This is a baffling time in the Middle East--particularly for citizens of the region who are used to blaming the United States for all their problems.

At the beginning of his second term, President Bush made the push for democracy in the Middle East one of the priorities. His challenge to the region's leadership to let freedom ring prompted reactions from his critics ranging from skepticism over his motives to outrage at Washington's heavy hand in the affairs of Muslim-majority states.

Nevertheless, in the past month, we've seen evidence of political stirrings in a region known for its autocratic status quo: the surprise announcement of multi-party elections in Egypt, mass pro-democracy protests in Lebanon, and the announcement of a Syrian military withdrawal from that country after 29 years of de-facto control. And all this comes on the heels of elections in Afghanistan, the Palestinian Authority, and Iraq.

What should the world make of the United States--intentionally or not--shaking up an oppressive and autocratic regional system that until recently it had worked diligently to sustain? The United States might be standing astride the heartland of the Muslim world and cementing its hold on the region's oil supplies, but for the first time in 50 years an American president is actually doing something about democracy in the region. However mixed the results and suspect his intentions--many Arabs resent the claim that the recent protests are the result of President Bush's rhetoric rather than their own slow, steady political pressure--the President's forceful (if selective) promotion of democratic change is a marked improvement over the policies of his Republican and Democratic predecessors, who rarely bothered to fake an interest in democracy.

A look at the political ferment in Lebanon, triggered by the Feb. 14 assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri, offers a window into the current political dynamics of the Muslim-majority world. Shiites comprise between 30 and 40 percent of the country, while Maronite Christians and Sunnis are roughly 15 to 20 percent each, and the much smaller Druze about 6 percent. The massive anti-Syria protests on March 14 in Beirut (where hundreds of thousands of people marched in response to Hezbollah's equally large march "thanking" Syria the previous week) reveals that broad swath of the country's non-Shiite plurality--and some Shiites as well--support the withdrawal of Syrian troops and reforming of an utterly corrupt political system.

It also reveals a large and potentially dangerous split in the country between these two factions. If we look at bit deeper into the main force behind the protests until now, the split between the two sides becomes even more apparent, for it has been disproportionately Christian yet secular, young, upper-middle-class or even more affluent college students or graduates who have led the anti-Syria demonstrations. This is not to say that other groups have shunned the protests or rejected the protesters' professed goals. Indeed, most Lebanese want to clean up the country's political and economic corruption and end Syria's parasitic presence, as attested to by the tens of thousands of Sunni and Druze marching with their families on March 14.

But although President Bush has pointed to the Beirut protests as evidence that political freedom "is on the march" across the region, the young protesters who've driven the movement until now have been equally, if not more, focused on the desire for personal freedoms as they are about transformation of the political system. As one Lebanese colleague explained to me, if the U.S. media have dubbed the protests the "Cedar Revolution" in celebration of its supposedly national character (the cedar tree is the national symbol of Lebanon and appears on the country's flag) a more accurate phrase would be the "Gucci Revolution," to reflect the socio-economic class basis of its core constituency.

This description is in line with my experiences during my most recent trip to Beirut, late last year. While the older generation of activists and academics complained to me that the level of corruption and Syrian control of the country meant "nothing we say or do matters"--which was precisely the reason they were allowed to say or do almost anything they wanted compared with the more restrictive political and social environments in other Middle Eastern countries--I found many of Beirut's young people a buzz of energy and determination to forge their own path.

The problem was that so much (and perhaps most) of this energy was being spent creating spaces of personal freedom for themselves after dark, in the city's trendy night clubs, where the bars stay open until 6 a.m. and gay and lesbian couples (more than a few Christian-Muslim) in the funkiest clothes east of Berlin could be observed gyrating the night away to a mixture of American hip-hop, Bollywood, and Arab dance hits. What's wrong with this dynamic is that even if these young people continued their activism in public during daylight hours, they weren't going to attract their generational peers from the city's poorer and largely Shiite southern suburbs, where support is strong for the radical Islamist group Hezbollah, or Party of God.
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