- The Washington Times - Monday, March 21, 2005

These are not happy days for rulers in Tehran and Damascus, Riyadh and Cairo. Regimes throughout the Middle East are deeply unsettled as Afghanis, Palestinians and Iraqis openly elect their national leaders.

What’s a perturbed potentate to do? The range of efforts has varied, with the most striking news to date from Cairo. President Hosni Mubarak, unopposed in four previous elections, had promised a succession plan for two years but done nothing. Last month, without warning, he announced constitutional revisions to allow competing presidential candidates in time for scheduled September elections.

At age 76, this surely will be Mr. Mubarak’s last run. Despite probable opposition, he should prevail as in his previous uncontested victories. Only ongoing U.S. pressure will assure a democratic and viable succession plan.

Syria and Iran actively support efforts to destabilize Iraq’s evolving democracy, while squashing free political expression at home. Thousands of Syrian, Iranian and other foreign terrorists have flowed across Iraq’s porous borders — with the sole purpose to upend Iraqi attempts to create their first-ever representative government. Moreover, Damascus and Tehran continue aiding attacks by Islamic Jihad to derail a Palestinian-Israeli settlement.

Though Syria’s citizens have had only mock elections since before President Bashar Assad’s father took power in 1971, malicious meddling in their neighbors’ affairs may be declining. Responding to the news from Cairo, and to reduce pressure to end its 29-year occupation of Lebanon, Damascus handed over to Iraqi authorities Saddam Hussein’s half-brother, who had been in Syria nearly two years. Now, it seems they are making a serious show of pulling their forces back to border positions in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Concern is so great, Mr. Assad visited Moscow in January to seek support and buy advanced weapons.

Iran has not yet liberalized. The government’s Guardian Council arbitrarily struck 2,300 candidates from the ballot prior to February 2004 parliamentary elections, simultaneously encouraging thousands of peasant “volunteers” to go to Iraq.

Following a 34 percent turnout in Tehran, the regime admitted 70 percent of Iranians — even the clergy — opposed Iran’s 25- year mullahcracy. Despite such massive unpopularity, the regime continues taking extreme measures to maintain power, clearly unsettled by the openness and success of elections in neighboring Afghanistan and Iraq.

The Saudi government’s noises supporting evolving democracy in Baghdad have been offset by a stream of terrorists moving across its border with Iraq. Recent municipal elections, the first in Saudi history, saw a lackluster turnout, as only men voted for just half the available city council seats.

Although Saudi officials have indicated possible provincial elections next year with progressively more liberal steps to follow, millions of unempowered women, unemployed university graduates and government bureaucrats with no-future jobs have witnessed their Iraqi and Palestinian neighbors casting unfettered votes in real electoral contests.

Governments in Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Oman and Qatar have all made increasingly liberalizing noises, usually followed by significant action.

Egypt and Libya are studies in contrast. In still nominally democratic Egypt, presidential son Gamal Mubarak had previously renounced a 10-year quest to succeed his father. Still, only strong pressure from Washington, donor of more than $50 billion in aid since 1979, could have led to Mr. Mubarak’s surprise announcement of contested presidential elections.

In Libya, Seif al Islam, son of the West’s perennial nemesis Moammar Gadhafi, has appeased the United States and Great Britain in hopes of eventually succeeding his father. Seif’s maneuvering has resulted in settling the Pan Am 103 controversy, renunciation of all weapons of mass destruction research, handing over related WMD materials and opening Libya to foreign petroleum exploration and development.

Lebanon as always is a special case. A long functioning, if highly contentious, democracy, it has endured nearly 30 years’ of Syrian occupation, becoming a virtual colony of its far larger, despotic neighbor. In a rare cross-confessional accord, Lebanese Christians and Muslims have reacted to five-time Prime Minister Rafic Harriri’s assassination and demanded full Syrian withdrawal. In equally rare concert, Washington and Paris have insisted Damascus leave Lebanon pursuant to U.N. resolutions dating to 1982. Beirut will not truly be free from Syrian machinations until puppet President Emile Lahoud steps down, opening the way to open elections at all levels.

Across the region, governments watch developments with grave interest and concern. Iraqis will freely vote twice more in 2005, feeding popular frustration in Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and beyond.

As dissidents use the Internet to announce democracy’s arrival in Baghdad, Jerusalem and Kabul — as well as Kiev and Tblisi — the region’s autocrats have no alternative to relaxing iron grips.

The Bush doctrine of encouraging democracy where freedom’s fresh air is rare, gains momentum and spreads across Arabia. Despite reactionary reporting in state-controlled media and Washington’s amazing capacity to make unenlightened postwar moves, Iraqi citizens have elected new leaders, placing the country on the road to free market democracy. Palestinian elections renew hope for the long denied peace process with Israel. And now Egypt prepares to have nominally open presidential elections.

The people of the Middle East are progressively pursuing — and realizing — freedom. Rulers who ignore this popular groundswell risk their regimes, and would do well to plan alternative occupations and lifestyles.

John R. Thomson has lived and worked in the Middle East as businessman, journalist and diplomat for more than three decades, and has been based in Beirut, Cairo and Riyadh.

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