A Loss of Momentum

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

AFEW MONTHS ago the Bush administration had reason to hope that a spring of freedom might be beginning in the Middle East. What's occurring, however, looks more like a stagnant summer. Iraq's successful election has given way to prolonged political jockeying that endangers the tight timetable for a new constitution and permanent government. The promising announcement by Egypt's Hosni Mubarak of multi-candidate presidential elections has begun to look like a sham. Palestinians have followed up a successful presidential election in January by postponing legislative elections that were scheduled for July and that were to have included the Islamic opposition for the first time.

Perhaps the greatest letdown has occurred in Lebanon, where hundreds of thousands of citizens electrified the region with unprecedented demonstrations for independence and freedom in February and March. With the help of the U.N. Security Council, the United States and France, the protests forced Syrian troops to withdraw from Lebanon and enabled parliamentary elections without fraud or overt outside interference. But Syrian meddling continues -- and the elections themselves, which began May 29 and are being held in several rounds, have been a disappointment. In some areas, open competition between political parties gave way to deal-cutting that foreordained most results and so depressed turnout. In others, a split between opposition leaders had the perverse effect of strengthening pro-Syrian factions that most voters oppose. Consequently, though Lebanon will soon have a new government, it's not clear whether it will complete the political revolution that many of the marchers hoped for.

At best, the parties that supported the Syrian withdrawal will hold a majority in the new parliament and choose a prime minister untainted by collaboration with Syria. That has been the clear mandate of the electorate so far -- though the result was muddied by the decision of a populist former general, Michel Aoun, to break with the rest of the opposition. Mr. Aoun's ticket swept some predominantly Christian areas of Lebanon on Sunday even though it included several of Syria's closest Lebanese allies. He has dissented from the opposition plan to force the removal of President Emile Lahoud, a Syrian puppet whose term in office was illegally extended last year. That pro-Syrian forces remain dangerous was bloodily demonstrated this month when a leading anti-Syrian journalist, Samir Kassir, was assassinated; the Bush administration believes Syria has a hit list of other political targets.

The curtailment of Syrian influence would open the way to what would be an even more challenging Lebanese internal reform. The country's political system is hamstrung by a 60-year-old deal that divides the top political posts and seats in parliament by religious sect. At least 35 seats in the 128-member chamber will end up in the hands of an alliance including the militant Islamic movement Hezbollah, which refuses to disarm its militia and serves as a paid military proxy for Iran and Syria. If they are to keep faith with the citizens who clamored for change, Lebanese politicians must find the will to build a new political system that will expand democracy by relaxing the old quotas. They must also persuade Hezbollah to disarm and become an ordinary political party.

The Bush administration, which worked successfully with France to push Syrian troops out of Lebanon, will find it harder to influence post-election developments -- though a Security Council resolution mandating Hezbollah's disarmament provides leverage. That disarmament, like Syrian withdrawal, would serve U.S. strategic aims. But the administration should not lose sight of the larger goal of full democratization, even if that risks strengthening anti-American forces in the short term. If Lebanon's popular revolution falls short, other Arab societies will be discouraged from following suit.


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