Monday, April 11, 2005

Though the “Arab Spring” may be branded a delusion in certain quarters, President Bush’s strategy for democratizing the region is gaining momentum.

Elections in Afghanistan, Iraq and even Saudi Arabia, public demonstrations in Beirut demanding instant withdrawal of 14,000 Syrian troops and intelligence agents from Lebanon and a temporary lull in the Arab-Israeli conflict, indicate a serious challenge to the status quo by Arab civil society.

Moreover, emboldened by Mr. Bush’s call for freedom, students and human-rights activists protested in Damascus against Syria’s repressive 42-year-old emergency laws.

Accommodating old illiberal regimes of autocratic dictators and kings was the policy fostered by Western Arabists for a half-century. Reversal of that policy has found an evocative expression in Egypt’s “Kifaya” (Enough) movement.

After an unchallenged 24-year reign as Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak feels obliged to hold elections with multiparty candidates. Elections, of course, do not equal democracy. Meant to solve problems by secular reforms, however, elections do mobilize the public.

As expected, surprises accompany the new wave of democracy and reforms within internally conflicted Arab countries. The administration’s traditional resistance to integrating terrorist organizations, such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah or Palestine’s Hamas, into the political mainstream as long as they refuse to disarm, contradicts the European commitment to engage Hezbollah’s Iranian and Syrian sponsors.

Asserting they will never to give up militarily protecting their country, Hezbollah’s leaders not only demand an end to Israeli warplane overflights of Lebanon but release of Lebanese detainees. The militant group, highly esteemed in the Arab world for forcing an end to Israel’s 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon in 2000, has already entered the political arena with the election of 12 parliamentarians.

Hezbollah represents the political revival of Lebanon’s 2-to-1 Shi’ite Muslim majority and is a threat to the country’s Christian-Sunni leadership. Begun as an anti-Israel movement, Hezbollah is suspected of bombing the U.S. Embassy in Beirut and killing 241 U.S. Marines in 1984. In the last 25 years, it began providing social services in its Shi’ite community.

“Regarding the Lebanon process one needs to be careful what one wishes.” a former high-ranking U.S. diplomat warns. “Confessionally a Christian state, means that there are Christian minority rulers whom at least the Muslims view increasingly as imposed upon them.”

As dynamics change, he explains, it is necessary to keep the lid on to avoid another multifaceted civil war. Though Hezbollah reinforces its militant stance with a political arm, experts don’t rule out a possible military action to derail the peace process.

The prospect of Hamas’ political empowerment poses still thornier problems. Favored by the Europeans, the specialists in suicide bombings and homemade rockets have promised to keep the informal truce until the end of the year, provided Israel withdraws forces from Palestinian areas.

Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, appears to be a man of peace who inspired a large voter turnout in the municipal and presidential elections. Seizing the opportunity, Hamas decided to offer candidates for the legislative elections in July.

“They are politicizing at the price of a terrible inside debate in which the members opting to politicize won against the so-called military, the pure terrorists. That victory is significant,” comments Michel Rocard, former French prime minister and European election observer in Palestine, whose American counterpart is none other than Jimmy Carter.

Because consensus is lacking, Mr. Rocard concedes Hamas cannot lay down its arms. He has respected Israel’s suggestion and has not met with Hamas leaders but expects to do so after they become candidates assured of equal treatment by election officials and observers.

Citing the integration of Hezbollah into Lebanon’s election process as a positive example, Mr. Rocard predicts any decision by Israeli and American policy forbidding Hamas to campaign in Palestine could have a serious negative effect.

Meanwhile, U.S. officials make it quite clear there are difficulties regarding Hamas’ involvement. To prod Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to even consider such a taboo, Mr. Abbas must find a quiet and private way to identify achievable advantages.

In contrast to Europeans pushing Mr. Sharon on the West Bank and Jerusalem, Americans focus on speedy resolution of the Gaza mission to accelerate the peace process and disentangle Mr. Sharon from the radical right-wing parties.

Jordan’s King Abdullah helped strengthen Israel’s diplomatic clout by dispatching his Foreign Minister Hani al-Mulki to Israel and the Palestinian Authority areas. This was done despite severe differences with President Bush over linking the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The visit highlights reinstatement of a Jordanian ambassador to Tel-Aviv after a four-year vacancy. Egypt also decided to return its ambassador.

The peace process aims at a two-state solution. Observers worry any progress could be undone if Israel fails to follow the international blueprint for a Palestinian state standing side-by-side with a secure Israel.

Considering the sum of these positive developments, the “domino effect” seems a matter of Arab attitude toward democracy marked by protests, demonstrations and elections, but not democratization. Lacking homogeneity, the internally conflicted countries of the Levant seem interlinked by ideas, similar internal dynamics and the thrust of the U.S. regional presence. But as Michel Rocard observes, Palestine is neither Lebanon nor Syria.

“It is not for the U.S. or Europe to spread freedom in the Arab world,” said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Emphasizing that civil society will lead these changes, Miss Rice sees the U.S. role as an “energizer.” The proposed Advance of Democracy Act by Sens. Joseph Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat, and Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican, aims to do just that. Its objective is to strengthen State Department ability to promote democracy and fundamental freedoms and give that mandate to Global Affairs Undersecretary Paula Dobriansky.

Viola Herms Drath is a member of the executive committee of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy.

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