Behind the Cedars

Nonviolent protest in the Middle East


First the invasion, then the agitation. A month ago, it was a scenario embraced by only a handful of neoconservatives and liberal hawks. In the wake of the Lebanese rebellion, it's becoming the new conventional wisdom: The U.S. sweeps into Iraq, topples Saddam, hangs on tenaciously when the occupation gets ugly; the payoff will be ten of thousands of Arabs in the streets demanding democracy.

In fact, several countries have seen nonviolent Arab movements for liberty and self-government recently, but there's only one where there's no doubt the protests are a consequence of the American invasion of Iraq. That revolt happened under circumstances that should give pause to hawks and doves alike: It's the movement in Iraq, led by the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, that culminated in January's elections.

In 2003, after the American occupiers cancelled local votes and announced that there'd be no national balloting until a constitution was drafted, Sistani demanded elections in a fatwa. He stepped up his protests after the U.S. proposed an indirect vote that would be easier for the Americans to control. As many as 100,000 of his Shi'ite followers marched in the streets of Baghdad in early 2004, and 30,000 held a similar demonstration in Basra. Among their chants: "Yes, yes to elections! No, no to occupation!" The U.S. eventually gave in to most of Sistani's demands, and the cleric then urged his followers to go to the polls.

Since that vote, American pundits have debated how democratic the process was, how liberal Sistani's long-term intentions are, how stable the new government will be in the face of the insurgency. But most have passed over the extent to which the vote itself was a product of ferment from the bottom up rather than orders from the top down. When they have raised the issue, it's usually been in the context of debating how much "credit" Bush deserves for the elections, an issue of interest to no one but partisan obsessives. Few have paused to ponder the paradox that the most successful recent grassroots campaign in the Middle East was both a product of the American occupation and aimed at the American occupiers.

The region's other people power movements are a heady mix, and a judgment about one won't always apply to the others. Here's an incomplete rundown:

• Most famous, of course, are the festive protests that followed the assassination of Lebanon's former prime minister Rafik Hariri, which soon became a strikingly successful drive to end Syria's two-decade occupation. (Syria's responsibility for Hariri's death has not been proven, but it was widely blamed for the murder.) The movement had a substantial victory when Lebanon's pro-Syrian prime minister resigned, and another when Syrian President Bashar Assad agreed to a gradual pullout—though the protesters are calling for something much faster.

Supporters of the Iraq war are calling this uprising a consequence of the U.S. invasion, frequently citing the Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt's comment to 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 Berlin Wall has fallen." I have no window into Jumblatt's soul, and I have no idea how sincere the notoriously opportunistic politician is being. But in practice, America's current face-off with Assad is more important to Jumblatt than its earlier face-off with Hussein, and it gives him a strong incentive to do an about-face on the Iraq war.

On the streets, there's anecdotal evidence that the elections in Iraq have been on the marchers' minds. But there are two bigger influences, represented by the two labels the Lebanese revolt has attracted. Sometimes it calls itself the Independence Intifada, indicating an eye trained on Israel's partial withdrawal from its occupied territories. And sometimes it's called the Cedar Revolution, suggesting that the other eye is pointed at two recent recent events in Central Asia: the Orange Revolution in Ukraine and the Rose Revolution in Georgia.

The Lebanese protesters have borrowed many tactics directly from the Ukrainians and Georgians, from tent cities to street theater. "Interestingly, one of the Lebanese and Egyptian slogans is 'enough,' which was also used by the Ukrainians, and was the name of the Georgian student resistance movement," notes Shaazka Beyerle, the Greece-based vice president of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, who has closely followed events in Lebanon. "Protesters handed out roses to soldiers—another echo of Georgia's tactics which earned its Rose Revolution name."

• Just south of Lebanon, another nonviolent campaign has been underway since 2002. Mustafa Barghouti's Palestinian National Initiative has been in the forefront of protesting the wall Israel is erecting in the West Bank. The barrier is supposed to keep suicide bombers out of Israel, but it's had dire effects for many ordinary Palestinians who now find their property confiscated and their movements curtailed. As Amnesty International put it in 2003, "more and more Palestinians find themselves trapped into enclaves and cantons, unable to have any semblance of a normal life."

The movement against the fence is notable not just for its aims, but for its methods: Barghouti, who comes from a secular leftist background, is making a conscious attempt to move Palestinian dissent away from terrorism and toward nonviolent resistance. He's also a longstanding critic of the corruption within the Palestinian National Authority, and he finished second in the recent election to succeed Yasser Arafat, gathering 19.8% of the vote.

