Voting for new Middle East order

Nicolas Rothwell , May 22, 2005 , The Australian

WHEN Lebanese voters go to the polls this weekend in the first phase of their country’s parliamentary elections, the impact will resonate far beyond the avenues of rebuilt Beirut and the souks of Tripoli.

The voting system may be imperfect, the campaigning may be centred on the creation of alliances of convenience, but this election marks the democratic end game of a remarkable popular revolution.

The effect upon neighbouring Syria, which has just completed its reluctant troop withdrawal from Lebanese soil, will be profound, while the remainder of the Arab world may once more begin to take its political lead from Lebanon.

For the US and France, the two half-declared international sponsors of the Lebanese uprising, the successful outcome of their pressure campaign on Syria suggests that persuasive diplomacy may trump force as a weapon in the struggle to promote Middle Eastern reform.

And for Israel, Lebanon’s southern neighbour and former occupier, the end of the era of virtual Syrian control may once more raise hopes of a comprehensive peace with the next government in Beirut.

Already the vote, which will unfold throughout June in Lebanon’s different regions, is being viewed by local observers as a signal moment in the shaping of a new Middle Eastern order.

At the World Economic Forum meeting in Jordan on the weekend, Jordan’s King Abdullah suggested a key phase of opportunity for political reform had arrived, but that reform needed to be grasped and developed by Arabs themselves.

“Never has there been a greater sense of agreement that the future is in our hands, said the Jordanian king: “Today, positive change is in the air across the region. It is an effort for the whole Middle East to create its own positive change. That demands a real-world process, specific steps that can be implemented by regional governments and civil society.”

Lebanon’s “cedar revolution” – a season of street protests following the February assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri – is increasingly being viewed by Arab commentators as a cardinal instance of civil society rising up and destroying the credibility of the political class.

In the wake of the vast demonstrations that gripped Beirut, the colourless pro-Syrian government was obliged to resign and a caretaker administration oversaw the transformation of Lebanese public life.

Key exiled leaders have returned, and the conditions for a successful reshaping of Lebanon’s role as the mediating point between the Arab and Western worlds are better today than they have been for a generation.

The speed of this change has not been lost on other Arab states. Governments from Cairo to Kuwait have begun making concessions to their democracy activists, while authoritarian regimes have been shaken by the complete collapse of Syria’s quasi-colonial position of political control in Beirut.

It would be too much to expect a comparable social convulsion in the Syrian capital, where a crucial congress of the ruling Baath Party unfolds next month, but the mood is distinctly restive.

This correspondent was approached cold on the street in Damascus on the weekend by a Syrian passer-by. “Dr Bashar (President Bashar al-Assad) is making the country hungry,” he declared, a look of stricken terror on his face, and melted away. This level of overt dissent is something new in the realm of the Syrian Baath party-state.

Assad’s powerbase has been quickly redrawn in the past month, since the completion of his army’s withdrawal from Lebanon, and he is now more reliant than ever on members of his own Alawi religious minority. The Lebanese vote, by both its proximity and its sheer complexity and openness, will send a strong message to the Syrian public about the degrees of freedom they are denied.

For Washington, there is a temptation to draw a different lesson from the Lebanese vote. How easy to jump to the conclusion that the Lebanese, for all their sharp sectarian divisions, are natural democrats, half within the penumbra of the Western electoral tradition!

How easy, too, to read the weekend vote as a marker of the success of US President George W. Bush’s advocacy of far-reaching Arab world political reforms. In fact, Lebanon’s political trajectory is still to be shaped, and its capacity to transcend its internal divisions is not yet proven.

One striking aspect of the “cedar revolution” was its eastern European flavour: its principles descended from the anti-communist street protests of 1989 and the more recent upheavals of 2004 in Ukraine and Georgia.

The backing of French President Jacques Chirac and European political leaders for the Beirut protests, as well as the fierce condemnation by a UN investigation team of Syria’s part in the Hariri murder, acted to strengthen the movement for reform.

This strongly suggests that US diplomatic and military pressure can be usefully supplemented in the Middle Eastern context by the “soft power” of European example.

Perhaps the least certain aspect of Lebanon’s future is its diplomatic place. Surrounded on almost all sides by Syria, it will inevitably have to maintain a relationship with its former overlord.

But it has another neighbour that knows Lebanon well, having invaded it a generation ago: Israel. Factional leaders in Lebanon make strong play of their deep hostility towards Israel, and much of the southern part of the country appears traumatised by memory of the period when Israel maintained a “buffer state” in the far south – it was only wound up in 2000.

Nevertheless, a separate peace between Israel and a newly democratic Lebanon, brokered by Washington, struck in the context of progress in relations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, would mark a crucial step forward in the Jerusalem Government’s search for integration into the Arab domain. Since it would also shift the Lebanese centre of gravity away from Syria, it could prove welcome to a new group of moderate leaders in Beirut.

All these scenarios depend on the outcome of the current round of voting – but even more on the identity of the future Lebanese president, once the current incumbent, discredited Syrian placeman Emile Lahoud, has been shuffled off the stage.

The cedar revolution reaches its apogee in the forthcoming election process, but the reinvention of Lebanon still has a long way to run.