The murder of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri has unleashed mass protests in Lebanon. The demonstrations calling for the departure of Syrian forces from Lebanon have been tagged the “Cedar Revolution” in the West as if they, too, reflect the spirit of the democratic movements that swept Eastern Europe at the collapse of the Soviet Union and the “Orange Revolution” that brought Mr. Viktor Yushchenko to power in Ukraine last year. But the drama unfolding in Lebanon is no mere replay of events surrounding the collapse of the Berlin Wall.
It is still unclear what the result will be. Encouraging as recent portents appear to be, it is far too early to assume that the yearnings of many of the Lebanese people, for a life free of Syrian influence, will prevail.
It is still unknown who was responsible for the massive car bomb that killed Mr. Hariri on Feb. 14. Now as then, however, suspicions point to Syria, or Syrian supporters within Lebanon, who opposed Mr. Hariri’s efforts to free his country from Syrian control. Damascus keeps 14,000 troops in Lebanon and holds the allegiance of key players in the Lebanese government and security services. Since the killing, daily protests by Lebanese have called for the withdrawal of the Syrian forces.
Many in the West see the demonstrations as the Lebanese equivalent of the people-power revolutions that have forced authoritarian governments from office since the end of the Cold War. For example, in a speech this week, U.S. President George W. Bush proclaimed that “freedom will prevail in Lebanon” and called on Syria to completely withdraw its troops from Lebanon. Mr. Bush sees developments in Lebanon as a ripple effect of the Jan. 30 Iraq election — and, by extension, as validating his administration’s push for more democracy in the Middle East and the invasion of Iraq two years ago.
He may be right. In response to the protests and international pressure, Syria has announced a partial withdrawal of its military forces to the eastern parts of Lebanon and has indicated it will eventually pull out of the country entirely. These moves also follow a successful election in Afghanistan, the announcement by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak that his country should have multicandidate presidential ballots, and the assumption of the presidency of the Palestinian Authority by Mr. Mahmoud Abbas, who has introduced transparency and accountability in the PA. It is hard to challenge the notion that change is afoot in the region.
Yet countercurrents suggest that it is too early to talk about the victory of democracy and that the situation is more complex than triumphalists depict. Earlier this week, pro-Syrian forces in Lebanon mobilized hundreds of thousands — perhaps even 1 million — supporters to protest Syria’s planned withdrawal. In addition, former Prime Minister Omar Karami, a Syria supporter who resigned earlier this month as a result of the mass protests, has been renominated as prime minister.
One telling indication of the nature of the Lebanese “revolution” is the fact that many Lebanese themselves prefer to call their uprising an “intifada for independence.” The symbolism of the intifada is considerably different from that of the cedar tree (a Lebanese national symbol). Its reference point is an end to occupation, rather than democratic change. It frames the revolt within a violent context, rather than the peaceful “Velvet Revolution” of Czechoslovakia. And it is inherently anti-Israel, rather than invoking the prospect of a peaceful era for the entire Middle East.
Some theorize that the common thread among the revolutions in the Middle East is that they are not targeting autocrats as much as occupiers. Insurgents are protesting the U.S. presence in Iraq, just as Lebanese are demonstrating against Syrians in their country, while Palestinians challenge the Israeli presence on their land.
By this logic, if the occupations were ended, the violence would be expected to subside. That does not mean, though, that a wave of democracy would necessarily sweep the region, nor that the violence that marks relations between Israelis and their neighbors would stop.
The renomination of Mr. Karami suggests that little has changed in Lebanon’s domestic politics. Parliamentary elections are scheduled to be held in May. A failure to secure a Syrian withdrawal and control of Syria’s surrogates in Lebanon means that the results could be anything but free and fair.
More troubling still is the idea that genuine democracy may not yield the results Mr. Bush and others anticipate: There may be less gratitude for U.S. support of real democracy in the Middle East than anger at the amount of time it took Washington and other Western governments to show that support.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.