By ROGER COHEN
Three Middle Eastern countries have been conspicuous for their stability in the storm. They are Turkey, Lebanon and Israel. An odd mix, you might say, but they have in common that they are places where people vote. Democracy is a messy all-or-nothing business. That’s why I love it. You can no more be a little bit democratic than a little bit pregnant.
Yes, citizens go to the polls in Turkey, Lebanon and Israel and no dictator gets 99.3 percent of the vote. They are lands of opportunity where money is being made and where facile generalizations, for all their popularity, miss the point. Turkey has not turned Islamist, Lebanon is not in the hands of Hezbollah, and Israel is still an open society. All three countries, of course, are also wracked by division and imperfection; but then two great merits of democracy are that it finesses division and does not aspire to perfection.
Speaking of Hezbollah, remember all that alarm a couple of months back when a Hezbollah-backed businessman, Najib Mikati, emerged as prime minister? After that, Lebanon introduced the Libyan no-fly-zone resolution at the United Nations — a rare, if little noted, example of the United States and a Hezbollah-supported government in sync.
Talk to Hezbollah: That’s obvious. It’s no terrorizing monolith. Mikati is struggling with the give-and-take of Lebanese politics. Life goes on in the freewheeling way that has long drawn repressed, frustrated Arabs to Beirut.
Hezbollah is a political party with a militia. That’s a big problem. Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Shas party has an outsized influence over Israel because of coalition politics. That’s a problem. The Muslim Brotherhood will loom large in a free Egypt because it has an organizational head start. That may be a problem. Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party is a brilliant political machine with a ruthless bent. That’s a problem, too.
These are problems of different sizes. But give me all these problems so long as they present themselves within open (or opening) systems. They are far preferable to the cowed conformity common to the terrorized societies of the now doomed Arab Jurassic Park, where despots do their worst.
It’s over: Enough of the nameless graves that whisper of horror, enough of the 20th-century police states in the 21st-century. Yes, it’s over for Ben Ali and for Mubarak. It’s over for Qaddafi, yes it is. How far it’s over for the other Arab despots and autocrats, whether of the oxymoronic “republics” or the royals, will depend on how far they can get out in front of their citizens’ demand to be heard.
You see, you can’t do Hama any more. You can’t do the Iraqi marshes. Perhaps you can kill dozens, but not tens of thousands. These despots relied on the limitlessness of their terror. It had to be as absolute as their contempt for the law.
But now people know. They communicate through the clampdowns. They are Facebook-nimble. The despots gaze into their gilded mirrors and, to their horror, see not themselves but the people who will be silenced no longer. They wonder then if their own myriad agents can be trusted. They are caught in their own web. They flail; they have gone too far to turn back but cannot go forward.
Bashar al-Assad, the embattled Syrian president, was about to say something Sunday, before deciding not to. He was trained in west London as an eye doctor. He’d better stop thinking Hama — where his father murdered at least 10,000 — and start thinking Hammersmith.
Questions swirl. Who are the Libyan rebels? Who are the angry of Latakia? The Arab transitions will be long and bumpy — like those that brought representative government to Latin America and Central Europe and wide swathes of Asia — but now that fear has been overcome, they are irreversible.
Here’s who the protesters are: people like Asmaa Mahfouz, 26, the Egyptian woman who on Jan. 18 made a video urging citizens to go to Tahrir Square on Jan. 25 — the demonstration that would start the revolution. She said then: “We’ll go down and demand our rights, our fundamental human rights. I won’t even talk about any political rights. We just want our human rights and nothing else.” And she said people “don’t have to come to Tahrir Square, just go down anywhere and say it, that we are free human beings.” And: “This is enough!”
People are being born throughout the Middle East. They are discovering their capacity to change things, their inner “Basta!” That’s how the Arab spring began on Dec. 17 in the little town of Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia — with a fruit peddler’s “enough” to humiliation. In my end is my beginning.
Three months later the genie is not only out of the bottle, it’s shattered the bottle. I said of Libya in an earlier column: Be ruthless or stay out. So now the West is in, be ruthless. Arm the resurgent rebels. Incapacitate Qaddafi. Do everything short of putting troops on the ground. Qaddafi, as President Obama has said, “must leave.” So that Libya can be an Arab country that is imperfect but open.
Source: New York Times