- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 1, 2005

KHOBAR, Saudi Arabia — It was a scene the Arab world’s autocratic regimes have dreaded — and through the power of satellite TV, it could catch on as fast as the latest hit music video: peaceful, enormous crowds carrying flags and flowers, bringing down a government.

What happened in Lebanon this week, many analysts say, is the beginning of a new era in the Middle East, one in which popular demand pushes the momentum for democracy, and people’s will can no longer be disregarded.

Television stations broadcast Beirut’s protests live into homes, coffee shops and clubs across the Middle East, with the dramatic images of Lebanese youths wearing red-and-white scarves and waving the country’s red, white and green flag as they handed out roses Monday to troops who had been ordered to block them.

The coverage, lasting all day with hardly a break on some stations, culminated with the Syrian-backed government’s resignation.

Inevitably, it raised the question among many spectators: What about here?

“I wish this could happen in Yemen,” Ahmed Murtada, an unemployed Yemeni, said in the capital, San’a. “But here, tanks would prevail.”

Anas Khashoggi, a 46-year-old management consultant in the Saudi city of Jidda, said he followed Monday’s events from beginning to end. “I wanted … to see how the government reacts to the will of the people,” he said.

Was he disappointed? “Not at all,” he said.

The scenes from Lebanon come as Saudis are having their first — albeit small — taste of democracy.

In the second round of the country’s first nationwide elections, Saudi men go to the polls tomorrow in the kingdom’s east and south to choose municipal councils. The monarchy has been promising reform, but going slowly.

Newspapers in Saudi Arabia and Egypt — authoritarian nations where the state heavily influences the press — did not shy away from showing the protests.

“The Lebanese street joins the opposition,” reads the banner headline across the front page of the Saudi daily Okaz, with photos of the Lebanese protest tents and a banner in Arabic reading “We want the truth.”

In Syria, however, the state-controlled press was largely silent.

It reported on the resignation of Prime Minister Omar Karami, but did not mention — much less show pictures — of the protests. State TV aired none of the dramatic footage the few Syrians with satellite dishes could see with a flick of the channel.

Syria has kept a firm hand on its small reform movement. But it had a rare instance of civil violence last year, when riots in March between Kurds and police spread to parts of northeastern Syria and killed at least 25 persons in unrest sparked by a soccer brawl but fueled by Kurdish resentment.

The protests in Lebanon — triggered by the assassination of popular former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri on Feb. 14 — come on the heels of a string of democratic steps in the Arab world, including elections in Iraq and by the Palestinians, and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s promise to allow multicandidate presidential elections.

But the forcing-out of Lebanon’s government sets a very different precedent in a region where freedom of speech is muzzled, human rights activists are jailed and sons either succeed or are being groomed to succeed their fathers.

“For the first time in the history of the Arab world, a country’s policy has come face-to-face with the will of the people who went down to the street and said: ‘We don’t want you,’” said Dalal al-Bizri, a Cairo-based sociologist.

“The minimum feeling among Arab masses now will be: ‘Are the Lebanese better than us?’” she asked.

Many may be wary of where the people-power spirit takes Lebanon. If the protests drag the country into civil war or prompt a fierce Syrian response, as some critics have warned, bloodshed could scare off others.

Also, Lebanon’s uniqueness in the region could weaken the events’ impact.

Its 3.5-million people belong to 17 sects, with large Christian and Shi’ite communities. Its press is the freest in the Middle East. Its issues are with external domination from Syria, not a domestic government, and the protests resulted from the explosive trigger of Mr. Hariri’s assassination.

Still, with television making people power visible to all, “it’s a phenomenon that will catch on the way music video clips have caught on,” said Miss al-Bizri.

It may not spread quickly, however. Sherine Bilal, a 19-year-old Egyptian student, was wary of the limits imposed in her country, where protests are usually restricted to university campuses.

“Here, if we try to demonstrate, we can only do it inside these walls,” Miss Bilal said at the American University in Cairo. “Even then, it’s only about certain things.”

But Dawood al-Shirian, a Saudi talk-show host on Dubai TV, had a warning for Arab governments, pointing to Ukraine’s Orange Revolution: “Either they embrace the orange, or they will find themselves slipping on the peels of bananas.”

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