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As the old Arab order crumbles, a revolution gets under way

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It is indeed a revolution. And it is following the tradition of such events - revolution results when long simmering causes turn into mass protest movements, triggered by one or more dramatic events: a war or a high-profile assassination. Walid Jumblatt, the Lebanese Druze Muslim patriarch and leader of the opposition to the Syrian presence in Lebanon, is clear about what he thinks that spark is - the elections in Iraq which followed the US-led invasion of that country. 'When I saw the Iraqi people voting ... eight million of them, it was the start of a new Arab world,' he told the Washington Post .


Middle East expert Dilip Hiro sees a ripple of democracy spreading from Iraq's election across the whole region.

Dilip Hiro

Sunday March 6, 2005


The headlines say it all: 'Millions of Iraqis turn out to vote'; 'Mubarak promises a multi-party race for the Egyptian presidency'; and 'Pro-Syrian Karami government falls in Lebanon'.


They all seem to add up to one thing. A democratic and modernising wave appears to be sweeping through the Middle East, mired for so long in autocracy and social backwardness. Elections have been staged in Iraq, which carry at least the hope that a democratic order could emerge to replace the brutal dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. Presidential elections among Palestinians will be followed in July by a parliamentary poll, but already the new leadership that succeeded Yasser Arafat has breathed fresh life into the Palestinian Authority and raised hopes that the peace process can be rekindled. In neighbouring Egypt, President Mubarak has pledged multi-candidate presidential elections later in the year.

A significant section of Lebanese society has taken to the streets to demand the withdrawal of Syrian forces and the emergence of authentic Lebanese political sovereignty. President Bashar Assad of Syria is being forced to bend to the will of regional and international pressure to consider such a move, a development that some say could threaten the rule of his own authoritarian dynasty.

It is indeed a revolution. And it is following the tradition of such events - revolution results when long simmering causes turn into mass protest movements, triggered by one or more dramatic events: a war or a high-profile assassination. Walid Jumblatt, the Lebanese Druze Muslim patriarch and leader of the opposition to the Syrian presence in Lebanon, is clear about what he thinks that spark is - the elections in Iraq which followed the US-led invasion of that country. 'When I saw the Iraqi people voting ... eight million of them, it was the start of a new Arab world,' he told the Washington Post .

Hisham Kassem, a former editor of the Cairo Times, is also in no doubt that the Iraqi election was 'the start of a ripple effect'.

While in Iraq it was the Anglo-American invasion which led to a general election, what triggered the 'cedar revolution' in Lebanon - the extraordinary street protests in Beirut that have led Syria to announce its intention to withdraw troops - was the brutal assassination of its former prime minister, Rafiq Hariri, on Valentine's Day. Hariri's killing removed the last vestiges of fear of criticising Syria publicly. 'In Lebanon, the shock of the assassination was equal to the aftermath of 9/11 and Princess Diana's funeral,' explained Nadim Shehadi, director of the Centre for Lebanese Studies in Oxford. 'There was a taboo on opposing Syria, and allies of Syria were allies because of a realisation that they had no other option. That [view] has been broken, both among the people and maybe the politicians.' The result was the downfall of the pro-Damascus government of Omar Karami.

But triggers work only when there are explosives, and history shows that it takes a long time for the incendiary material to build up into a critical mass. In the case of Lebanon, opposition to Syria has been building ever since the country returned to political normality in September 1992. That was when fresh elections to an expanded parliament were held under the amended constitution, according to the Taif Accord of 1989, which set the scene for an end to the bloody civil war that consumed 150,000 lives from April 1975 to October 1990.

The failure of President Hafiz Assad to withdraw the Syrian troops to the eastern Bekaa valley, according to the Taif Accord, began to grate on Lebanese sensibilities. The final reason for keeping the Syrian soldiers evaporated in May 2000, when Israel withdrew unconditionally from southern Lebanon as demanded by the UN Security Council resolution 425 of 1978.

But still Syrian troops stayed - ossifying Lebanon's political structures, blocking progress towards political reform and regional peace. It took other factors to unleash the forces that have been at play over the past few months.

