Democracy in action

June 23, 2005

THE SEEDS OF the Lebanese spring have flowered. The opposition movement that led huge street protests over Syria's domination of the country and forced the removal of its troops is poised now to lead Lebanon. Anti-Syrian candidates won a majority of parliamentary seats in elections that concluded last weekend. Leading the slate is Saad Hariri, the son of the former prime minister whose assassination Feb. 14 galvanized the reform movement and unleashed an outpouring of pro-democracy sentiment among many Lebanese.

The challenge now is for the Lebanese to govern as Lebanese and not as the ethnic, religious rivals who fought a 15-year civil war that brought about Syria's occupation of the country. Those rivalries, if reanimated, could undermine the hard-fought electoral wins.

The Syrians may have left reluctantly, but they are not far away, and their supporters -- including President Emile Lahoud, Hezbollah's Shiite leaders, and Michel Aoun, the Christian leader and former general -- remain a potent political force in the country. Even as opposition leaders celebrated their victory, a Lebanese politician and an outspoken critic of Syria was killed in a car bombing, fueling speculation that Syrian operatives are intent on derailing the new government. Still, the achievement of the Lebanese reformers cannot be understated in a region controlled by autocratic regimes and absolute monarchs. It serves as a sober reminder to the Bush administration that democracy movements cannot be imported and they cannot be imposed. Reform must be homegrown and reformers free to organize and assemble.

While in Egypt this week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice offered a candid, even downright blunt, assessment of past U.S. support for Mideast regimes. She told an audience at the American University in Cairo that the United States' pursuit of "stability at the expense of democracy" had resulted in neither in the Arab world. This was the prelude to her prodding Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Saudi Arabia's rulers to open up the political process, denounce violence against reformers and conduct free and fair elections. Her words -- predictably -- pleased no one. But Ms. Rice had to be firm without offending her hosts. She had to encourage democratic reforms without deriding key allies. Ms. Rice's decision to meet with Ayman Nour, a former jailed Egyptian dissident who is challenging Mr. Mubarak, reinforced -- in a public way -- her message on reform.

But diplomatic prodding alone will not bring about change by the regimes. The United States should couple stern words with increased financial support for pro-democracy organizations and human rights groups that are working for greater freedoms and political reforms. Holding free and fair elections shouldn't be the sole test of democracy in action. They won't matter if candidates aren't primed and ready to run.

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