• Reports
  • April 17, 2005
  • 21 minutes read

A New Power Rises Across Mideast

A New Power Rises Across Mideast
Advocates for Democracy Begin to Taste Success After Years of Fruitless Effort

By Scott Wilson and Daniel Williams


 First of two articles


BEIRUT — Early this year, a small group of advertising executives, journalists and political operatives began meeting around the crowded tables of a popular cafe here to plot an opposition media strategy for Lebanon’s spring parliamentary elections.


 Among them was Said Francis, whose urbane crew cut and black turtleneck sweater suggested his position as the regional creative director of the advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi. Employing reams of scratch paper, cigarettes and coffee, the group members argued over color schemes and slogans.


The mission was a long, almost hopeless quest to upend years of Syrian political domination. “Like all Lebanese, we thought we were experts on politics,” recalled Francis, who volunteered outside his agency on the politically sensitive campaign. “But progress was slow.”


Then a bomb exploded Feb. 14 along Beirut’s waterfront, killing former prime minister Rafiq Hariri. The media group immediately put its election strategy into action as tens of thousands of protesters flooded Beirut’s central square demanding that Syria pull out of Lebanon. The group’s choices — the red-and-white color scheme and “Independence ’05” slogan — were broadcast across the Middle East.


 Suddenly, Francis and his colleagues were at the cutting edge of the Arab world’s democratic spring.


The photogenic protests were the result of the rising power of a network of political reform movements in the Arab world, organized by young, Westernized and technology-savvy activists who had been attacking the rigid underpinnings of their closed societies for years without much success. Now, Francis and his group were seeing results. The Martyrs’ Square protests helped trigger the fall of the Lebanese government and force Syria to pull its army and intelligence agents out of Lebanon, a stunning retreat.


 “No one will be able to deny that the people have finally forced an Arab government to leave,” said Wael Abou Faour, a young Druze Muslim political leader who helped draft the media strategy. “Syria is out, the security regime is collapsing and reconciliation is a part of every Lebanese mind.”


The prospect of sectarian violence still shadows Lebanon; crackdowns against dissent threaten reform movements in Egypt; and Saudi Arabia and other autocratic strongholds in the Middle East are taking only the most cautious steps toward democracy.


 But across the region, political reformers are benefiting from the unifying forces of technology and mass media. Digital channels outside the control of states are carrying anything from a Kuwaiti woman’s call for voting rights in her country to a Lebanese Christian’s demands to drive Syrian troops out from his. The foot soldiers are Islamic political activists in some cases, Bob Dylan disciples, communists or Arab secular nationalists in others. Many are united only in their common desire for fair elections, free speech and political rights.


 In his second inaugural address, President Bush said that “it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture.” But many democracy advocates in the region are skeptical of U.S. intentions here, and truly free elections in such countries as Egypt and Saudi Arabia could usher in parties sharply at odds with the United States. At the same time, Bush’s message has offered a measure of comfort to street activists, who believe that crackdowns will be harder to carry out now that the United States is watching.


 A powerful influence on the region has been televised imagery of Georgia’s street uprising, called the Rose Revolution, which resulted in the ousting of a president after a flawed election. Then came Ukraine’s potent Orange Revolution, which also followed polling seen as rigged. These mass movements have helped inspire political strategies playing out today on the streets in Beirut and Bahrain.


The Iraq experience, by contrast, has had a mixed effect. Some democracy activists in the region have been inspired by the recent elections but remain concerned by the continuing violence there. In Egypt, outrage over the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and American policy toward the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians spurred some reformers to take to the streets to protest against President Hosni Mubarak, whom they view as a U.S. ally.


 The Arab movements are, in many cases, increasingly tethered together by the work of U.S.-funded democracy programs, international anti-corruption groups and Arab satellite television. Seminars funded by groups such as Transparency International and the philanthropist George Soros have brought together novice parliamentarians, activist journalists and human rights advocates from Morocco to the Persian Gulf region.