During the past quarter century the region has undergone profound social and economic change, especially in the field of communications and information. The inauguration of the Doha-based al-Jazeera satellite TV channel in November 1996 opened a new chapter in the Arab world.

Al-Jazeera performed two main functions. It provided news in Arabic edited by BBC-trained journalists to an audience that until then had been fed a bland fare of endless meetings of Arab leaders and their vacuous statements and activities. And it pioneered no-holds-barred talk shows, one-on-one debates and investigative journalism of the sort not witnessed before in the Arab world. It broke taboos by interviewing Israelis and inviting them to participate in debates, and tackled such controversial issues as the existence or otherwise of God. The abolition of censorship by the Qatari ruler in March 1998 widened the horizons of al-Jazeera even further. As the US administration began hounding the channel, its credibility in the Arab rose sharply.

Then there is the internet, which the autocratic regimes in the Arab world, whether monarchical or republican, find hard to control. Its users tend to be young, and with rampant mismanagement of the economy (either due to an inefficient, overmanned public sector as in Syria or near-criminal wastage of tens of billions of petro-dollars by the rulers of the oil-rich Arab states of the Gulf) unemployment among young males in the region hovers around 25 per cent. This is the constituency most likely to emerge as the driving force of the ongoing democratic revolution to demolish ossified socio-political systems.

Ironically, while most responsibility for the autocratic grip on the state apparatus lies with Arab leaders, the United States - self-proclaimed champion of democracy and human rights - cannot escape blame. When called upon to protest when democratic rights have been crushed and applaud when they have upheld, the American record has been highly selective and sometimes detestable. Time and again the US has prioritised economic, military and strategic interests at the expense of democratising the Arab regimes.

Consider Bahrain, which became independent in 1971 after the British withdrawal. Its constitution, drafted by a partly elected constituent assembly, specified a National Assembly of 42, with 30 deputies elected on a limited franchise. But, angered by the MPs' criticism of his government, ruler Sheikh Isa al-Khalifa dissolved the 20-month-old assembly in August 1975, and suspended the constitution. Washington said nothing. Why?

Bahrain had become the base of the US Middle East Force in 1971. Later the ruler extended the US-Bahraini agreement; and in 1995 Bahrain became the headquarters of the Pentagon's Fifth Fleet.

So the source of the movement that some detect sweeping the Middle East is varied and complex. Some ascribe it to President Bush's vigorous championing of democracy in the region. Others point to long standing social and political currents, even suggesting that America's strategic interests have themselves inhibited reform among its loyal yet autocratic Gulf allies.

But of the fact that a revolution is in train, Walid Jumblatt is in no doubt: 'The Syrian people, the Egyptian people, all say something is changing. The (Arab) Berlin Wall has fallen. We can see it.'

· Dilip Hiro is the author of Iraq: A Report from the Inside (Granta). His latest book is Secrets and Lies: The True Story of the Iraq War (Politico's, £ 9.99)

How the Middle East is governed


Population 21.7 million

Monarchy Head of State: King Fahd bin Abdul Aziz

Last month Saudi Arabia held elections for local councils for the first time. The regime first promised political reform - including a written constitution - in 1962. When the consultative council was created in 1993, its members were chosen by the king and authorised merely to question ministers' decisions. Saudi citizens were so distrustful of their government's promise of taking a first step toward democracy that only a quarter of voters registered, and only two thirds voted. Women were not allowed to vote, just as they are not allowed to drive and are required to veil themselves from head to toe. Alcohol, movies and dancing in public are banned. There is strict censorship. Only Muslims are allowed to worship. All legislation is derived exclusively from the Sharia. There are reports of torture of prisoners by security forces, arbitrary arrests and detentions.


Population 2.1 million

Monarchy Head of State: Sheikh Jaber III bin Ahmad I al-Sabah. Crown Prince and Prime Minister: Sheikh Saad bin Abdullah III al-Sabah

After independence from Britain in 1961, Kuwait's constitution specified a national assembly elected on a franchise limited to men belonging to families that had been domiciled in Kuwait since 1921 - that is, about a fifth of adult citizens. Despite this, the assembly evolved into a popular forum for expressing the aspirations and grievances of important constituencies. Stung by the MPs' criticisms, and encouraged by the Saudi monarch, the Emir dissolved the assembly in 1986. Parliamentary elections since 1992 have returned more Islamist MPs than pro-Western liberals. The Emir's efforts to extend the vote to women have failed, yet he has made no move to extend the vote to the remaining four fifths of the adult male citizenry.


