After a centuries-long winter of despotism and autocracy, the first shoots of democratic yearnings are starting to emerge in Arab soil. It's happening more quickly, and with far more support from Arab elites and ordinary people than expected - from Lebanon to Saudi Arabia to Egypt, from Palestinian lands to Morocco to the Persian Gulf emirates and, despite the sustained ferocity of its insurgency, in Iraq.
These political tendrils may mature into robust movements for true democracy, or they may be stunted by the cynicism of current rulers or poisoned by Islamist radicals just as they begin to take root. But for now they deserve all the support and encouragement that the United States and other Western democracies can provide.
The real deal
This remarkable turn of events isn't a fluke. It may well turn out to be a historical watershed. It cannot be reasoned away with a simplistic explanation, though the effects of President George W. Bush's messianic push for democracy, along with the invasion of Iraq and its election in January, cannot be dismissed easily. Even the most visceral critics of the Iraq war and its opportunistic justifications are hard put not to acknowledge that one good outcome may be the emergence of democratic movements in the Arab world.
The challenge for Bush now is to finesse his responses to the nascent democratic movements in the Arab world, careful not to be too heavy-handed. He must encourage the hunger of Arabs yearning for democratic freedoms, not necessarily with guns and armies, but with more nuanced diplomatic approaches and economic incentives.
That hunger for democracy is bursting out most dramatically in Lebanon, whose people are shrugging off the yoke of Syrian occupation with unity and support from key Arab nations and major Western powers. Last week, after Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah issued an unusually tough message, Syrian President Bashar Assad agreed to pull back his troops to the Lebanese side of the Syrian border.
The most promising case
Lebanon could well become in the next few months a real-time case study of the hopes and pitfalls of Arab democratic movements. In that sliver of the Levant there is the promise of freedom and self-determination, but also the potential for chaos, anarchy or the radicalization of the Shia community. In its microcosm, Lebanon embodies the tensions that will confront other Arab nations moving toward democracy.
In Saudi Arabia and Egypt, unlike Lebanon, the democratic reforms are being imposed from the top and the pressure for them has come not from their citizens, but chiefly from the United States. President Hosni Mubarak's declaration that he would push for a change in the constitution to allow for the first time multi-party elections for the presidency stunned the Arab world. So did Saudi Arabia's decision to hold elections for the first time in local municipal councils.
Also in the Arabian peninsula, the Qatar emirate is preparing to hold its first parliamentary elections. In Morocco, King Mohammed has introduced legal protections for women.
Be careful what you wish for
But in all these nations, the gateway to true democracy is in the hands of pro-Western Arab autocrats. Washington's pressure has had some effect, but it's clear that an implosion of those autocracies, particularly in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, would not be in the best U.S. interests, not least because of the specter of Islamist extremists seizing control in free elections.
It's unlikely that Washington will ever push for anything more than gradual reforms. Ultimately, it will be in the crucible of Lebanon's democratic experiment that the tensions of Arab democracy will be tested. For now, Washington can only encourage democracy and hope for the best. Attempts to influence it directly could backfire. Having sown the seeds of democracy, Bush cannot force them to bloom.
Published March 7, 2005, News Day