TCS Daily


A Specter is Haunting Arabia

By Uriah Kriegel - February 25, 2005 12:00 AM

Would the Lebanese uprising against Syrian occupation have happened had we not invaded Iraq two years ago? There is every reason to think not. And this genuine display of People Power is only a manifestation of a deeper undercurrent slowly swarming and propagating throughout the Arab world.

A specter is haunting the Middle East -- the specter of freedom. The powers representing the Old Way of Ideas have entered an unholy alliance to exorcise this specter, but there is no stopping the stomping of freedom.

Syria has maintained military presence in Lebanon since 1976. It controls virtually every aspect of Lebanese political and civic life in what is a much more thorough occupation than, say, Israel's occupation of Palestinian territories.

Yet the Lebanese nation has not risen up to stand up to the unwelcome occupier -- not until this past week, that is. There are two main reasons for this lack of opposition to this three decade occupation. The first is fear, the second practice.

Fear was justified. There was no telling how the Syrian military would play its cards in the face of such an uprising. Any and every atrocity used to be fair game in the dark world of Middle Eastern repression. Thus the Lebanese populace had been understandably intimidated by the prospects of confrontation with the Syrian military and extra-military machinery.

Perhaps more deeply, the Lebanese nation accepted the Syrian occupation simply because civic awareness had been all but non-existent. It was a matter of course that Arab populations had to accept whatever fate their rulers dealt them. Thus there had not been the practice of People Power on the Arab street to remind the Lebanese collective awareness that standing up to Syria is even an option.

What changed? The assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri has triggered widespread unrest, but the very same act would not have elicited any notable response three years ago. Clearly, both fear and practice have been undermined by recent events in the Middle East. More specifically, the new American involvement in the Middle East -- indeed, the much maligned Greater Middle East initiative - seems to have empowered the Lebanese nation.

First, Syria's persistently precarious position vis-à-vis an apparently all-powerful America means that the occupying Syrian military cannot get away with just anything. There are any number of maneuvers that the hawkish, confrontational American stance toward Syria effectively precludes. The Syrians know that, in today's state of affairs, a wrong turn could cost them dearly. And the Lebanese know that the Syrians know that. The great Arab powers are accountable for their actions in a way they have never been -- basically, because President Bush has said so over and over.

Secondly, civic awareness and public discourse are slowly but clearly emerging in Lebanon, and probably in other corners of the Middle East as well. Seeing the Iraqi nation voting for a government to govern with the consent of the governed in defiance of threats from the representatives of the Old Way of Ideas; following the Palestinian nation going to the polls to determine who it mandates to lead it; witnessing the local elections in the Wahhabi stronghold of Saudi Arabia, the Lebanese had ample opportunity to realize that they do not have to take whatever injustice the Syrian government decides to deal them.

It is safe to assume that neither development would have taken place if it were not for the American invasion of Iraq. If none other, this one prediction of the war's proponents appears to have come true: the experimentation with political freedom in the heart of Arabia is indeed spreading the notion of freedom across that land. What used to be a monolithic realm of self-anointed monarchies is starting to show another face, with democratically elected governments now ruling the Iraqi, Afghani, and Palestinian populations.

We should therefore credit the recent display of Lebanese empowerment to the Bush Doctrine. We have been discussing endlessly the supposed insurgency in Iraq. I say "supposed" because a relentless string of bloodbaths initiated by foreigners who murder innocent locals would not normally be described as an "insurgency." But a genuine insurgency may yet take shape in the Middle East over the next few months, or perhaps more realistically, the next few years. Namely, a Lebanese insurgency against the Syrian occupation.

The author teaches philosophy at the University of Arizona.

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