In almost every case, they have faced off against a powerful yet unpopular autocrat, making the lessons learned in one place applicable in another.


 “What we have benefited from enormously is that all the leaders of the Middle East were educated from the same book,” said Francis, 38, who did some of his professional training in San Francisco. “They are so predictable, and the antidote is common for all of them.”

An Inspiring Catalyst




Faour, the Druze political leader, a friendly, compact man who favors tweed blazers and khaki slacks, constantly attends to his two ringing cell phones. He is among a generation of Lebanese leaders whose political education began in the years after the 1975-90 civil war, when he was a student activist at the American University of Beirut.


 The 32-year-old has risen in the ranks of the Progressive Socialist Party — the Druze movement headed by opposition leader Walid Jumblatt — from youth coordinator to a position in the party’s political bureau. More important in recent months, however, has been his role on the opposition’s steering board, called the Follow-Up Committee. It was created last fall after Lebanon’s parliament, under Syrian pressure, extended the term of President Emile Lahoud.


 The committee, made up of Druze, Christian and Sunni Muslim parties who oppose Syria’s presence in Lebanon, had been meeting for months in dim party headquarters around Beirut. But the work progressed slowly, Faour recalled, until the bomb blast along the Corniche, or coastal drive, that killed Hariri. After the explosion, Faour and the rest of the opposition gathered inside Hariri’s Koreitem Palace. During sometimes tearful meetings through the night, an opposition plan was set in motion, spurred by the smoking ruins of Hariri’s motorcade.


 “The act itself moved everything,” Faour said.


 For months, Hariri, a cautious, self-made billionaire who entered politics after the civil war, had been publicly reluctant to join the opposition to Syria, although he privately shared its goals. But three months before his death, Hariri began sending members of his party, known as the Future Movement, to opposition committee meetings.


 He had also begun planning a parliamentary reelection campaign. According to several opposition officials, he had already sketched out a slogan publicly challenging Syria’s domineering presence in Lebanon. “With your vote, independence” the slogan vowed.


 Since his assassination, Hariri’s family, media enterprises and political organizations have become the chief financial sources for almost all opposition activities. The opposition has spent less than $600,000 on the tens of thousands of flags, scarves and “Independence ’05” bumper stickers, according to the opposition strategists behind the media campaign. Printing has been donated by sympathetic businesses. Hariri’s family also turned Future TV, the television station he founded, into the opposition’s official media outlet.


 “We had Christians, Druze and others but, of course, we were interested in getting money from one Sunni,” said Samir Kassir, 45, an influential journalist tapped early on to coordinate the creative team. “Hariri.”

The Thrill of Success




The week of Hariri’s death, a group of advertising executives, volunteering outside their agencies, were scheduled to show Jumblatt and other senior opposition leaders a series of television ads they had created for an Iraqi political party before that country’s January elections. Among them were Francis, of Saatchi, and Rudy Kamel of Quantum Communications, another advertising firm. Quantum and Saatchi share a building in a posh Beirut neighborhood.


 Kamel, a funny, frenetic man who lists Jim Morrison and Bob Dylan as inspirations, had put together 10 ads for the Iraqi elections. The advertisements supported the Future Iraq Assembly, a nationalist party. They stressed unity in a country split by sectarian tensions, a message Jumblatt and others were emphasizing in Lebanon as they built the opposition coalition from religious-based parties that had fought each other during the war.


 Hariri’s assassination put off the meeting with Jumblatt indefinitely. But other key decisions had already been made, and plans were set in motion in the hours after the bombing as crowds assembled. Within days, a student demonstration began in Martyrs’ Square, complete with tents.


 Each day since Hariri’s death, Kassir, the journalist, had received calls from colleagues in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other Arab countries seeking his impressions of the uprising they watched raptly on al-Arabiya and al-Jazeera satellite television channels. The demonstration had been the only real success so far.


 Kassir, a former communist who also lectures at St. Joseph University in Beirut, sports a trim, graying beard and smokes Gauloise cigarettes ceaselessly. Over the years, his pugnacious newspaper column has won him a devoted following. Beautiful Lebanese women approach him in chic restaurants, thanking him for speaking out.


