Twenty years ago, I wrote a book about West Asia, and recently I was thinking of updating it with a new introduction. It was going to be very simple—just one page, indeed just one line: “Nothing has changed.”
It took me two days covering the elections in Beirut, Lebanon, to realize that I was dead wrong. No, something is going on in West Asia today that is very new. Pull up a chair; this is going to be interesting.
What we saw in the Lebanese elections, where the pro-Western 14 March movement won a surprise victory over the pro-Iranian Hezbollah coalition, what we saw in the ferment for change exposed by the election campaign in Iran, and what we saw in the provincial elections in Iraq, where the big pro-Iranian party got trounced, is the product of four historical forces that have come together to crack open this ossified region.
First is the diffusion of technology. The Internet, blogs, YouTube and text messaging via cell phones, particularly among the young—70% of Iranians are under 30—is giving West Asians cheap tools to communicate horizontally, to mobilize politically and to criticize their leaders acerbically, outside of state control. It is also enabling them to monitor vote-rigging.
I knew something had changed when I sat down for coffee on Hamra Street in Beirut last week with my 80-year-old friend and mentor, Kemal Salibi, one of Lebanon’s greatest historians, and he told me about his Facebook group!
The evening of Lebanon's election, I went to the Beirut home of Saad Hariri, the leader of the 14 March coalition, to interview him. In a big living room, he had a gigantic wall-size television broadcasting the results. And alongside the main TV were 16 smaller flat-screen TVs with electronic maps of Lebanon.
Hariri’s own election experts were working on laptops and breaking down every vote from every religious community, village by village, and projecting them on the screens.
Second, for real politics to happen you need space. There are a million things to hate about president George W. Bush’s costly and wrenching wars. But the fact is, in ousting Saddam in Iraq in 2003 and mobilizing the UN to push Syria out of Lebanon in 2005, he opened space for real democratic politics that had not existed in Iraq or Lebanon for decades.
When I reported from Beirut in the 1970s and 1980s, I covered coups and wars. I never once stayed up late waiting for an election result. Elections in the Arab world were a joke—literally. They told this story about Syria’s president, Hafez Assad. After a Syrian election, an aide came in and told Assad: “Mr President, you won 99.8% of the votes. It means that only two-tenths of 1% of Syrians didn’t vote for you. What more could ask for?” Assad answered: “Their names!”
Lebanese, by contrast, just waited up all night for their election results—no one knew what they’d be.
Third, the Bush team opened a hole in the wall of Arab autocracy but did a poor job following through. In the vacuum, the parties most organized to seize power were the Islamists—Hezbollah in Lebanon; pro-Al Qaeda forces among Iraqi Sunnis, and the pro-Iranian Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and Mahdi Army among Iraqi Shiites; the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan; Hamas in Gaza.
Fortunately, these Islamist groups overplayed their hand by imposing religious lifestyles or by dragging their societies into confrontations the people didn’t want. This alienated and frightened more secular, mainstream Arabs and Muslims and has triggered an “awakening” backlash among moderates from Lebanon to Pakistan to Iran.
Finally, along came President Barack Hussein Obama. Arab and Muslim regimes found it very useful to run against George W. Bush. The Bush team demonized them, and they demonized the Bush team. Obama’s soft power has defused a lot of that. As result, “pro-American” is not such an insult anymore.
I don’t know how all this shakes out; the forces against change in this region are very powerful—see Iran—and ruthless. But for the first time in a long time, the forces for decency, democracy and pluralism have a little wind at their backs. Good for them. ©2009/THE NEW YORK TIMES
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