Published: March 1, 2005
It‘s not even spring yet, but a long-frozen political order seems to be cracking all over the Middle East. Cautious hopes for something new and better are stirring along the Tigris and the Nile, the elegant boulevards of Beirut, and the impoverished towns of the Gaza Strip. It is far too soon for any certainties about ultimate outcomes. In Iraq, a brutal insurgency still competes for headlines with post-election democratic maneuvering. Yesterday a suicide bomber plowed into a crowd of Iraqi police and Army recruits, killing at least 122 people - the largest death toll in a single such bombing since the American invasion nearly two years ago. And the Palestinian terrorists who blew up a Tel Aviv nightclub last Friday underscored the continuing fragility of what has now been almost two months of steady political and diplomatic progress between Israelis and Palestinians.
Still, this has so far been a year of heartening surprises - each one remarkable in itself, and taken together truly astonishing. The Bush administration is entitled to claim a healthy share of the credit for many of these advances. It boldly proclaimed the cause of Middle East democracy at a time when few in the West thought it had any realistic chance. And for all the negative consequences that flowed from the American invasion of Iraq, there could have been no democratic elections there this January if Saddam Hussein had still been in power. Washington‘s challenge now lies in finding ways to nurture and encourage these still fragile trends without smothering them in a triumphalist embrace.
Lebanon‘s political reawakening took a significant new turn yesterday when popular protests brought down the pro-Syrian government of Prime Minister Omar Karami. Syria‘s occupation of Lebanon, nearly three decades long, started tottering after the Feb. 14 assassination of the country‘s leading independent politician, the former prime minister Rafik Hariri.
If Damascus had a hand in this murder, as many Lebanese suspect, it had a boomerang effect on Lebanon‘s politics. Instead of intimidating critics of Syria‘s dominant role, it inflamed them. To stem the growing backlash over the Hariri murder, last week Syria announced its intentions to pull back its occupation forces to a region near the border - although without offering any firm timetable. Yesterday, with protests continuing, the pro-Syrian cabinet resigned. Washington, in an unusual alliance with France, continues to press for full compliance with the Security Council‘s demand for an early and complete Syrian withdrawal. That needs to happen promptly. Once Syria is gone, Hezbollah, which has engaged in international terrorism under Syrian protection, must either confine itself to peaceful political activity or be shut down.
Last weekend‘s surprise announcement of plans to hold at least nominally competitive presidential elections in Egypt could prove even more historic, although many of the specific details seem likely to be disappointing. Egypt is the Arab world‘s most populous country and one of its most politically influential. In more than five millenniums of recorded history, it has never seen a truly free and competitive election.
To be realistic, Egypt isn‘t likely to see one this year either. For all his talk of opening up the process, President Hosni Mubarak, 76, is likely to make sure that no threatening candidates emerge to deny him a fifth six-year term. But after seeing more than eight million Iraqis choose their leaders in January, Egypt‘s voters, and its increasingly courageous opposition movement, will no longer retreat into sullen hopelessness so readily. The Bush administration has helped foster that feeling of hope for a democratic future by keeping the pressure on Mr. Mubarak. But the real heroes are on-the-ground patriots like Ayman Nour, who founded a new party aptly named Tomorrow last October and is now in jail. If Mr. Mubarak truly wants more open politics, he should free Mr. Nour promptly.
It is similarly encouraging that the terrorists who attacked a Tel Aviv nightclub on Friday, killing five Israelis, have not yet managed to completely scuttle the new peace dynamic between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Israel contends that those terrorists were sponsored by Syria, but its soldiers reported discovering an explosives-filled car in the West Bank yesterday. The good news is that the leaders on both sides did not instantly retreat to familiar corners in angry rejectionism. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the new Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, have proved they can work together to thwart terrorism and deny terrorists an instant veto over progress toward a negotiated peace.
Over the past two decades, as democracies replaced police states across Central and Eastern Europe and Latin America, and a new economic dynamism lifted hundreds of millions of eastern and southern Asia out of poverty and into the middle class, the Middle East stagnated in a perverse time warp that reduced its brightest people to hopelessness or barely contained rage. The wonder is less that a new political restlessness is finally visible, but that it took so long to break through the ice.