Where the World's Views of America Come into Focus
It Is the American Military, Not Democracy, That is 'On the March'

The claim that democracy is making progress in the Middle East is a fraud, the Lebanese opposition are not democrats, and if free elections were actually permitted, the country would be governed by Hezbollah, the author writes.

By Seumas Milne

March 12, 2005

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For weeks a Western chorus has been celebrating a new dawn of Middle Eastern freedom, allegedly triggered by the Iraq war. Tony Blair hailed a "ripple of change," encouraged by the U.S. and Britain, that was bringing democracy to benighted Muslim lands.

First the Palestinians, then the Iraqis have finally had a chance to choose their leaders, it is said, courtesy of Western intervention, while countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia are democratizing under American pressure. And then in Lebanon, as if on cue, last month's assassination of the former prime minister triggered a wave of street protests against Syria's military presence that brought down the pro-Damascus government in short order. At last there was a democratic "cedar revolution" to match the U.S.-backed Ukrainian "orange revolution," and a photogenic display of people power to bolster George Bush's insistence that the region is with him.

"Freedom will prevail in Lebanon," Bush declared this week, promising anti-Syrian protesters that the U.S. is "on your side." The British foreign secretary, Jack Straw, has warned the left not to defend the status quo because of anti-Americanism.

The first decisive rebuff to this fairy tale of spin was delivered in Beirut on Tuesday, when at least 500,000 demonstrators, according to some reports it was more like a million, took to the streets to show solidarity with embattled Syria and reject U.S. and European interference in Lebanon. Mobilized by Hezbollah, the Shiite Islamist movement, their numbers dwarfed the nearby anti-Syrian protesters by perhaps 10 to one; and while well-heeled young Beirutis have dominated the "people power" jamboree, most of Tuesday's demonstrators came from the Shiite slums and the impoverished south. Bush's response was to ignore them completely. Whatever their numbers, they were, it seems, the wrong kind of people.

But the Hezbollah rally did more than demolish the claims of national unity behind the demand for immediate Syrian withdrawal. It also exposed the rottenness at the core of what calls itself a "pro-democracy" movement in Lebanon.

The anti-Syrian protests, dominated by the Christian and Druze minorities, are not in fact calling for a genuine democracy at all, but for elections under the long-established corrupt confessional carve-up, which gives the traditionally privileged Christians half the seats in Parliament and means no Muslim can ever be president.

As if to emphasize the point, one politician championing the anti-Syrian protests, Pierre Gemayel of the right-wing Christian Phalange party (whose militiamen famously massacred 2,000 Palestinian refugees under Israeli floodlights in Sabra and Shatilla in 1982), recently complained that voting wasn't just a matter of majorities, but of the "quality" of the voters. If there were a real democratic election, Gemayel and his friends could expect to be swept aside by a Hezbollah-led government.

The neutralization of Hezbollah, whose success in driving Israel out of Lebanon in 2000 won it enormous prestige in the Arab world, is certainly one aim of the U.S. campaign to push Syria out of Lebanon. The U.S. brands Hezbollah, the largest party in the Lebanese Parliament and leading force among Shiites, Lebanon's largest religious group, as a terrorist organization without serious justification. But the pressure on Syria has plenty of other motivations: Its withdrawal stands to weaken one of the last independent Arab regimes, however sclerotic, open the way for a return of Western and Israeli influence in Lebanon, and reduce Iran's leverage.

Ironically, the U.S. encouraged Syria's original intervention in Lebanon during the civil war in 1976, partly to prevent the democratization of the country at the expense of the Christian minority's power. Syria's presence and highhandedness has long caused resentment, even though many Lebanese do not regard it as a foreign occupation. But withdrawal will create a vacuum with huge potential dangers for the country's fragile peace.

What the U.S. campaign is clearly not about is the promotion of democracy in either Lebanon or Syria, where the most plausible alternative to the Assad regime is radical Islamists. In a pronouncement that defies satire, Bush insisted on Tuesday that Syria must withdraw from Lebanon before elections due in May "for those elections to be free and fair."

Why the same point does not apply to elections held in occupied Iraq -- where the U.S. has 140,000 troops patrolling the streets, compared with 14,000 Syrian soldiers in Lebanon's mountains -- or in occupied Palestine, for that matter, is unexplained. And why a U.N. resolution calling for Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon has to be complied with immediately, while those demanding an Israeli pullout from Palestinian and Syrian territory can be safely ignored for 38 years, is apparently unworthy of comment.

The claim that democracy is on the march in the Middle East is a fraud. It is not democracy, but the U.S. military, that is on the march. The Palestinian elections in January took place because of the death of Yasser Arafat, and they would have taken place earlier if the U.S. and Israel hadn't known that Arafat was certain to win them again.

The Iraqi elections may have looked good on TV and allowed Kurdish and Shiite parties to improve their bargaining power, but millions of Iraqis were unable or unwilling to vote, key political forces were excluded, candidates' names were secret, alleged fraud widespread, the entire system designed to maintain U.S. control and Iraqis were unable to vote to end the occupation.

They have no more brought democracy to Iraq than U.S.-orchestrated elections did to South Vietnam in the 1960s and 70s.

What has actually taken place since 9/11 and the Iraq war is a relentless expansion of U.S. control of the Middle East, of which the threat to Syria is only a part. The Americans now have a military presence in Iraq, the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and Qatar and in not one of those countries did an elected government invite them in.


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