Transitions in mideast

Jackson Diehl:

As thousands of Arabs demonstrated for freedom and democracy in Beirut and Cairo last week, and the desperate dictators of Syria and Egypt squirmed under domestic and international pressure, it was hard not to wonder whether the regional transformation that the Bush administration hoped would be touched off by its invasion of Iraq is, however tentatively, beginning to happen.

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.

Syrian President Bashar Assad looks even more desperate. Last week his regime issued a new promise to redeploy its troops in Lebanon, trying to deflect the growing pressure of both the U.N. Security Council and a newly united Lebanese opposition. Assad, like Mubarak, hoped the elimination of his most likely liberal adversary, former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri, would stop an incipient freedom movement. Instead, he has touched off one of the largest demonstrations of "people power" in the modern history of the Arab Middle East. It's not over: A general strike is scheduled for today.

These are autocrats whose regimes had remained unaltered, and unchallenged, for decades. There has been no political ferment in Damascus since the 1960s, or in Cairo since the 1950s. Now, within weeks of Iraq's elections, Mubarak and Assad are tacking with panicked haste between bold acts of repression, which invite an international backlash, and big promises of reform -- which also may backfire, if they prove to be empty....


...Those who claimed that U.S. intervention could never produce such events have reason to reconsider.


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