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What an embarrassment. After having nurtured a bully's reputation, and thus put off not just America and Europe but also most Lebanese, Hassan Nasrallah is now trying to outflank the free world by peacefully deploying what pro-Western Arab leaders fear most: people power.
With typical strategic agility, the leader of Lebanon's restive and underrepresented Shi'ite community has made political empowerment his aim and passive resistance his tactic. In doing this, he is challenging the Western-backed government by parroting the very democracy lingo Washington has been preaching so loudly since 9/11.
Clearly, the Shi'ite demonstrators now tenting in Beirut represent more than merely a counterweight to the huge funeral his opponents organized for the slain Pierre Gemayel. At stake now in Beirut is the very essence of the Western claim for the moral higher ground in the Middle East.
Any failure to allow the people, even if they are the bad guys, to be fairly represented would be immoral, impractical, and indeed disastrous from a Western viewpoint. Conversely, joining rather than resisting Nasrallah's maneuver will not only confound him, but defeat him.
THE LEBANESE political system which is at the heart of this showdown is based on an ethnic formula originally conceived by French colonialists and later amended by Arab dictators, in the aftermath of the civil war that ended in 1989.
According to that system, Lebanon held elections well before any other Arab country, and as such was celebrated as the only Arab democracy. Unfortunately, that was unfounded. What Lebanon's caricature of a democracy really was, and remains, is a tribal syndicate, a consortium of privately armed clans that alternately accommodate, embrace and kill while distributing power among themselves based on a bizarre recipe, whereby the president is a Christian, the prime minister a Sunni, and the speaker of parliament a Shi'ite. Parliament itself was also carved into ethnic factions. Initially, 54 of 99 legislators were Christians, and ultimately, since the 1989 Taif Accords, which among other things expanded parliament, they are 64 of 128.
Now even the Christians concede their real share in the population has long ceased to be 50%, and every Sunni knows the Shi'ites constitute far more than 27 in 128 Lebanese, though that is all the current system allocates that community.
For his part, Nasrallah's qualms are not about this system failing to meet Jeffersonian democratic standards; what he wants is to merely maneuver within it by bullying the government to expand his share in power.
Real democrats should tell Nasrallah that if it's democracy he wants, then the entire sectarian system should be shed, and replaced with true democracy, one where all legislative seats and executive positions would be open to any citizen, regardless of ethnicity and faith, including the Lebanese Palestinians, who are predominantly Sunni and are denied the right to work and vote.
Yes, such a reform would potentially reflect the Shi'ites' real size, but it would also expose the limits of Hizbullah's following, which even under the existing system handed Nasrallah only half of the seats allocated to the Shi'ite community.
THE WEST has already tried once, in 1992, to manipulate Arab democracy, when it tolerated - not to say inspired - a junta's removal of Algeria's freely elected Islamist Salvation Front. The result was a catastrophic civil war and justified Islamist wrath at all things Western. Do America and France appreciate democracy only when it brings to power people they like, Muslims across the world then asked?
Despite its futility, the same paternalism was later implemented toward the PA, when Washington and Jerusalem tolerated - not to say inspired - Hamas's absence from the presidential election that crowned Yasser Arafat. Everyone had a good time pretending Arafat was democratically elected, though the people's will was clearly elsewhere. Consequently, Arafat constantly looked over his shoulder to see whether his actions were agreeable to the people's real champion, Ahmed Yassin.
It follows that the people's will anyhow eventually prevails, and it therefore might as well be recognized and formalized. Otherwise, the bad guys enjoy the best of all worlds: minimum responsibility and maximum power. That is what the unelected Yassin had next to the elected Arafat, and that is what Nasrallah now seeks in Lebanon by demanding a few more cabinet seats; not power itself, just veto power over someone else's authority.
Yes, Arab democracies might choose war, as the Palestinians have in voting Hamas. In that case, they will have to be met on the battlefield. Yet manipulating the political process so that someone agreeable to foreigners but ignored by his own people theoretically rules over them will not prevent a people's quest for war, as the exclusion of Hamas from Palestinian presidential elections has proven twice.
Conversely, if allowed to win elections, bad guys, too, will be expected to supply the jobs, housing, sewerage, education and welfare that they had such a good time scolding their predecessors for failing to produce. This is what has happened to Hamas since its electoral landslide last year. The Palestinian public may still share Ismail Haniyeh's blind hatred of Israel, but it has also seen his administrative ineptitude and responded with revulsion.
Evidently, even when they elect terrorists, the people still understand their vote as a deal whereby they give power and get a life. And when life isn't delivered, power escapes.
LEBANON IS much more demographically complex than Gaza. If truly democratized, its fanatics will fail to seize its leadership, and in fact will be reduced to their real size.
Having consistently contended throughout Arafat's years here that if only given the opportunity the Palestinians would elect Hamas, I now say that the Lebanese, if given the opportunity to vote Nasrallah, will shun him. There are too many people there who adore the freedom, multiculturalism, prosperity, greed and hedonism that are Beirut's hallmark, and Hizbullah's anathema.
And the best proof of this will be in Nasrallah's refusal to launch a sweeping democratic revolution in Lebanon. Just challenge him.