Wednesday, March 16, 2005

What's the connection between Iraq and Lebanon?

From Ezra Klein to Daniel Schorr (subscription required), American members of the commentariat who don't usually pay much attention to Lebanese politics have been falling all over themselves to explain that recent events in Lebanon are the happy fruit of our invasion of Iraq. I appreciate the integrity shown by people normally more prone to criticizing Bush, but I think what they're seeing is the media's template for recent coverage, and not the full picture of what's happening in the Middle East. Writing from Beirut, where she has a better vantage, Annia Ciezadlo debunks this meme:

To Americans desperate for good news from abroad, the Beirut Spring is the apotheosis of a Middle Eastern perestroika. To the White House, and many American pundits, the crowds in Martyrs' Square have vindicated the Bush administration's invasion of Iraq. The image of Iraqis voting freely, so the narrative goes, struck a chord in other Arabs that finally gave them the courage to reach for the prize. NPR's Daniel Schorr argued that President Bush "may have had it right" when he said, "A liberated Iraq can show the power of freedom to transform that vital region." Dennis Ross, writing in the Financial Times, attributed Lebanon's uprising to the "Iraq effect." Washington Post columnist David Ignatius made the same point, citing Lebanese opposition leader Walid Jumblatt, who told Ignatius, "It's strange for me to say it, but this process of change has started because of the American invasion of Iraq. ... When I saw the Iraqi people voting three weeks ago, eight million of them, it was the start of a new Arab world." Jumblatt's quote caromed across the Internet, cropping up on numerous conservative blogs and in other columns. In The New York Times, David Brooks quoted Ignatius quoting Jumblatt and concluded, "People around the Arab world look at voters in Iraq and ask, 'Why not here?'"

There's just one problem. The idea that the Lebanese were inspired by the Iraq war doesn't have much currency in Beirut. "I've never heard it from anybody except Walid Jumblatt," laughs Jamil Mroue, editor-in-chief of Beirut's Daily Star newspaper. "I've heard the Lebanese say, 'What the heck, are [the Syrians] going to take us back to the Stone Age?' They're saying 'Fuck it, we're not going back. And, if it means demonstrating in the streets, and if it means changing the government, then so be it.' But I don't think they thought, 'Oh, the Iraqis voted, so we can, too.'" In actuality, some Lebanese have been struggling for reform for decades, hating their Syrian overlords. "Lebanon has been the only satellite state in the world since the end of the cold war, and no one lifted a finger," says Farid El-Khazen, a political science professor in Beirut. "It was business as usual until 9/11, and U.S.-Syria relations began to deteriorate. Internally, there was a movement all along that pushed for an end to the occupation. ... There is a linkage, if you like, with Iraq, in the sense that American policy has changed toward Syria due to their interference in Iraq. But [the Lebanese opposition] has been going on for a long time."
If you haven't given Lebanon much thought for a while -- which probably includes most us -- then you might think that democracy is a recent innovation there. Not so. As Juan Cole noted, "[t]he Lebanese have been having often lively parliamentary election campaigns for decades. The idea that the urbane and sophisticated Beirutis had anything to learn from the Jan. 30 process in Iraq is absurd on the face of it. Elections were already scheduled in Lebanon for later this spring." Ciezadlo echoes the point. "What has happened in Lebanon ... is fundamentally different from events in other parts of the Middle East. Unlike other Arab states, Lebanon is not a dictatorship and never has been. It already has a civil society and a democratic infrastructure -- the freest press in the region, a long history of relatively free elections, and a tradition of pluralism."

The commentariat also overlooks the fact that Lebanon's parliament is based on an outdated census from 1932, modified only somewhat by the 1989 Taif Accord, ensuring that the Maronite Christians and Druze -- who are touted as the avatars of democracy -- are overrepresented and Shi'ites -- represented by Hezbollah and tending to support Syria's presence, so the opponents of democracy in the recent template -- are underrepresented. As this suggests, the issue in Beirut is not so much democracy as sovereignity; indeed, Ciezadlo quotes El-Khazen saying as much.

Ciezadlo also suggests that the protesters in Beirut drew more inspiration from events in Ukraine than from those in Iraq:

"If there is a model, they're looking at the Ukrainian model," says [Beirut professor] Kulchitsky. "The people here want to preserve their democracy, not to create one. And they want to do it in a peaceful way. I don't think that the Iraqi situation carries the model of a peaceful situation." ... After the [Harari] funeral procession, Letayf and other campus organizers--now the moving force behind downtown Beirut's peaceful sit-in--came to Kulchitsky and asked him to advise them on how the Ukrainians had pulled it off. The professor told them to try to emulate the Ukrainian youth: Keep it peaceful, ban drinking and fighting, camp down at the square to keep attention on them.
Whatever good may have come from Iraq, it's not a very helpful model of mass mobilization. If some kind of democracy succeeds there, it will be have been imported at gunpoint.

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