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Richard Cohen

Middle East Side Story

By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, March 1, 2005; Page A15

At the moment it seems the semi-official composer for the Middle East is, of all people, Leonard Bernstein. The song I have in mind is his "Something's Coming" from "West Side Story," which, with Stephen Sondheim's lyrics conveying a sense of anxious anticipation -- "Could it be? Yes, it could/Something's coming, something good" -- announces that something momentous is stirring: democracy, freedom, independence. Something. Or, as an Arab acquaintance just e-mailed me from the region, "I can smell the winds of change in the air wherever I go." Alas, because he is a businessman, he does words, not music.

But the music is unmistakable. In Saudi Arabia, where I spent several days last week, itsy-bitsy municipal elections are being held -- not Jeffersonian democracy, I grant you, but eventful enough that one man I talked with insisted on taking his little boy to the polls. History was being made, he strongly felt.

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In Egypt, the country's perpetual and eternal president, Hosni Mubarak, announced that he would amend the constitution so that he might have opposition when he runs for reelection. Normally he ekes out a victory with about 90 percent of the vote. Next time -- who knows?

Even in Syria, the regime -- maybe the region's most goonish -- has recently showed signs of accommodation. It first announced that it would someday pull its troops out of Lebanon (just not yet, if you please) and then arrested Saddam Hussein's half-brother, Sabawi Ibrahim Hassan, and 29 other desperados who allegedly have been financing and directing the insurgency in their native Iraq.

There's more. The Palestinians held a free election and so, importantly, did the Iraqis, and both were seen by anyone in the region with a TV set and a satellite dish -- which is to say almost everyone. Those viewers might have wondered -- they must have wondered -- why the same could not be done in their own countries. Finally, Lebanese Christians, Muslims and Druze, once at each other's throats, have apparently united in the effort to boot Syria out of their country.

Given what's happening, it's understandable that many eyes have shifted to Washington with a new sense of appreciation. Could it be that the neocons were right and that the invasion of Iraq, the toppling of Hussein and the holding of elections will trigger a political chain reaction throughout the Arab world? It would be the Middle East equivalent of what happened in Eastern Europe when the Soviet Union finally sank to its knees, took one last breath and crumbled.

Maybe. But what's instructive about Saudi Arabia is that it reminds you that the Middle East is not Eastern Europe. Saudi Arabia announces its cultural differences in dress and custom. You know you're in a different place. In the rest of the region, you are more likely to find people dressed in the ubiquitous American uniform -- jeans, T-shirt -- which leads you to believe that an important cultural gulf has been bridged.

But the Western clothes can be a disguise, more impenetrable in some cases than the black abayas worn by Saudi women. They are a feint that, coupled with familiar-sounding words -- democracy, freedom -- leads you to believe that we're all talking about the same things. Yet, vast swaths of the Middle East remain tribal, riven by sectarian enmities that are hard to fathom. This is emphatically not Eastern Europe, where in some cases democracies were restored, not created out of whole cloth, and where draconian population shifts had largely eliminated the region's version of tribalism. In a word, Cairo is not Warsaw -- and the Iranian revolution proves that reactionaries want change, too.

When Baghdad fell and the statue of Hussein in Firdaus Square was initially draped with an American flag, the crowd went sullen -- an early and unmistakable sign that the United States was not going to be universally greeted as a liberator. Now some of us may be prematurely celebrating the changes in the Arab world, possibly mistaking them for what has happened in quite different places. No doubt, to summon Bernstein and Sondheim once again, "something's coming" -- but, believe me, it may not be what we expect.

cohenr@washpost.com


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