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The Autocrats' Answer

Tuesday, March 8, 2005; Page A14

THE RESISTANCE of Arab dictators to the swelling popular movement for democratic change in the Middle East remains formidable. Yesterday Syrian leader Bashar Assad launched his latest effort to stop Lebanon's "independence uprising," beginning a partial redeployment -- but not a withdrawal -- of Syria's occupying army, even as his strongest Lebanese ally, the Hezbollah party, prepared its own mass demonstrations in defense of the political status quo. In Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak has obtained unanimous approval from one chamber of his rubber-stamp legislature for his new plan for presidential elections; ignoring the proposals of the democratic opposition, it creates the facade but not the substance of democracy. Both rulers hope their maneuvering will serve to deflect pressure from the outside world and their own people while preserving their tottering autocracies. Real change will require more pressure on them, both from inside and out.

Of the two, Mr. Assad's position looks weaker. Tens of thousands of Lebanese again rallied yesterday in Beirut's Martyrs' Square -- which they have renamed "Freedom Square" -- and joined most foreign governments in rejecting the Syrian redeployment plan. Not just the United States, France and the U.N. Security Council, but key Arab states such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan have joined in demanding that Mr. Assad withdraw all troops from Lebanon, in accordance with U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559, in time for Lebanon's parliamentary elections in May. In Hezbollah, however, Mr. Assad has a powerful ally. The party, backed by both Syria and Iran, commands substantial support from Lebanese Shiites and controls a militia capable of reigniting the civil war that devastated the country in the 1970s and '80s. The old forces of the Middle East -- founded on autocracy, Islamic extremism and terrorism -- are facing off in Lebanon against its brand-new one, based on liberal values and peaceful "people power."

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The struggle in Egypt is less dramatic: There, a diffuse and persecuted opposition elite is looking for the means to make real Mr. Mubarak's dramatic, but so far hollow, promise of a competitive election this year. So far, the democrats are failing. Mr. Mubarak's "reform" allows only candidates from officially recognized parties; any others must obtain approval from 762 elected officials, most of them members of the president's own party. The only potential legal candidate who has strongly opposed a new term for the 76-year-old ruler, Ayman Nour, is still in jail on trumped-up charges. And Mr. Mubarak has ignored the opposition's calls to allow access to the state-controlled media or lift emergency laws that prevent campaigning by opposition candidates.

The Bush administration's response to the autocrats' maneuvering has been strikingly uneven. The president and his aides have mounted an all-out campaign to pressure Mr. Assad, issuing daily statements and mobilizing allies. But since cautiously welcoming Mr. Mubarak's announcement of multiparty elections, they have been all but silent as the superficial nature of the reform has emerged. Once again Mr. Bush risks appearing to press for democratic change only where it is convenient for the United States, while issuing a pass to nominal allies. But if the incipient democratic movement in the Middle East is to gain traction, the United States must press for change where it matters most -- as in Egypt -- and not just where it is easiest.

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