Lebanese democracy

March 02, 2005

IN ABRUPTLY resigning this week, Lebanese Prime Minister Omar Karami took his lead from the streets of Beirut, not Damascus. Others should follow his example. Let's start with President Emile Lahoud, a longtime proxy for the Syrian regime. As he contemplates a successor to Mr. Karami, Mr. Lahoud should concede that the voices of his fellow Lebanese, protesting by the thousands, should count the most.

Next on the list: Syrian President Bashar Assad. What's taking place in Beirut these days - citizens clamoring for the right to control their own country - can't be ignored. President Assad told Time this week that he would withdraw his troops in "the next few months." An orderly withdrawal may take some time, but an obvious goal is the removal of Syrian troops before Lebanese elections in May.

The assassination two weeks ago of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri galvanized Lebanon's evolving opposition movement into action, but, more astonishingly, it drove Lebanese into the streets in unprecedented numbers. Their peaceful protests are a compelling retort to Mr. Hariri's brutal murder, and a lawful response of a democracy asserting itself in the face of despots.

The Lebanese protesters appear to have caught a new mood that's stirring in this part of the world. In a surprising but welcome announcement Saturday, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak proposed a constitutional reform to permit contested presidential elections this fall. The change, if approved by the parliament, likely wouldn't result in a robust challenge to Mr. Mubarak, who is seeking a fifth term. But it would be a monumental step forward for this autocrat and Egypt. It would allow for the cultivation of challengers, provided opposition leaders are for the first time free to organize. President Bush challenged Egypt to take the lead in democratic reforms, and Cairo may be on the verge of accepting that challenge.

The change in Egypt is top-down. What's impressive about the events in Lebanon is the cohesiveness and initiative of the opposition, especially in a society with a history of ethnic and religious strife. The so-called red and white revolution is marching under one banner: the Lebanese flag. But therein lies its challenge: to remain unified in its struggle as it moves toward the May elections, and not collapse under parochial interests. The opposition now represents Christian, Druze and Sunni Muslims, a coalition that holds a third of the seats in the Lebanese Parliament.

Mr. Assad, facing international pressure and protests on several fronts, must realize that Lebanon no longer can be held hostage to Syria's security and social needs. Syria's power in Lebanon also accrues from its support of the Shiite Muslim party of Hezbollah, whose military wing is responsible for terrorist attacks in the region. A withdrawal of Syria's 14,000 troops would strip Hezbollah of a strong ally and force it to redirect its energies toward political rather than military efforts. And that would benefit democracy supporters throughout the region.

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