Population 18.9 million

Republic President elected directly by voters

President: Ali Abdullah Salih Prime Minister: Abd Rabbo Mansour al-Hadi

Since the creation of the republic following the union of North Yemen and South Yemen in 1991, the country has had a multi-party system. In 1993 the government organised the first general election in the Arabian peninsula on universal suffrage for the 301-member House of Representatives and the presidency. This went unnoticed by the Clinton administration, which rebuffed the Yemeni government for its refusal to join the US-led alliance against Iraq in the 1991 Gulf war. In the three subsequent general elections, President Ali Abdullah Salih's General People's Congress has maintained its position as the leading group in the house, followed by the Islamist Yemeni Islah Group and the Yemen Socialist Party. Since 9/11 Yemen has co-operated actively with Washington in the 'war on terror'.


Population 66.6 million

Republic Supreme Leader: Ayatollah Ali Khamanei President: Muhammad Khatami

Oil reserves 98.7 billion barrels, 8.5 per cent of world total

Since the 1979 revolution, the Islamic regime has held seven parliamentary, eight presidential and two local elections - as well as four assembly of experts polls - all multi-candidate, with the voting age 15, the lowest in the world. Even during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, the authorities conducted the elections on schedule. The first time the Supreme Leader, Khamanei, and the President, Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, used the Guardians Council to block the candidature of hundreds of reformist-leftists was in 1992. The landslide victory of reformist Muhammad Khatami in 1997 generated much favourable international comment. But the resulting goodwill evaporated when Bush included Iran in his 'axis of evil' in 2002. The disqualification of hundreds of reformist candidates for parliament in 2004 soured relations further, and angered Iranian reformers and their followers. Iran's ninth presidential poll is due in June, and a reformist candidate has entered the race.


Population 64 million

Republic President elected by parliament, confirmed by voters. President: Hosni Mubarak. Prime Minister: Atif Obeid

The sole presidential candidate, who must be endorsed by at least two thirds of MPs, is offered to the voters for approval. He has six-year tenure and can be elected for further terms. Hosni Mubarak, 76, who succeeded Anwar Sadat in 1981, has governed Egypt under emergency rules. He has rigged elections, jailed opponents, banned the Muslim Brotherhood, the oldest Islamist party in the Middle East. Ibrahim Eissa, an Egyptian columnist, said: 'Mubarak is keeping everything else unchanged, like the emergency laws, imprisoning the opposition, the state controlling the media, and political parties existing only on paper.' Mubarak said democracy in Egypt would mean the Muslim Brotherhood would rule the country, but will he allow it?


Population 17.2 million

Republic President: Bashar Assad

Syria held the first free election in the Arab Middle East in 1954, when women were accorded universal suffrage. After several political convulsions, its citizens adopted a constitution in 1973 after the Baath Party, led by President Hafiz Assad, had consolidated its power. The secular governing party nominally shares power with smaller groups in the National Progressive Front. After the initial surge of liberalisation - when Bashar Assad, soon after succeeding his father in 2000, announced the suspension of martial law, which had been in place for 37 years - reform slowed to placate the old guard. Accelerated Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon is likely to bolster reform in Lebanon and Syria.


Population 25 million

Republic Interim President: Ghazi al-Yawar Interim Prime Minister: Iyad Allawi

An interim constitution was adopted by the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council in March 2004. System of government to be 'republican, federal, democratic and pluralistic', and Iraq a federal state with Arabic and Kurdish languages. Islam is the official religion, and the Sharia 'a main source' of legislation. A bill of rights enshrines personal, political and religious freedoms. Kurds to retain control of existing self-rule region. Permanent constitution drafted by the Assembly, to be ready by end of 2005, is to be put to vote and passed by a simple majority, although if two thirds of voters in any three provinces (out of 18) vote against it, then it would fail.

Created by keza
Last modified 2005-03-23 04:13 AM

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