Tuesday, March 01, 2005

The Spread of Democracy

In Monday's Washington Post, Jackson Diehl takes note of the democratic changes that have arisen in the Middle East in the wake of Iraq's historic elections:

Those who have declared the war an irretrievable catastrophe have been gloating for at least a year over the supposed puncturing of what they portray as President Bush's fanciful illusion that democracy would take root in Iraq and spread through the region. They may yet be proved right. But how, then, to explain the tens of thousands who marched through Beirut last Monday carrying red and white roses and scarves -- the colors of what they call the "independence intifada" -- and calling for "freedom, independence and sovereignty" from neighboring Syria? Or the hundreds of Egyptian protesters who gathered that same day at Cairo University, in defiance of thousands of police officers, to chant the slogan of "kifaya," or "enough," at 76-year-old President Hosni Mubarak?

The best evidence that something is happening comes from the autocrats themselves. Mubarak, under mounting pressure from the Egyptian political elite, on Saturday abandoned his plan to extend his term in office through an uncontested referendum later this year. Instead he announced that the constitution would be changed to allow for a multiple-candidate election for president. His most credible liberal challenger, Ayman Nour, remains in jail on trumped-up charges, and Mubarak's reform may prove to be little more than a ruse. But the old autocrat's attempt to crush the opposition movement Nour helped to create has clearly backfired, forcing him to improvise.


Virtually no one in Washington expected such a snowballing of events following Iraq's elections. Not many yet believe that they will lead to real democracy in Egypt, Lebanon or Syria anytime soon. But it is a fact of history that the collapse of a rotted political order usually happens quickly, and takes most of the experts by surprise. In early 1989 I surveyed a panoply of West German analysts about the chances that the then-incipient and barely noticed unrest in Eastern Europe could lead to the collapse of the Berlin Wall. None thought it possible; most laughed at me for asking the question.

If a Middle East transformation begins to gather momentum, it probably will be more messy, and the results more ambiguous, than those European revolutions. It also won't be entirely Bush's creation: The tinder for ignition has been gathering around the stagnant and corrupt autocracies of the Middle East for years. Still, less than two years after Saddam Hussein was deposed, the fact is that Arabs are marching for freedom and shouting slogans against tyrants in the streets of Beirut and Cairo -- and regimes that have endured for decades are visibly tottering. Those who claimed that U.S. intervention could never produce such events have reason to reconsider.

A Mideast Makeover?

The process of democratic change in the Middle East is still in its infancy. It will be long and difficult, but it is essential to the long-term defeat of Islamist terrorism. Were Saddam Hussein still in power instead of in prison, no serious person can believe that these historic events would be taking place.


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