 His many books include writings on Syria and its decisive role in Lebanon. In 2001, after a critical series of articles, a posse of Lebanese intelligence agents followed him for 40 days.


 “Many of us have been writing for years about Syria’s mafia-like presence in Lebanon, and the fact that the Syrian army is a much less malign influence here than their intelligence services,” Kassir said. “The themes you are hearing now are themes that have been introduced by journalists here over the years.”


 On the chilly evening of Feb. 28, Kassir was leaning on a cane to support his ailing back when he saw on television that Prime Minister Omar Karami was making a surprise speech to parliament. Kassir began a limping jog down the quiet halls of An Nahar, the opposition newspaper where he has written his weekly front-page column for eight years, toward the raucous square below his window.


 The crowd had been gathering throughout the day to mark the two-week anniversary of Hariri’s death. Suddenly, the prime minister resigned. Kassir sensed that something momentous was happening. He began to run for Martyrs’ Square. “I wanted to get onto the stage, to see the crowd, and when I stepped up, I was crying,” Kassir recalled. “It was the first political success I’d had in years and years.”

Finding Their Colors




 In months of strategizing, the media team settled on red and white as the opposition colors for the spring elections. After Hariri’s assassination, however, the team members faced an unexpected challenge: how to blend the colors into the angry demonstration, giving the movement the brand recognition that had proved so successful in Ukraine.


 Despite being the primary colors of Lebanon’s flag, red and white were not obvious choices. Kassir said they considered orange. But they did not want the movement to be seen as an imitation of Ukraine’s uprising, in November and December, that overturned fraudulent elections. Many Lebanese also remembered the distinctive orange markings on the Israeli tanks that rumbled into the country in 1982.


 Blue also posed complications: What shade? Israeli blue wouldn’t work. Nor would European Union blue or United Nations blue. A rainbow was briefly considered, but it evoked the international gay rights movement. “In a macho country like this one,” Kassir said, “it just wouldn’t have worked.”


 They settled on red and white. In the hours after the assassination, Jumblatt’s wife, Nora, a leading organizer of the protests, commissioned the manufacture of 40,000 lengths of red-and-white cloth that opposition leaders would soon drape around their necks. This was meant to serve as a message to the young foot soldiers to set aside party banners and follow suit, opposition strategists said. Soon, only red and white could be seen on the square and in other demonstrations, including a March 7 human chain leading from the bomb site to Hariri’s grave.


 “In the business, it’s called visual equity,” said Francis, whose regular clients include General Mills, Cadbury chocolates and several banks. “That day, when I saw the streets full of red and white, it was just visually stunning.”

Restless in Egypt




 In Egypt, the demonstrations lack the flair of Lebanon’s uprising. But the protests have become as routine as dust storms in the desert and traffic jams in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. On March 20, one prominent group, organized under the umbrella label Kifaya, or Enough, gathered for the latest in a series of rallies that began with chants against the U.S. intervention in Iraq and climaxed with calls to unseat Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who has tolerated few challenges during his 24 years in power.


 Kifaya is a part of the Egyptian Movement for Change, a ragtag group of activists whose parties long ago disappeared as a political force in Egypt but recently welcomed Mubarak’s surprise proposal to allow multiple candidates in the next presidential elections, scheduled for September.


 The group remains prominent in human rights activism and social work. Its members, who meet in dingy offices in the decayed French colonial palaces of central Cairo, are largely hostile to the United States.


 The movement is unable to mobilize large numbers of people. Many members have spent time in jail, and for many people, the prospect of following in their footsteps is an abiding fear that keeps the movement’s numbers down. A turnout of as few as 50 demonstrators is common at Kifaya rallies, where the police frequently outnumber the participants.


 “It is harder to get big numbers for demonstrations against Mubarak. People are cautious,” said Emad Attiya, a Kifaya coordinator who has been jailed three times for his political activism. Generally suspicious of U.S. motives in the region, Attiya acknowledged that Bush’s rhetorical push for democracy may have done some good. “At least Mubarak knows someone is watching,” he said.


