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Jackson Diehl

A Tenuous Mideast Spring

By Jackson Diehl
Tuesday, April 19, 2005; Page A19

BEIRUT -- The crowds were out in the streets here again last week, flocking to Martyrs' Square, headquarters for Lebanon's "independence" movement for the past two months. The occasion was the 30th anniversary of the beginning of the country's devastating civil war, but the mood was festive: Parents led their children by the hand through thousands of young people who waved red-and-white Lebanese flags and danced in the streets as a popular singer belted out patriotic songs. Hundreds waited to pay tribute at the grave of Rafiq Hariri, whose assassination launched the uprising; nearby, the outdoor cafes and restaurants he built over the war's rubble overflowed. The festival was organized in the name of Lebanese "unity" -- and among these people, at least, it felt as if the mass movement that has arisen here, demanding an end to domination by Syria and the creation of a genuine democracy, was still going strong.

But the politics of this Arab Spring are not that simple, either here or in the other countries where change is stirring. The old autocracies, though on the defensive, haven't given up: In Lebanon, as in Egypt and in the Palestinian territories, they are maneuvering to postpone or rig the democratic elections that are scheduled in the next six months. Powerful Islamic movements -- Lebanon's Hezbollah, Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood and the Palestinian Hamas -- waver over an embrace of democratic politics while trying to preserve their violent options. Outside actors, including the United States, grope for the best means to apply their leverage.

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Lebanon, like much of the Middle East, seems to teeter between a historic political breakthrough and the restoration of a slightly modified status quo. "Is this the beginning of a spring of freedom, or will it be one of those desert mirages that the Middle East is known for?" asked the Egyptian opposition leader Saad Eddin Ibrahim. He answered: "It's not a mirage. But whether it's a full-fledged spring, I'm not sure."

Ibrahim spoke at a U.S.-Islamic conference I attended in Doha, Qatar, sponsored by the Qatari government and Washington's Brookings Institution, which brought together government officials, political activists and thinkers. They described autocracies working to mend a ruptured status quo at minimal cost to themselves, but also populations genuinely divided over the direction of change. Some also reported the beginnings of a turnaround in attitudes toward the United States, which were at rock-bottom a year ago: The Bush administration, they said, had bolstered its image and influence through the elections in Iraq, its encouragement of elected Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and its vocal support for opposition leaders in Egypt and Lebanon.

The biggest problem, said Egyptian political scientist Mohammed Kamal, is that "a big section of the public opinion is still hostile to reform, especially economic reform. The old lives with the new. That's why you have some regimes taking reform measures and anti-reform measures at the same time."

That is especially true in Lebanon, where the success of the "independence uprising" and its backers in Washington and Paris in forcing a Syrian military withdrawal has precipitated a more complicated struggle over how the country should govern itself. The opposition would make real a formal parliamentary democracy by insisting that elections due by the end of May go forward, a step that probably would disempower the segment of the Lebanese political elite that has been most subservient to Damascus. As that elite struggles to hold on -- and to delay the elections -- it frankly argues that Lebanon's fragile stability will be endangered if it places itself at the forefront of a Middle East Spring. "Why should we play the role of laboratory?" a senior government security official argued to me. "Is it a priority to join the American strategy of democracy, or to seek stability, even if it is only a temporary stability?"

Over the weekend the opposition appeared to gain a tactical advantage: A hard-line candidate for prime minister directly backed by Syria lost out to the more moderate Najib Mikati, a friend of Syrian President Bashar Assad who nevertheless promised to hold the elections on time. "The plan for the Middle East that the Americans are selling is a plan the Lebanese have had for a long time," Mikati told me as he prepared to form what he said would be a centrist government. "Now for the first time in our history we have the opportunity. And each of us has to ask ourselves, are we ready and capable to govern ourselves, yes or no?"

The Bush administration has been pushing hard for those elections, but as the situation grows cloudier so do U.S. interests. An "opposition" victory, after all, would empower not champions of human rights but many of the same warlords who fought the civil war. The Hezbollah movement, too, will gain strength -- and a new government is unlikely to press it to disarm its Islamic militia or withdraw the scores of missiles it has aimed at Israel.

That's not the outcome that many of the young people who joined the movement in Martyrs' Square imagined. "We wanted to sweep the old order away entirely," one thirtyish intellectual told me. "Now it looks as if in the end, much of it will still be there."

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