2016-07-27
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.

Indeed, as "Martyr's Square" has become the in place to meet friends and hang out before hitting the clubs (the organizers have even taken to putting up giant screens that give the grounds the feeling of a rock concert or night club) the inability or even lack of desire to attract their Hezbollah compatriots is not just a problem, it's also a shame. And it's a missed opportunity, because in many ways the emerging activist culture of Hezbollah holds the key to building a free and democratic Lebanon.

Unless the club-kids and the Hezbollah activists find a way to work together toward a common future--one built not just on "democracy" in its formal sense, but on tolerance and respect for culture and ethno-religious differences--there will be little chance for a successful democracy movement to emerge in Lebanon.


Americans know of Hezbollah primarily because of its role in the bombings of the Marine barracks in 1983 and its long guerrilla war against Israel. For these activities it is often labeled a terrorist organization; but while the movement remains closely aligned to Iran and has much blood on its hands, Hezbollah is much more than a militant resistance movement prone to use terrorism to advance its strategic agenda.

At present, Hezbollah can best be described as a socio-religious movement. Its primary activity since the withdrawal of Israeli forces from southern Lebanon in 2000 has been the creation of grassroots social-service networks that have filled a void left by a Lebanese state that has been both unwilling and unable to deliver essential services to the majority of its citizens. In a country whose infrastructure remains dilapidated from decades of corruption and fighting, Hezbollah's politicians are widely regarded as honest and effective.

Moreover, although the movement is in many respects deeply religiously conservative, women play a crucial role in its ranks and mission, in the process carving out a significant space for themselves in the burgeoning Shiite public sphere. And so while the "Gucci girls" of downtown Beirut strive for greater personal and social freedom, their poorer and historically marginalized, oppressed sisters to the south have become much more visible publicly through the establishment of innumerable Hezbollah community welfare and charitable organizations.

It is clear that the model of these organizations can help shape not just the Shiite public sphere but that of Lebanon at large. But this will only occur if two other developments take place: first, as American and European leaders have urged, Hezbollah must complete the transformation from an armed resistance movement to a political force by renouncing violence and turning over its weapons. As important, however, the motivations for its vast social-services system need to move beyond the sectarian Shiite themes such as the Ashura story (which commemorates the martyrdom of the Shiite Imam Husayn) and emulating the steadfast and heroic behavior of Husayn's sister Zaynab after his death, to offering a broader civic model for Lebanese society as a whole. Only such a program can encourage the personal and communal sacrifices necessary to achieve the levels of freedom, democracy, and justice that are at the core of the protesters' agenda--whether it's the secular kids who gather on Monday or the young Hezbollah supporters on Wednesday.

In this way, what Hezbollah activists describe as "takaful ijtima'i," or "mutual social responsibility or solidarity" (an important Muslim and especially Shiite precept) can be broadened from its Shiite context and help to realize the prospects of healing Lebanon's fractured economic and political landscape. If such a transformation could occur in Lebanon, it can occur across the region. But that kind of seismic political shift could well spawn religiously inspired or led movements whose perspective might be anathema to European and American political and cultural norms. How would Washington, for example, react to a Hezbollah-controlled Lebanon?

This raises the question of where the United States fits into the democracy equation in Lebanon and across the Muslim majority world. The Bush administration's professed agenda is to nurture political change in the Middle East. But to do so with any credibility among Muslims, Washington must support democracy across the region without exception. That would mean tolerance for challenges by--from an American perspective, unpalatable--grassroots movements to autocratic governments with close political ties to Washington, like those of Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Indeed, given the history of U.S. support for corrupt, antidemocratic regimes, leaders of the emerging Muslim "independence intifadas" are unlikely to look to Washington for moral and political support as Eastern Europeans did a generation ago and more recently in Ukraine.

Nevertheless, most Muslim activists will try to take full advantage of the space created by President Bush's democracy rhetoric to advance their communal or national interests. What is less clear is whether the ethnic, cultural, and religious communities in the Muslim world can reach beyond their significant differences with one another to work for a common future, and whether U.S. "support" or "interference" (depending on one's point of view) will help or hinder this process.

Can the Bush administration tolerate a democracy movement whose interests conflict with and even threaten its own? Finally, can Americans and Middle Easterners--Christians, Muslims, and Jews--follow the example of some brave young people in Lebanon, many of them religiously devout women, and use the most positive role models and theological concepts of their respective traditions to build a just, peaceful, and democratic future?

The entire world has a stake in how these questions are answered.

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