- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 1, 2005

Could it be true that democracy — having been given a good push by the Bush administration — is breaking out in the Middle East? The administration has said that with Afghanistan and Iraq’s elections as examples, we would see a benevolent domino effect throughout the region. With the fall of Lebanon’s Syrian-backed government on Monday, after massive public protests in reaction to the assassination of popular former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, a new window on the future has been opened for the Lebanese.

But those who follow public opinion in the Arab world also know that a note of caution is in order, even as we should join Lebanon’s celebrations and support its future progress. (A note of caution is always a safe recommendation when the subject is the Middle East.) In a number of Arab countries, the most admired man in the world is Osama bin Laden, and popular elections held today could be disasters. Much groundwork needs to be done in this part of the world before democracy will blossom.

Freedom of speech, religion and assembly, respect for human rights, rule of law and the development of a democratic political opposition are all steps on the road to democracy. In the majority of Arab countries, including important U.S. allies, those conditions are missing today. In the tough words of the State Department’s newly published 2004 Human Rights Report, for instance, Saudi Arabia’s record on human rights is “poor with continuing serious problems, despite some progress,” in effect not much better than Iran’s.

In the case of Lebanon, a long tough road lies ahead, but there are real reasons for hope. Mr. Hariri was murdered Feb. 14 in a horrendous car bombing that also killed 16 other people. It provoked the biggest demonstrations that Lebanon has ever seen, filling the streets of Beirut with thousands and thousands of people. Significantly, the crowds included Syria’s religiously diverse groups, Christians, Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims and Druze.

A businessman with a clear vision for the rebuilding of his shattered country, which has been under Syrian occupation since the late 1980s, Mr. Hariri had great plans for the reconstruction of Beirut. Before its civil war and Syrian occupation, Beirut was known as the Paris of the Middle East, a shining city of culture and commerce.

A U.N. investigation into the Hariri assassination has begun, but Lebanon’s Syrian-backed government is widely believed to be behind the crime. U.S. officials, like Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, have not hesitated to suggest that Syria itself may have been involved. Though Mr. Hariri had worked with the Syrians in the past, his recent “transgression” was that he had started calling for the withdrawal of Syria’s 15,000 troops.

Mr. Hariri is reported to have been an instigator of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559, passed in September, which calls on Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon. In this, he actually managed to bring the United States and France together on the U.N. Security Council, a rare and remarkable feat. Based in Paris, Mr. Hariri was a good friend of French President Jacques Chirac, going back to the 1980s, when Mr. Chirac was mayor of Paris.

On this unusual constellation of allies, the United States and France, rests a good deal of promise for international support for Lebanon’s freedom and democratic developments. It also offers ground for mutually beneficial trans-Atlantic cooperation founded on a confluence of strategic interests.

France, as the former colonial power with long-standing interest in Lebanon, would like to see the country develop. The United States and our ally Israel want to deny Syrian-backed terrorists groups, particularly the powerful Syrian and Iranian-backed Shi’ite terrorist group Hezbollah, their bases in Southern Lebanon, where they have operated against Israel and supported Palestinian terrorism since the 1980s. In the estimation of some terrorism experts, Hezbollah is a far greater threat than al Qaeda with operations throughout the Middle East, the Americas and Europe.

For Lebanon, a first step has been taken, but much of this story remains to be played out. Lebanese President Emile Lahoud remains a supporter of Syria. And while Syria has agreed to pull its troops back to the western part of Lebanon, a complete withdrawal must follow. And elections to a new government should come soon to avoid a political vacuum. So far, though, let’s rejoice with the courageous Lebanese people in the new promise of their “cedar revolution.”

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