Dr. Hedieh Mirahmadi, JD
The New York Sun, March 18, 2005
BEIRUT, Lebanon – On March 14, in Martyr’s Square, more than a million people rallied against the Syrian occupation of Lebanon – a poignant and direct response to Hezbollah’s own, if significantly smaller, pro-Syria rally held only days before. The streets of Beirut beyond the square were filled with thousands of people, many chanting in Arabic, “Syria out!” and “We came by choice; you came by force.”
Watching on television, it is possible to believe that this enthusiasm is from only one segment of Lebanese society, but in reality it transcends the sectarian divides that have defined perceptions of Lebanese society and politics in recent decades. A cross-confessional alliance has solidified against the occupation. Old and young, Sunnis, Shiites, and Christians marched together, fundamentalists and nationalists side by side with more pro-Western proponents, all mirroring the sentiment conveyed in a new bumper-sticker visible on many cars: “one Muslim Lebanese + one Christian Lebanese = the Lebanese.” These are the seeds of a new, democratic civil society; and walking amongst the protesters, it was clear this would be one of the most historic events of our time.
From the energy in the air, it is obvious that Lebanon and the whole of the Arab world are at a turning point, presented with a singular opportunity that would have seemed impossible only years before. Rather than revolution by bloody coup or an external plot for regime change, there is a peaceful, grassroots coalition for independence clamoring for change. And their lineage, their boldness, can be clearly drawn from the democratic transformation of Iraq.
The outcome of the recent Iraqi elections proved the integrity of American intentions in the region; this has been evidenced throughout the region by a decline of vocal anti-Americanism. For the first time in many years, policy discussions do not focus around “horrible U.S. foreign policy against Muslims,” but have turned instead to hope for the future, and American support for those dreams. Who would imagine one could find posters, in downtown Beirut, with the picture of President Bush in between the American and Lebanese flags?
Constant American press coverage of the events and the diplomatic words of support from Mr. Bush and Secretary of State Rice have provided moral and political support to the Lebanese people and laid the groundwork for new ties of friendship. And America must sustain this extraordinary momentum by carrying it one step further.
After years of working with totalitarian, centralized states in the Middle East, America must radically rethink its assistance in the region and must be far more innovative in its approach to public diplomacy if democracy is to be spread without constant military intervention. By exposing the Arab world to the ideals of a self-governing society – expressed in a way that is compatible with, but not identical to, Western ideals – we can further decrease the anti-Americanism and anti-Westernism that remain so prevalent in the Muslim world today.
And we can start in Lebanon. This grassroots revolution must be fostered into a true Lebanese, democratic civil society. America can aid this process and provide significant incentives for the Lebanese people to achieve their independence by creating a multimillion dollar Lebanon Freedom Foundation that (provided that the Syrian withdrawal and the free elections in May are both completed successfully) will be responsible for giving grants for democracy-building projects in Lebanon. Administered by a cooperative effort of American and Lebanese civic leaders, the foundation would increase the local capacity to administer nongovernmental organizations by international standards of governance and transparency. It would also disentangle grants from USAID bureaucracy, and allow the grants to come from a source that was not, directly, the American government. This means that the foundation would be able to support groundbreaking projects that address the ideological battle in the Arab world in a way that the American government would not be able to engage in itself.
These efforts would foster a culture of liberty that moves beyond rhetoric and creates the civic institutions necessary to preserve individual rights, and the freedom of expression, religion, and association. They will combine indigenous democratic ethics with modern notions of free society to transform Lebanon at the grassroots level.
The Iraq elections proved that America is serious about democracy; Lebanon can help show that America will support those who have the courage to demonstrate for change and demand freedom from the oppressive tradition of the status quo.