With the last Syrian troops pulling out of Lebanon Tuesday, it seems that there is a movement in the Middle East toward democracy. Considering the municipal elections in Saudi Arabia and the Kuwaiti government allowing women to vote in local elections for the first time, democracy may be taking hold in the region. While there is room for hope, these steps toward full democratic movements are only the first tentative steps toward a large-scale expansion of democracy in the Middle East.
The final pullout of Syrian troops signals Lebanon may be on the road to full sovereignty outside the sphere of Syrian influence.
Due to the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and international pressure, Syria pulled out its troops. While the overt presence of Syria troops in the Bekaa Valley and Syrian intelligence in Beirut may be over, it is still unknown what Syria’s future intentions are in Lebanon. What will Syria’s new role be in Lebanon? Even former Lebanese President Amin Gemayel stated Syria has infiltrated most of the national institutions in Lebanon and that “Syria was creating a creeping annexation policy and it won’t be very easy to get rid of the consequences of this hegemony.” Syria and Lebanon do not even have formal diplomatic relations.
With the parliamentary elections tentatively scheduled for May 29, there are signs of hope for Lebanon establishing its full sovereignty. The Lebanese opposition, which transcended religious lines, was able to bring international pressure on Syria to withdraw. With the upcoming election in Lebanon, the Lebanese people may be able to free themselves from Syrian control.
In Kuwait, there was another sign of hope for democracy. On April 19, the Kuwaiti parliament voted to allow women to vote and stand in Kuwaiti parliamentary elections. While there is disagreement from some of the Islamist and tribal members of parliament about allowing full suffrage for Kuwaiti women, this is a first step toward democracy in the Middle East.
While there are some definite signs in the Middle East that democracy may take hold, there are also some signs that democracy is only in its infancy. In the first Saudi municipal elections this month, candidates on a “golden list,” a group of candidates backed by conservative Muslim clerics, won in landslide victories. Even in Jedda, a city considered to be liberal by Saudi standards, the seven candidates on this list won seats. While the losers in this election claim that clerics gave those on the informally circulated lists illegal support, the elections in Saudi Arabia show how much of a force the religious establishment is in Saudi politics. Even the elections in Saudi were largely ceremonial: only half of the officials in the municipal governments consist of elected officials (half are appointed officials) and have little real power in the Saudi government.
Even in the upcoming Lebanese elections, the pro-Syrian Hezbollah may take control. There is no guarantee that the Lebanese people will throw off Syrian influence. While the United States considers Hezbollah to be a terrorist group, many Lebanese people consider it to be a legitimate resistance movement. Hezbollah, which the United States accuses of exporting terrorism, may become a genuine governing force in the Middle East.
There is hope for democracy in the Middle East. Due to the tragedy of Hariri’s assassination, Lebanon was able to push Syrian troops and intelligence agents out and have the potential to establish its full autonomy. Kuwait has taken the first steps toward women’s suffrage. There are also signs that democracy may have negative results. The Muslim clerical establishment of Saudi Arabia was able to get its approved candidates into local government seats, and the parliamentary elections in Lebanon may result in a terrorist organization gaining legitimacy on the international stage. As the Middle East begins to experiment with democracy, there is no guarantee that democracy will take hold, and there are certainly no guarantees that there will be no setbacks. While we in the United States can hope for democracy to take hold, individual countries will have to decide what path they will take in their own futures.
Jeff Carnes (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a junior majoring in linguistics.