The road here from Damascus last week was a billboard for democracy, quite literally. The moment you crossed the border, you saw huge posters touting the various candidates in this month's parliamentary elections, and the banners continued every hundred yards or so over the mountains and down to the sea.

It's easy to sentimentalize democracy, especially in an Arab world that sees too little of it. And I found it impossible during my visit not to get caught up in the excitement of the freewheeling Lebanese election debate. On television you could see Shiite, Sunni, Christian and Druze leaders exchanging tactical embraces as they jockeyed for position. Watching Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah invoke an old enemy, the late Maronite warlord Bashir Gemayel, in a speech at a political rally, you couldn't help but wonder if you had died and gone to democratic heaven.

But an unsentimental discussion of Arab democracy must begin with recognition that we haven't reached the promised land quite yet. Even in Lebanon, the freest and most liberal country in the Arab world, politics are still sharply bounded by religious and sectarian loyalties.

This clannish side of democracy was clear in last Sunday's third round of the Lebanese balloting. The "surprise" winner in the Christian heartland of Mount Lebanon was Michel Aoun, a tough former army general. He had campaigned on a reformist, anti-corruption platform, but Christians seemed to view him above all as a man who could protect them from other religious communities.

It shouldn't have been a surprise that Christian voters turned to Aoun. Even in this Arab Spring of democracy, other Lebanese ethnic groups have been rallying around their warlords, too. The Sunnis won a big victory in the first round in Beirut by embracing their articulate new clan leader, Saad Hariri, the son of their martyred patriarch, Rafiq Hariri. The second round in south Lebanon went to the Shiites, whose Hezbollah and Amal militias put aside bitter differences for the sake of Shiite unity. In Sunday's voting, the Druze held power in their part of the mountains by sticking with their "reformist" warlord, Walid Jumblatt.

A clear-eyed account of Arab democracy would also note that the Lebanon balloting was similar to Iraq's much-touted elections on Jan. 30. The world was rightly moved when 8 million Iraqis braved the threat of death to cast their ballots. But that drama shouldn't blind anyone to the fact that the Iraqi voters were overwhelmingly Shiite Muslims, aiming to lock in their group's majority power, and that many of them had been told by Shiite clerics that if they didn't vote for the winning slate endorsed by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani they would suffer damnation. The Iraqi vote was a triumph for democracy, but also for sectarian loyalty.

A blunt summary of the Lebanese political situation comes from Ali Fayyad, the research director of the Hezbollah militia. "We are still a country of 'us' and 'them,' " he told me Friday in his office in the well-guarded Shiite enclave in Beirut's southern suburbs. "This is a reality. But we do not like it, we do not want it, and we want to move past it."

Most other Lebanese groups would probably say much the same thing. They know they are caught in a world dominated by primordial loyalties of sect and tribe. They hope to break out of this world -- indeed, I think that, like most Arabs, they want passionately to leave the past and enter a modern and tolerant future. But in the meantime, they must protect themselves.

Almost transcending these sectarian loyalties, but not quite, are the claims of national citizenship. Lebanese felt a common outrage when Hariri was murdered in February. They feel a common sense of liberation now that Syrian occupation troops have left the country. They share a strong Lebanese identity. The problem is that other claims are stronger still.

Last Thursday night I attended a memorial service for journalist Samir Kassir, who bravely continued to write columns in the Beirut newspaper An Nahar calling for Syrian withdrawal until the day he was murdered. His friends lit candles at the spot where a bomb had exploded under his car a week before. I saw Sunnis, Shiites, Christians and Druze friends among the crowd of mourners. Indeed, this was a moment when clan loyalties truly didn't seem to matter. People gathered around the crater in the pavement and sang the Lebanese national anthem -- loudly, defiantly and in one voice.

Kassir was a martyr for an Arab world that will someday be free and democratic. You can see it coming, but even in Lebanon, it is not here yet.

davidignatius@washpost.com