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Last Updated: Friday, 11 March 2005, 09:38 GMT
Springtime for Mid-East democracy?
Analysis
By Paul Reynolds
World Affairs correspondent, BBC News website

The elections in Iraq and the Palestinian territories and the "Cedar revolution" in Lebanon show that events are on the march in the Middle East. Nobody, however, can say how far they will go.

They appear unlikely at the moment to produce the kind of revolutions which swept away the communist governments in Eastern and Central Europe.

Demonstration in Beirut wave Lebanese flag
The power of the people in Lebanon
Those led to the establishment of democracies which have since been quietly taking their place in the European Union.

The Middle East is probably too vast and varied for that kind of rapid transformation.

But certainly the ripples are moving across the face of the waters.

"The whole region is shaking up," says Rosemary Hollis head of the Middle East programme at the Royal Institute for International Affairs in London.

"It is a dangerous game but it is very exciting and the biggest losers will be the regimes."

The causes for the changes are disputed and the effects are unpredictable.

Bush claim

President Bush is claiming a lot of credit. He did not speak mainly about democracy before he launched the invasion of Iraq. He spoke mainly about weapons of mass destruction. But he did not ignore it entirely.

On 26 February 2003, just before the invasion, he said: "A liberated Iraq can show the power of freedom to transform that vital region."

It is a dangerous game but it is very exciting and the biggest losers will be the regimes
Rosemary Hollis

Since then he has been more ambitious and has laid out a strategy for transforming what he calls the "Greater Middle East."

In November 2003, he explained this by saying: "The United States has adopted a new policy, a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East. As in Europe, as in Asia, as in every region of the world, the advance of freedom leads to peace."

And recently he has said that the "thaw has begun."

There is much dispute about whether the removal of Saddam Hussein and the elections in Iraq had much if anything to do with this.

The British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw claimed it might have, in a cautious sentence, using the double negative so beloved of the British foreign service: "I do not buy the claim that this is nothing at all to do with Iraq," he said.

Supporters

And Mr Bush is getting some support.

"People are nervously asking themselves a question: Could [President Bush] possibly have been right? The short answer is yes," wrote Fareed Zakaria, author of The Future of Freedom, in Newsweek magazine.

"Bush never accepted the view that Islamic terrorism had its roots in religion or culture or the Arab-Israeli conflict.

"Instead he veered toward the analysis that the region was breeding terror because it had developed deep dysfunctions caused by decades of repression and an almost total lack of political, economic and social modernization," Mr Zakaria wrote.

'Berlin Wall'

The Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt was more dramatic.

He told the Washington Post: "I was cynical about Iraq. But when I saw the Iraqi people voting three weeks ago, 8 million of them, it was the start of a new Arab world.

"The Syrian people, the Egyptian people, all say that something is changing. The Berlin Wall has fallen. We can see it."

And remember that Mr Jumblatt once spoke of the US occupation of Iraq and the Israeli occupation of Gaza with these words: "We are all happy when an American soldier is killed... The fall of one Jew, whether soldier or civilian, is a great accomplishment."

Sceptics and cynics

Even sceptics of American policy like Rosemary Hollis acknowledge the impact of Iraq.

"The US use of hard power in Iraq has grabbed attention. The European Union's own programme for reform in the region has been very gradualist. It would be sad to conclude that the US was right and it is not that simple. You will now probably get more rapid gradualism but not revolutions," Rosemary Hollis said.

Some are cynical about American attitudes and regard the policy of spreading "freedom and democracy" in the Middle East as a way of justifying intervention.

Khader Khader, an analyst with the Palestinian group the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center, traces US policy back to a document issued in 1996 by American neo-conservatives, led by Richard Perle, called Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm.

This did talk about reordering the Middle East with sentences like: "Israel can shape its strategic environment, in co-operation with Turkey and Jordan, by weakening, containing, and even rolling back Syria."

Such talk led Khader, in article about the fragmentation of the Arab world for a joint Palestinian-Israeli website called bitterlemons.org, to conclude: "The outcome of the regional convulsions provoked by the Clean Break doctrine was to be a new Middle East, with Israel hegemonic in the region, presiding over a series of newly balkanized states run by puppet regimes."

And the Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit questioned whether democracy was in fact emerging. He told the Washington Post: "What model are we talking about? Iraqis are being killed in the streets everyday."

And as for Lebanon, where pro-Syrian demonstrations have also taken place he remarked: "Maybe things will get better, but we see what we see."

Whether you regard American policy as benign or malign, something is going on which needs watching.

And once the ball has started rolling it is not easy to stop it.

Example

Shortly after the Berlin Wall was breached, there was agitation for the reunification of Germany. The question was when this might happen.

On a visit to East Berlin, I and other correspondents met a rather dishevelled British diplomat who seemed to spend most of his time on the streets.

He predicted that East Germany would collapse within the year.

His boss the ambassador, a rather grand man who seemed to spend most of his time in the embassy, would have none of that.

Guess who was right?


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