• Syria now faces both nonviolent and violent upheaval from its Kurdish minority. (This received some western attention a year ago, after a soccer riot in Qamishli set off protests and crackdowns in several Syrian cities.) The country has also seen occasional displays of displeasure from its Arab citizens, and there are hopes that the crisis in Lebanon will fell the regime in Damascus as well. For the moment, though, few expect a full-fledged people-power revolt. "The City's air is rife with all sorts of untoward rumors," the Damascus-based blogger Ammar Abdulhamid wrote last week; "everything is now possible: there is talk of arrests, purges, coup d'états, assassinations, sanctions, invasions, anything and everything, except, of course, freedom. Everything is possible except freedom."

• Saudi Arabia's municipal elections, which began in February and went through their second phase last week, are hardly models of modern democracy—among other problems, only men could vote—but there's some hope that they'll be a first step towards more serious change. Though some have rushed to attribute the Saudi shift to Iraq's example, there are some closer models, including Bahrain's parliamentary elections in 2002 and Jordan's vote in 2003.

Even closer to home is the small but brave domestic movement for democracy, which received a little press attention last year when three of its leaders went on trial for their anti-authoritarian activism, attracting a crowd of 200 spectators. It's hard to say how big a role it played in the kingdom's cautious reforms, but The Washington Post's Steve Coll has some bad news: "In the same week that the Saudi government posted and celebrated the results of the Riyadh area's municipal voting," he writes, "it barred lawyers and supporters from the accused activists' courtroom and threatened to convict them without a formal trial because the men refused to present a defense."

• And then there's Egypt. President Hosni Mubarak announced what he called a "new era of reform" late last month with the news that his country would hold its first multiparty elections in over 50 years. Hardly anyone thinks he has a genuinely competitive contest in mind, let alone the sort of liberalization that would entail releasing all his political prisoners and embracing open political debate. But opponents of his rule are now agitating for more substantial changes. A week after Mubarak's announcement, demonstrators in Cairo were declaring the elections a "masquerade" and demanding more substantial reforms.

• Just as this story was going to press, Reuters reported that about 500 Kuwaitis, most of them women, marched on Parliament to demand women's suffrage. My colleague Charles Paul Freund notes that Kuwait has seen bills to enfranchise women in the past, but that this was the first time such a measure has been boosted by street protests.

Simon Jenkins wrote yesterday that "tossing a miasma of events into a journalistic cocktail seldom yields clarity," and I realize I'm in danger of mixing a hallucinatory potion myself. The above list mixes strong movements and weak ones, movements aligned with the U.S. and distant from it, movements for free elections and movements for deeper liberal reforms. It's useless to argue about whether the war "caused" these revolts. Syria's Kurds wouldn't be so rambunctious without the Iraqi Kurds to inspire them, but otherwise it's hard to claim that any particular uprising couldn't have occurred without Iraq looming in the background.

Iraq does loom in the background, though, and if nothing else it's created a general quickening effect. Within Iraq, it sparked Sistani's peaceful protests—and it also sparked a violent insurgency. Outside Iraq, preexisting patterns of all kinds are intensified. There's a wave of nonviolent movements against injustice; there's also a wave of terrorism. (The State Department's most recent report on global terror shows the number of attacks increasing from 198 in 2002 to 208 in 2003.) The circuits of communication, from Bahraini bloggers to Al Jazeera, pulsate with unexpected ideas and insurrections. Most of this is invisible to Americans until suddenly it flares into view. All of a sudden, mutually suspicious Lebanese factions unite to throw out their Syrian overlords. All of a sudden, a car bomb kills 125 in Baghdad.

And then the event is ripped from its context and reduced to fit one of the competing narratives of America's domestic disputes. I can't stop that, and I'm not sure I'd want to, but let me make a plea. If you're a hawk, try to read the voices of caution without reflexively declaring that the pessimists just don't want to give Bush credit for anything. And if you're a dove, try to read the voices of elation without worrying that a happy event in the Middle East might somehow justify the war. (Last I checked, the national-security case for the invasion was still in tatters, and that's the only one that mattered to me. Besides, if nonviolent conflict can be a consequence of war, it can also be an alternative to it.)

Breathe deeply. For a moment, forget our stateside struggles, and try to take the Middle East on its own terms.