The Other Arab Democracy

Michael J. Totten has an excellent piece in OpinionJournal on how Lebanon is providing a vision for a native Arab democracy:

Beirut is where the taboos in the region–against alcohol, dating, sex, scandalous clothing, homosexuality, body modification, free speech and dissident politics–break down. Its culture is liberal and tolerant, even anarchic and libertarian. The state barely exists. The city’s pleasures are physical and decadent. Beirut is where American and European tourists used to go to loosen up, gamble, drink booze and pick up women–and that was in the 1950s. Today it is where Saudis and other Gulf Arabs like to vacation because they can do, think, wear, and say whatever they want.

And of course, once you’ve been to Beirut, your typical Saudi, Egyptian, or Jordanian wouldn’t mind bringing a bit of Beiruti freedom back with them.

It’s important that democratic movements spread everywhere in the Middle East. As Lebanese leader Walid Jumblatt stated during the Cedar Revolution, the fall of Saddam was analogous to the fall of the Berlin Wall, but Communism didn’t collapse solely in East Germany – hundreds of democratic movements in the former Iron Curtain chipped away at the old regime until the entire edifice collapsed. What is happening in the Middle East appears to be the beginning of a similar process. Lebanon is throwing off Syrian shackles (and quietly, both France and the US are working together on assisting Lebanon determine the truth about the assassination of Rafik Hariri), Kuwait recently granted voting rights to women, and even Saudi Arabia is slowly but surely trying to tentatively introduce democratic concepts into their system through local elections.

Progress in the Middle East will always be fitful, and expecting the Arab world to become Switzerland overnight – or even this generation, will always be a fool’s errand. But one of the arguments for removing the Hussein regime is that it would introduce concepts of democracy to the Arab world. Iraq has yet to become a model Arab democracy – but it certainly has put democracy on the table in the Middle East in a way that it has never been previously.

Totten makes an excellent observation:

[Lebanon] matters for one simple reason. Oppressed Arabs need an inspiring country of their own that they can look up to. And right now, they have one. Lebanon is not just a country with an elected government. It seduces the region with its culture as well.

Islamism, like Communism, is doomed by its inherent contradictions – an Islamist state cannot provide a quality life for its people. Ultimately, once people see a better alternative, those inherent contradictions will lead to the collapse of the old order. However, that process can take time – fundamentalist Islam is often seen as an outlet to the dysfunctional politics of the region, and states like Egypt may see a rise in fundamentalism before a democratic revolution.

However, Lebanon is proving that Arabs can create a native democracy and live in pluralist, tolerant, and vibrant societies. As Iraq engages in a long and bloody struggle to establish a democratic state, the Lebanese are creating another vision of Arab democracy – a vision that will hopefully strengthen democratic prospects in Iraq, Syria, Jordan, and the rest of the Arab Middle East.

One thought on “The Other Arab Democracy

  1. First of all Walid Jumblatt is a political chameleon who has only served the interests of the Lebanese Druze family. His Progressive Socialist Party is an example of triumphalism of a particular family imposing its will on a community. However he has the distinction of being the weather vane of Lebanese Politics. However I think family ties will be dominant in many political parties, which sometimes limits long term vision. Nadim Gemayel, the son of slain former Maronite PM Bashir Gemayel, is trying to relaunch the the Lebanese Forces as a political party. I believe the Taif Accord must be done away with for true democracy. Forcing suprifical religious quotas does more to polarize. The accord is especially contentious because it over represents the Sunni community and under represents the Shi’ite community. The Maronites remain divided as well. It’s important to note that some Maronites, such as the Guardians of the Cedars, do not view themselves as Arabs, but as Phoneicians. I don’t think Lebanon is anything like Iraq. Despite the brutality of its civil war, its people have a much longer history of embracing modernity. The fact that it is nearly half Christian sets it apart. The Syrians too have a history of being more cultured than the Iraqis, and I believe the Syrians I met who told me that clanishness runs much deeper in Iraq. I don’t really believe Lebanon can be put into a broader narrative of reform in the Arab world. Its demographics and history are far too distinct.

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