fiscal
management and business law, and a raft of other changes. In return,
donors upped their pledges of support to $1.2 billion for 2005, and
Palestine broke a new record for aid money per head of population.
PLEASE MAY WE HAVE INDEPENDENCE TOO?
Palestinians plainly welcome reform for its own sake. Above all they
want the occupation to end. Yet Israel insists--and for now the
Americans seem to agree--that the Palestinians must put their domestic
house in order before they will be allowed to negotiate the final
status of their putative independent state. As in Lebanon, therefore,
the grassroots appetite for bottom-up democracy and the impulse for
independence combine into a potent force.
That is no longer true of many Arab countries, where the kings and
"national liberation" parties that took power after the colonial period
have clung ruthlessly to office ever since. Yet in the past year or so,
even governments of that sort have been making some concessions to
democracy. In some cases this has been done for domestic reasons, in
others as a response to pressure from the Americans. Morocco's politics
have matured lately into a lively multi-party system, albeit under the
supervision of an almost absolute monarch. Another semi-constitutional
monarchy, Jordan, plans to devolve central powers to elected regional
bodies. Yemen, though still tribally fractious and backward, boasts a
rowdy parliament and press.
Even the absolute monarchs of the Gulf have opened up to varying
degrees of citizen participation. Qatar's emir, the first Arab ruler to
abolish his own ministry of information, actually congratulated the
Lebanese for toppling their government. Kuwait, which has long had a
noisy parliament, is on the verge of enfranchising women, now that
Islamists back the idea. In Bahrain, Oman and Qatar, women already
vote. And Saudi Arabia is in the midst of electioneering as polling for
town councils continues across the kingdom.
CHANGE, AND THE ILLUSION OF CHANGE
Needless to say, much of this top-down reform has been hesitant and
shallow. In none of these cases has the real balance of power been
threatened with change. Essential attributes of an open society, such
as full scrutiny of state spending, an unfettered press, truly
independent courts and accountable police and security forces remain
unachieved. The changes often look less like Mr Bush's forward strategy
of freedom than like a rearguard strategy of regime survival.
Mr Mubarak's initiative, for example, concedes none of his pharaonic
powers, including the right to be re-elected in perpetuity. According
to the draft forwarded to Egypt's rubber-stamp parliament, presidential
candidates would have to be proposed by legal parties. The hitch is
that Mr Mubarak's own party controls the legalising process. It may not
sanction its most formidable opponent, the Muslim Brotherhood. After 50
years of virtual one-party rule, the political stage has been almost
swept clean of potential contenders, aside from the 76-year-old Mr
Mubarak and, perhaps, his 42-year-old son Gamal. Besides, Egyptians are
so inured to electoral fraud and manipulation that it may prove hard to
persuade them of the utility of voting.
The arrest in January of a prominent young opposition parliamentarian,
Ayman Nour, underscored the sanitised nature of Egypt's politics. Mr
Nour's secular, liberal al-Ghad (Tomorrow) party had only recently been
legalised. Unlike tamer opposition politicians who had agreed to put
off calls for change until after Mr Mubarak's re-election, Mr Nour had
been demanding immediate constitutional reform. For his pains he was
accused of forgery, had his parliamentary immunity lifted, and was
clapped in jail. He remains locked up, but responded to Mr Mubarak's
initiative by calling off a hunger strike.
The experience of Algeria and Tunisia, which already permit competition
for the presidency, is not encouraging. Tunisia's ruler of the past 17
years, Zeineddine Ben Ali, has twice crushed challengers, but these
lightweight rivals were carefully vetted, and forced to play on a
steeply tilted field. Algeria's Abdelaziz Bouteflika handily won a
fairer race last year, but with the full support of state media and
other government institutions.
Arabs complain that their rulers' gestures towards reform come more in
response to outside pressures than to their own aspirations. Mr
Mubarak's proposal would not have been made but for the supposedly
friendly nagging of Mr Bush and Condoleezza Rice, America's new
secretary of state. Yet pressure for reform is also building from
within. Hollow or not, each grudging reform has whetted the public's
appetite for further change.
In the past, popular protests often took the form of riots over price
rises or localised protests at police brutality. Now "people power" is
increasingly being expressed in organised and peaceful movements by
civil-society groups. Bahrain's ruler, for example, brought himself
immense popularity three years ago by ending martial rule, inviting
exiled dissidents home, and running free elections for half the seats
in the national legislature. Many Bahrainis, particularly among the
disenfranchised Shia who make up two-thirds of the island kingdom's
native population, are now demanding more.
Jordan's King Abdullah, likewise, faces a wave of unrest from trade
unions angered by new rules that ban syndicates from political
activity. In Egypt, Mr Mubarak's election initiative was greeted not
with gratitude, but with demands for wider freedoms and better
guarantees that polls will really be clean. A small but vociferous
reform movement has gained momentum in Cairo, drawing strength from the
coverage of protests by satellite TV channels that are beyond state
control, and a proliferation of groups promoting specific issues, such
as ending torture.
Even in Syria the feeling that change is inevitable has become
palpable. Hafez Assad's son Bashir has proved a weak leader, isolated
both by the war in Iraq and his behaviour in Lebanon. Many other Arabs
still share the Syrian regime's sense of being under siege, its deep
mistrust of the West, and its loathing for Israel. Yet they are also
aware that the armed INTIFADA in Palestine and the Iraqi insurgency
have lost their sheen. They know that state socialism is a dud,
and--after Saddam Hussein's fall--that dictatorship is ultimately
disastrous. Growing numbers are willing to say that Islam is threatened
more by its own demons than by the West's armies.
An Arab democratic opening will be long and tortuous. The regimes that
block it are strong, cunning and ruthless. The rhetoric of
"resistance"--Islamist, Arab nationalist, anti-American,
anti-globalisation, or whatever--retains a powerful grip. Many Arabs
still support groups such as al-Qaeda. A huge amount still depends on
the outcome in Iraq: a descent into chaos or the failure of the
political process there could crush democratic stirrings throughout the
region. For all these reasons, it is probably too early for the
Americans to crow about an Arab year of revolutions. All the same, the
distance between George Bush's talk of freedom and Arab aspirations,
which only recently seemed to yawn so wide, may at last be starting to
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