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A Lesson for Mideast Pundits

By Nora Boustany
Wednesday, March 23, 2005; Page A11

When a group of scholars, researchers and journalists met last December at a spot on the Dead Sea in Jordan to discuss the Middle East, they diagnosed why the region's many authoritarian governments faced so little popular resistance: deficient demand for democracy.

Now, at least one of those experts sees that conclusion as a classic case of intellectuals getting it all wrong. "It turns out it has been suppressed demand, and the demand has become unsuppressed in Lebanon," declared John Waterbury, president of the American University of Beirut, alluding to the massive peaceful protests in Lebanon in recent weeks. He was addressing attendees at the AUB's national Alumni Association of North America gala at the Four Seasons Hotel.

A poster of Rafiq Hariri, the slain former Lebanese prime minister, hung outside a tent as protesters gathered in Beirut last Thursday to demonstrate against Syria. (Kevin Frayer -- AP)

Read Nora Boustany's previous Diplomatic Dispatches columns.

Waterbury has worked in the Middle East as a political scientist since 1960 and became president of the university in 1998. He said pundits liked to predict how the "Arab street" would react to certain developments. "What we are seeing in Lebanon is something different from the street. Something incredibly profound has happened," he said.

Waterbury recalled demonstrations that swept over Casablanca in Morocco in 1965, Egypt's Cairo food riots in 1977 and similar subsequent disturbances in Algeria and Jordan. But the only rival to Beirut in February and March, he said, was what happened in Khartoum in 1964, when demonstrators brought an end to Sudan's military government.

"I always remembered this as one of those rare instances where man bites dog," he said, meaning a rare case of unarmed civilians dislodging a military government.

In Lebanon, he said, cynicism, resignation and emigration trends among graduating students might have changed when the crowds swelled for the funeral procession of Rafiq Hariri, the former prime minister who was assassinated Feb. 14.

"You see it in these young people, written on their faces. They thought they were making a difference," Waterbury said. During last week's demonstration in Beirut against the presence of Syrian troops in Lebanon, his campus of 7,200 students was nearly empty, he said.

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) told gathered alumni that Lebanese leaders "must convert the energy recently displayed on Beirut's streets into constructive purpose. . . . A clear consensus must be reached on how to move forward politically," following discussions to determine the timetable and mechanism to implement reforms, pull out foreign troops and disarm militias.

Davis applauded the role of the Beirut university in breaking down prejudice and democratizing the Middle East. On the question of whether institutions like it might develop in Qatar, Kuwait and Afghanistan, he said: "I believe this model provides an essential element in pursuing a wholesale change in Middle East politics."

Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.) said Lebanon rested on a precarious tipping point. "The mind-expanding, world-class learning at AUB is a catalyst . . . as Lebanon takes the difficult but definite steps to democratic self-governance," he said. " . . . Maybe the stars, sun and moon have aligned so AUB and Lebanon are driving the region's destiny instead of being driven by them."

British Embassy, Staff at Odds

The British Embassy is ready to talk to a union representing its locally hired staff if it calls off threats of legal action aimed at winning the right to negotiate terms of employment. "We are willing to talk if they take their tanks off of our lawn," Peter Hayes, the embassy's head of administration, said on Monday. "Set aside this legal challenge and let us sit down voluntarily."

Hayes said the mission's staff association, now linked to the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, had at least 630 members around the United States, most of them British citizens who were hired locally.

Long-planned revisions in conditions of employment go into effect on April 1. Allegations that the embassy violated the National Labor Relations Act by not bargaining collectively with the union are invalid because the law does not apply to embassy staff members, Hayes argued.

The union disagrees, and says it's not interested in a legal fight. "We would like to sit down and talk rather than go through the courts or anything of that nature," said a union official who spoke on condition of anonymity. The union's director of organization, Andy Banks, has met with officials in London about the dispute.

Hayes said the British Foreign Office had set in motion a modernization of employment standards in all departments. "It became quite clear at the beginning of 2004 we had to make some cuts and revamp employment terms. Until now, 65 was a mandatory retirement age, and we were looking for cheaper and more effective ways to modernize across the board, in how we did our banking, for example," Hayes said.

"This institution has been resistant to change," he said. " . . . We needed some fundamental changes. What we have had was not good use of our taxpayers' money." Employees long had automatic salary increases, but as of April 1, the embassy will move to "performance pay" and more modern pension schemes, Hayes said. Sixteen embassy staff members were given incentives to leave over the past year.

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