As thousands of Arabs demonstrated for freedom and democracy in Beirut and Cairo last week, and the desperate dictators of Syria and Egypt squirmed under domestic and international pressure, it was hard not to wonder whether the regional transformation that the Bush administration hoped would be touched off by its invasion of Iraq is, however tentatively, beginning to happen.
Those who have declared the war an irretrievable catastrophe have been gloating for at least a year over the supposed puncturing of what they portray as President Bush's fanciful illusion that democracy would take root in Iraq and spread through the region. They may yet be proved right. But how, then, to explain the tens of thousands who marched through Beirut last Monday carrying red and white roses and scarves -- the colors of what they call the "independence intifada" -- and calling for "freedom, independence and sovereignty" from neighboring Syria? Or the hundreds of Egyptian protesters who gathered that same day at Cairo University, in defiance of thousands of police officers, to chant the slogan of "kifaya," or "enough," at 76-year-old President Hosni Mubarak?
(Lebanese Citizens Protest Last Monday Where Former Prime Minist)
The best evidence that something is happening comes from the autocrats themselves. Mubarak, under mounting pressure from the Egyptian political elite, on Saturday abandoned his plan to extend his term in office through an uncontested referendum later this year. Instead he announced that the constitution would be changed to allow for a multiple-candidate election for president. His most credible liberal challenger, Ayman Nour, remains in jail on trumped-up charges, and Mubarak's reform may prove to be little more than a ruse. But the old autocrat's attempt to crush the opposition movement Nour helped to create has clearly backfired, forcing him to improvise.
Syrian President Bashar Assad looks even more desperate. Last week his regime issued a new promise to redeploy its troops in Lebanon, trying to deflect the growing pressure of both the U.N. Security Council and a newly united Lebanese opposition. Assad, like Mubarak, hoped the elimination of his most likely liberal adversary, former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri, would stop an incipient freedom movement. Instead, he has touched off one of the largest demonstrations of "people power" in the modern history of the Arab Middle East. It's not over: A general strike is scheduled for today.
These are autocrats whose regimes had remained unaltered, and unchallenged, for decades. There has been no political ferment in Damascus since the 1960s, or in Cairo since the 1950s. Now, within weeks of Iraq's elections, Mubarak and Assad are tacking with panicked haste between bold acts of repression, which invite an international backlash, and big promises of reform -- which also may backfire, if they prove to be empty. They could yet survive; but quite clearly, the Arab autocrats don't regard the Bush dream of democratic dominoes as fanciful.
The Lebanese uprising is far more advanced than that of Egypt. But Mubarak has taken the boldest action, in part because he has almost as much to fear as Assad from the Beirut intifada. A forced Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon might spell the downfall of the Assad dynasty in Damascus. Either way, in the absence of Syrian coercion, the Lebanese parliamentary election in May would become the third free democratic vote in the Arab world this year. That would make it politically impossible for Mubarak to extend his own tenure by patently undemocratic means.
Mubarak's dramatic announcement on Saturday was an effort to preempt that problem. But Egypt's "kifaya" movement -- which has been demanding a democratic presidential election in unprecedented and rapidly growing demonstrations -- won't be satisfied if the proposed reform doesn't allow candidates like Nour to challenge Mubarak, and on a playing field leveled by the lifting of emergency laws and restrictions on the media. For now, Nour is still in jail; until he is released, Mubarak's concession to democracy will have no credibility.
Virtually no one in Washington expected such a snowballing of events following Iraq's elections. Not many yet believe that they will lead to real democracy in Egypt, Lebanon or Syria anytime soon. But it is a fact of history that the collapse of a rotted political order usually happens quickly, and takes most of the experts by surprise. In early 1989 I surveyed a panoply of West German analysts about the chances that the then-incipient and barely noticed unrest in Eastern Europe could lead to the collapse of the Berlin Wall. None thought it possible; most laughed at me for asking the question.
If a Middle East transformation begins to gather momentum, it probably will be more messy, and the results more ambiguous, than those European revolutions. It also won't be entirely Bush's creation: The tinder for ignition has been gathering around the stagnant and corrupt autocracies of the Middle East for years. Still, less than two years after Saddam Hussein was deposed, the fact is that Arabs are marching for freedom and shouting slogans against tyrants in the streets of Beirut and Cairo -- and regimes that have endured for decades are visibly tottering. Those who claimed that U.S. intervention could never produce such events have reason to reconsider.