Editorial: Outbursts of democracy

March 7, 2005
One of many cynical ways to disparage democratic progress in the region that contains most of the world's oil and gas is to complain about US influence.

One of many cynical ways to disparage democratic progress in the region that contains most of the world’s oil and gas is to complain about US influence. To fanatic isolationists in the Middle East and North Africa, external influence, especially of the American variety, is anathema. And to the professionally skeptical elsewhere, any US role disqualifies democratization from historic significance.

Yet Iraqis defying terrorist threats in order to vote, like Lebanese turning to the streets to bring down a puppet government, don’t seem to care who or what cracked the door to self-governance. They’ve witnessed if not yet experienced the freedom essential to democracy. They like it. They want it.

Egyptian elections

Latest to sign up for a democratic trial run is Egypt. On Feb. 26, President Hosni Mubarak called for constitutional changes allowing multiparty presidential elections. Like most such moves in the region, Mubarak’s isn’t perfect. He wants to require that presidential candidates belong to political parties endorsed by Egypt’s parliament, which his party controls. Still, it’s a move toward relaxation of a 25-year-old emergency law that gives the president dictatorial power. Mubarak has held the office since 1981, winning nearly total approval in each of four suspicious votes on his presidency.

Mubarak’s surprise step followed the start on Feb. 10 of three phases of unprecedented municipal elections in Saudi Arabia. The February vote covered the capital city of Riyadh and surrounding region. Elections will be held in other parts of the kingdom in March and April. Contested are half of the seats on municipal councils, offices of little real authority. Yet in a signal that more is yet to come, officials before and after the Riyadh election hinted that the next round of voting, 4 years from now, might include women. For a male-dominated kingdom chronically wary of change, this is progress.

In Lebanon, change came from street pressure by a population weary of Syrian political domination and the presence of 16,000 Syrian military troops. Illegal demonstrations erupted in Beirut after the Feb. 14 assassination of Rafik Hariri, a former Lebanese prime minister who supported opponents to the Syrian-controlled government. In a surprise move on Feb. 28, Prime Minister Omar Karameh resigned. His was the first government in Lebanon’s history to be brought down by a movement of the Lebanese people. Like those of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the step is small, its destiny uncertain. Lebanese President Emile Lahoud will work with the parliament to form a new government. He strongly supports Syria and owes his current term in office to a 2003 constitutional amendment engineered by Syrian military intelligence. But wishes of the Lebanese people are clear.

These events must have drawn inspiration from Iraq, where a surprisingly large number of voters risked death Jan. 30 to elect 275 members to the Transitional National Assembly. Arab leaders elsewhere were said to have welcomed the election as a step toward a neighbor’s stabilization. They may yet discover that bold Iraqi support for self-governance had more than local significance.

Another potentially fateful election occurred Jan. 9, when Mahmoud Abbas was elected president of the Palestinian National Authority. Abbas, a former deputy of Palestinian Liberation Authority Chairman Yassir Arafat, who died last November, ran on a campaign of peace with Israel. In a Feb. 8 meeting hosted by Mubarak in Sharm el Sheik, Egypt, Abbas agreed with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to seek ways of ending the 4-year cycle of violence that has traumatized Israel and the Palestinian territories and set politics on edge around the world.

US pressure

Do these outbursts of democracy in a region of autocrats really reflect US pressure? Of course they do, although the degree of influence surely varies. So opponents of democracy will gripe about American meddling. And cynics will call democratic moves mere half steps headed nowhere, taken to appease Washington, DC.

Neither view suits the oil and gas industry. The big oil and gas opportunities of the future lie in the Middle East. The quality of those opportunities, to whatever extent private companies receive access to them, will depend strongly on the stability of host countries. And stability will depend on the control people who live in those countries have over the people who govern them.