A Better Model Than Beirut

March 31, 2005

In Beirut, Baghdad, Ramallah, Cairo and, yes, Riyadh, the pace of politics in the once-somnolent Arab Middle East is making even seasoned observers dizzy. The Beirut Spring in particular captured the world’s imagination by displaying all the hallmarks of a people-power velvet revolution: multicultural crowds, students sleeping in tents in the city square, sympathetic police helping marchers evade roadblocks. Some believe that the peaceful demonstrations that brought down the Lebanese government this past month signal the cracking of the region’s autocratic edifice, the end of Arab rulers’ ability to smother popular discontent or coopt dissenters into submission.

But those who hope that Lebanon will play the role of catalyst for a regional democratic awakening may be looking in the wrong place. For a variety of reasons, Lebanon’s demonstrations, though they surprised and stirred Arab observers, are not likely to be emulated in other Arab capitals. There is, however, an emerging model that speaks volumes to aspiring Arab democrats—in the Palestinian territories to the south. If the Palestinian experiment survives the spring, its reverberations may prove more powerful than the chanted slogans from the streets of Beirut.

Many Arabs view Lebanon as a regional exception—its volatile ethnic mix, its close ties to Europe and its relative cultural liberality have long set Lebanon apart from its neighbors. But even beyond this, Lebanon’s demonstrations fail to resonate widely with Arabs elsewhere in the region because of what they are. The Lebanese opposition labeled this past month’s actions its “independence intifada,” not its democracy intifada. The demonstrators have demanded the free exercise of Lebanese sovereignty—independent of the influence of their domineering neighbor, Syria. Although compromised by sectarian bargaining and Syria’s heavy hand, Lebanon’s democratic tradition is among the most developed in the Arab world. The Lebanese demonstrators have a problem with Syria. That’s not a message that speaks to Arabs elsewhere, because the primary barrier to democracy they face is not an outside power’s diktat but rather indigenous dictatorship

What’s happening in the Palestinian territories, by contrast, could be a real jolt to political realities elsewhere in the Arab world. After the death of their longtime leader, Yasser Arafat, Palestinians chose a successor through an open, contested election—despite continued Israeli military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza. This fact, especially in close proximity to the Iraqi elections, was a clear challenge to Arab leaders who tell their citizens that the need for stability trumps any exercise in political participation. If Iraqis and Palestinians could have free elections under such unfavorable conditions, some Arab commentators asked, why can’t we? To compound the power of their action, Palestinians chose as their new president a man who took a clear stance on the major divide in his society—a stance that rejected violence against Israel as a means to free his homeland. Democracy produced not just a legitimate leader but a moderate one.

As they prepare for more municipal elections in April and legislative balloting in July, Palestinians are debating the problem of official corruption, the proper role of security services in a democratic state and the legacy of one-party dominance of political life—problems with which most other Arabs are intimately familiar. If the tentative cease-fire now in place takes hold, the next question will be how to remove violence from the political stage and integrate Palestine’s radical Islamist movements into mainstream politics. This, too, is a key concern for Arabs across the region, especially secular liberals who are at the core of the pro-democracy movement.

Palestinians come to their democratic struggle with determination born of their experience living under the ironic reality of military occupation by the region’s most democratic government. As much as anything, Palestinian activists often note, seeing Israel’s democracy close up—warts and all—has fed Palestinians’ commitment to build their own. The occupation and the Palestinians’ lack of sovereignty also add special burdens on their path to a democratic future—and they mean that the fate of Palestinian democracy does not rest solely in Palestinian hands.

If the Palestinians’ fragile democratic experiment is to succeed, it will require urgent investment by Israel, the United States and the international community—including the Arab leaders who might desire Israeli-Palestinian rapprochement but who fear the implications of growing Palestinian democracy. That’s even more reason to hope that the White House keeps its focus on Ramallah even while it basks in the warmth of the Beirut Spring.