Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Mohamad Ozeir: Reading the Arab Press on Recent Events in Lebanon


EDITOR'S NOTE: Some Middle Eastern media are excitedly predicting the arrival of democracy not only in Lebanon, but in the entire region. PNS contributor Mohamad Ozeir, former editor of the Arab American Journal, monitors Arab press for New California Media. He was born in Lebanon and worked there as a journalist from 1980-85.

SAN FRANCISCO--The sudden resignation of the Syrian-backed Lebanese government on Feb. 28 represented a sea change in the ongoing debate about democracy in the Arab World.

What made this resignation a major front-page story in the Arab press was not Prime Minister Omar Karami's dramatic announcement in front of parliament that his government would step down. It was not the element of surprise, which made the parliament's president, Nabih Berry, a Karami supporter, complain about not being consulted. It was not the subject of the questioning, which was the touchy issue of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri's assassination two weeks ago. It was, many Arab media agreed, the fact that the resignation came in response to a popular uprising.

When cabinet and parliament members were gathering for the showdown between the opposition and the government, they had to wade through streams of people, mostly students and young professionals who challenged the curfew in downtown Beirut. The crowds gathered in the tens of thousands, near the gravesite of Hariri in the city's main square, waving Lebanese flags and demanding the resignation of the government, the truth about Hariri's assassination and the immediate withdrawal of Syrian troops and intelligence agents from Lebanon.

With huge TV screens installed in the square a few blocks from the parliament building, the demonstrators were able to follow their representatives' speeches and react to their words. The roar of thousands of raised voices was clearly heard on the other side. The loudest roar came as Karami announced the government's resignation.

"The democratic scene has been completed here in Lebanon," said Al Jazeera reporter Abbas Nasser in his live coverage from the square. "People took to the streets in a peaceful demonstration, a parliament questioned the government in a harsh way, and a prime minister consequently resigned. It is an unusual precedent in the Arab World."

Alqabas Daily in Kuwait asked on its front page, "Is it Lebanon's Spring?", comparing Beirut's events to "Prague Spring" in 1968 when the people of Czechoslovakia challenged the Soviet grip of their country. Along with the front-page story, Alqabas published 17 other related reports on the developments in Lebanon.

Al-Seyassah Kuwaiti daily printed full-page pictures of the crowd in downtown Beirut. The front-page editorial described the uprising as a full democratic protest in tune with the values of freedom and human rights. The editor of Al-Seyassah, Ahmad Al-Jarallah, predicted that the effects of the Lebanese movement would reach many other Arab capitals.

Al-Rai Al-Aam, another daily paper in Kuwait, put the protest ahead of the resignation. Its headline read, "Tens of thousands chant for truth, freedom, and a Syrian pullout." A columnist in the paper called the resignation of the government "a unique Arabic event where a government steps down in the face of a peaceful demonstration demanding freedom, truth, and independence."

In Saudi Arabia the headline of Al-Reyad Daily read, "Karami's Government collapsed to the beat of the downtown protest." The leading Egyptian daily, Al-Ahram, reported, "the Lebanese government was forced to resign in the face of thousands demanding a Syrian withdrawal."

In Amman, Jordan, Oraib Al-Rentawi wrote in Addustour Daily, "Lebanon deserves to brag among Arabs that it was the first in freedom and diversity before, and it is the first and most loyal in democracy now." He called on Arab parliaments and councils to learn from the Lebanese experience and to get some courage and responsibility from Lebanese people and legislators. He predicted that "Lebanon Spring" would trigger a domino effect in the Arab world that "won't stop until a lot more statues in the Arab capitals follow the path of Saddam's statue in Baghdad."

Along with this excitement, many Lebanese columnists warned that this is only the beginning of the change and not the end. They called on all involved parties to resolve the crisis intensified by Hariri's death through dialogue and peaceful means to retain national unity.

Despite all the tension created by the resignation and political uncertainty, the popular movement had center stage in the reports and comments of the Lebanese press. Ghassan Tueni, the publisher of the leading Lebanese daily Annahar, sees the events as a lesson: "When a popular majority inspires a parliamentarian minority, it forces the cabinet to resign."

He called the events "a day of victory for democracy."

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