Winds of Change?
Twenty years ago, I wrote a book about the Middle East, and recently I was thinking of updating it with a new introduction. It was going to be very simple - just one page, indeed just one line: "Nothing has changed."
It took me two days covering the elections in Beirut to realize that I was dead wrong. No, something is going on in the Middle East today that is very new. Pull up a chair; this is going to be interesting.
What we saw in the Lebanese elections, where the pro-Western March 14 movement won a surprise victory over the pro-Iranian Hezbollah coalition, what we saw in the ferment for change exposed by the election campaign in Iran, and what we saw in the provincial elections in Iraq, where the big pro-Iranian party got trounced, is the product of four historical forces that have come together to crack open this ossified region.
First is the diffusion of technology. The Internet, blogs, YouTube and text messaging via cellphones, particularly among the young - 70 percent of Iranians are under 30 - is giving Middle Easterners cheap tools to communicate horizontally, to mobilize politically and to criticize their leaders acerbically, outside of state control. It is also enabling them to monitor vote-rigging by posting observers with cellphone cameras.
I knew something had changed when I sat down for coffee on Hamra Street in Beirut last week with my 80-year-old friend and mentor, Kemal Salibi, one of Lebanon's greatest historians, and he told me about his Facebook group!
The evening of Lebanon's election, I went to the Beirut home of Saad Hariri, the leader of the March 14 coalition, to interview him. In a big living room, he had a gigantic wall-size television broadcasting the results. And alongside the main TV were 16 smaller flat-screen TVs with electronic maps of Lebanon. Hariri's own election experts were working on laptops and breaking down every vote from every religious community, village by village, and projecting them on the screens.
Second, for real politics to happen you need space. There are a million things to hate about President Bush's costly and wrenching wars. But the fact is, in ousting Saddam in Iraq in 2003 and mobilizing the U.N. to push Syria out of Lebanon in 2005, he opened space for real democratic politics that had not existed in Iraq or Lebanon for decades. "Bush had a simple idea, that the Arabs could be democratic, and at that particular moment simple ideas were what was needed, even if he was disingenuous," said Michael Young, the opinion editor of The Beirut Daily Star. "It was bolstered by the presence of a U.S. Army in the center of the Middle East. It created a sense that change was possible, that things did not always have to be as they were."
When I reported from Beirut in the 1970s and 1980s, I covered coups and wars. I never once stayed up late waiting for an election result. Elections in the Arab world were a joke - literally. They used to tell this story about Syria's president, Hafez al-Assad. After a Syrian election, an aide came in and told Assad: "Mr. President, you won 99.8 percent of the votes. It means that only two-tenths of one percent of Syrians didn't vote for you. What more could ask for?"
Assad answered: "Their names!"
Lebanese, by contrast, just waited up all night for their election results - no one knew what they'd be.
Third, the Bush team opened a hole in the wall of Arab autocracy but did a poor job following through. In the vacuum, the parties most organized to seize power were the Islamists - Hezbollah in Lebanon; pro-Al Qaeda forces among Iraqi Sunnis, and the pro-Iranian Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and Mahdi Army among Iraqi Shiites; the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan; Hamas in Gaza.
Fortunately, each one of these Islamist groups overplayed their hand by imposing religious lifestyles or by dragging their societies into confrontations the people didn't want. This alienated and frightened more secular, mainstream Arabs and Muslims and has triggered an "awakening" backlash among moderates from Lebanon to Pakistan to Iran. The Times's Robert Mackey reported that in Tehran "chants of ‘Death to America' " at rallies for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad last week were answered by chants of "Death to the Taliban - in Kabul and Tehran" at a rally for his opponent, Mir Hussein Moussavi.
Finally, along came President Barack Hussein Obama. Arab and Muslim regimes found it very useful to run against George Bush. The Bush team demonized them, and they demonized the Bush team. Autocratic regimes, like Iran's, drew energy and legitimacy from that confrontation, and it made it very easy for them to discredit anyone associated with America. Mr. Obama's soft power has defused a lot of that. As result, "pro-American" is not such an insult anymore.
I don't know how all this shakes out; the forces against change in this region are very powerful - see Iran - and ruthless. But for the first time in a long time, the forces for decency, democracy and pluralism have a little wind at their backs. Good for them.