Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Editorial: Spring is in the Air

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They say that springtime is for lovers. And for lovers of Middle Eastern democracy, the northern Spring of 2005 has ushered in an early blossoming that is unprecedented in the region’s history.

In the January 2005 issue of The Review we wrote:

"As part of the American push for democracy in the region, it is hard to see a downside to elections. For the first time, 25 million Iraqis and more than 2 million Palestinians will enjoy the freedom to choose their leaders, who will then be expected to steer their respective societies towards liberty and democracy. Should the project succeed, it could send shockwaves through other Middle East dictatorships such as Saudi Arabia and Syria, sending a message that tyranny in the region will not be tolerated."

Of course, it is still extremely early days in terms of the onset of democracy and liberty. But the cascade of events that is flowing through the Middle East has changed the Arab world forever. Writing in the Washington Post, Charles Krauthammer wondered whether events in the Middle East recalled the abortive French revolution of 1848 or the fall of the Berlin Wall in the 1989. The fall of the Wall and the resultant demise of communism in Europe brought about an immediate and irreversible change for the better to untold millions. And while the revolution of 1848 failed in the short term, the uprising in France laid the foundations for the establishment of democratic rule 23 years later.

In other words, even when tyrants manage to forestall the sovereign will of the people for freedom, such setbacks are inevitably only temporary. The popular desire for liberty is nearly impossible to eliminate. And this is all the more true in an age of modern communications and the endless 24/7 news cycle.

Thus even if the movement for Middle Eastern democracy is momentarily stifled by the old forces of Levantine autocracy, the cat is out of the bag. No despot will be able to erase from their people’s memory the sight of 800,000 Lebanese demonstrating for freedom from Syrian rule. No jihadist demagogue will be able to overcome the spirit of jubilant Iraqis waving their ink-stained fingers in the air on election day. Freedom will come to the Arab world, though it may tarry.

Even in Iran, thousands protested during the traditional Iranian festival of fire on March 16. Many chanted, according to reports, "We need no Sheikh, no Mullah. We curse you, Ruhollah" (the late Ayatollah Khomeini’s first name).

And it is fascinating to view the intellectual wriggling that these developments are causing amongst those who insisted the Arabs did not want or need democracy. Those who insisted efforts to lift the dead weight of tyranny off the necks of the peoples of the Middle East were "colonialism" are unlikely to ever concede that the policy of the United States and Australia might be deserving of any credit at all. So there are those who continue to denigrate the unfolding signs of Levantine liberty, predicting explicitly that the ‘Beirut Spring’ won’t last because they are hinting implicitly that the Arabs and democracy don’t mix.

And then there are the slightly more centred naysayers who, while conceding that there is something substantial afoot in the Middle East, deny that any credit can be given to the efforts of the US and its allies. But as the unfolding evidence of Arab democratisation begins to mount towards the point of plausible undeniability, the squirming of these ideologues becomes something indeed to behold.

For a more measured take on what is going on, it is worthwhile to go to the real source. One should leave the chattering Western commentariat in the dust, and transfer one’s attentions to the people of the region who are actually experiencing these events. Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt is no friend of America. His troops fought against the US Marines during the ill-fated Beirut peacekeeping expedition of 1983. But Jumblatt proved himself to be more intellectually honest than many outside commentators when he recently remarked:

"It is strange for me to say it, but this process of change has started because of the American invasion of Iraq. 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 the new Arab world. The Syrian people, the Egyptian people, all say that something is changing. The Berlin Wall has fallen. We can see it."

One of Iraq’s foremost webloggers, Hussein Uthman expressed similar sentiments recently (March 20) on his blog (http://democracyiniraq.blogspot.com/).

On the second anniversary of the Iraq war, Hussein was asked whether the conflict had been "worth it." He was asked whether it had been justified in spite of all the suffering and damage caused by the war and its aftermath. Hussein Uthman’s words provide a far better answer to that question than any ideologically biased armchair pundit from half a world away:

"Now I answer you, I answer you on behalf of myself and my countrymen. I don’t care what your news tells you, what your television and newspaper say, this is how we feel. Despite all that has happened. Despite all the hurt, the pain, blood sweat and tears. These two years have given us hope we never had. Before March 20 2003 we were in a dungeon. We did not see the light. Saddam Hussein was crushing Iraq’s spirit slowly, we longed for his end, but knew we could not challenge him or his diabolical seed who would no doubt follow him and continue his generation of hell on Earth."

Hussein went on:

"Iraqis can see the finish line, the finish line of freedom and democracy and a functioning nation. We can smell it, taste it and like a sprinter, one who has broken his legs but has a heart full of passion, we will crawl there no matter what the cost. No matter what we must endure, we have realised what we can become and that is the biggest result of the last two years."

Well said, Hussein. And it seems that this same realisation has dawned upon people throughout the Middle East.

COLIN RUBENSTEIN