 The Kifaya factions have not settled on color schemes or slogans. They use the Internet to present their plans, but their techniques are more rudimentary. At rallies, they distribute photocopied pieces of paper bearing the simple message: “No Mubarak.”


 “The movement is mainly supported by the political elite. You can’t say that it has gained any foothold among the wider masses,” said Ahmad Hamad, executive director of the pro-democracy Hisham Mubarak Law Center. “There are many reasons — the considerable extent of repression, and the fact that such a movement is new for Egyptian society.”

Sluggish Reform




Perhaps the most outward-looking element of Egypt’s insular reform movement is led by Gamal Mubarak, the president’s son, who heads the policy committee within the ruling National Democratic Party.


 The younger Mubarak, favoring well-tailored suits and foreign-educated advisers, is the heir apparent to the presidency. His reform movement supports gradual steps toward competitive elections. The opposition believes the policy committee is just a front for a strategy that would permit Gamal to succeed his father.


 “These are people who want to join the world,” said Mohammed Kamal, one of the committee members. “The main motives for reform, at least for me, are internal issues. People who have been outside recognize how vital it is for Egypt to change.”


 Gamal Mubarak’s credibility suffers from the widespread perception that his committee is merely a cover to ease the way for Hosni Mubarak’s unilateral decisions. The committee, which claims to be in the vanguard of reform, was left in the dark in February when Hosni Mubarak proposed opening up the next elections. Members of Gamal’s policy committee said they knew nothing about it.


 A debate has ensued over the conditions for the elections, including who will be able to run, the rules that will govern media access and the ability of opposition parties to hold rallies. The committee has been largely silent, and at times dismissive, on questions of whether Egypt’s politically restrictive emergency laws — a decades-old legacy of war and the government’s fight against Islamic militancy — will be eased for the campaign.


 “Weren’t the Iraqi elections held without canceling emergency laws?” Gamal Mubarak said during a recent news conference.

A Key U.S. Role




 As hundreds of thousands of Hezbollah supporters gathered March 8 in a downtown square in Lebanon to display an angry outpouring of support for Syria, Kamel, the Quantum advertising man, felt his heart sink. The numbers were huge, and the rhetoric of the militant Shiite Muslim party was sharply at odds with the opposition’s goals of a quick Syrian withdrawal. He worried that the elections could backfire.


 Hours later, Kamel turned on the television. He watched President Bush say the United States supported the Lebanese opposition, calling the cause one of “conscience.” Those words would not likely have registered on most days with Kamel, who said that if he lived in the United States, he would certainly be a liberal Democrat. This day was different. “They helped a lot,” he recalled.


 But even in Lebanon, where much of the population generally looks to the West, the U.S. agenda in the region is troubling. Kassir, for example, said he believes “democracy is spreading in the region not because of George Bush but despite him.” He cites the Palestinian uprising as a greater inspiration than the U.S. project in Iraq, saying that “the Palestinians showed us the importance of taking matters into our own hands.”


 The Bush administration’s promotion of democracy in Lebanon and Egypt is also bound to bump up against the fact that some of the most popular political parties are rooted in conservative Islam and sharply oppose U.S. goals in the region. Hezbollah remains a potent force in Lebanon, and its Shiite following likely accounts for a majority of the population, if not yet its electorate.


 In Egypt, the one group capable of mounting large-scale demonstrations is the Muslim Brotherhood, a veteran Islamic movement. Although the Brotherhood has joined rhetorical forces with other opposition groups, its political program calls for the creation of an Islamic republic in Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous country.


 The group has yet to display the full extent of its power to rally its followers, but on March 27 it gave a small sampling of its potential. It rallied an estimated 3,000 demonstrators, despite the presence of thousands more police officers, who sealed off central Cairo and blocked them from marching on parliament. The government arrested about 50 activists the day before the march and another 50 during it.


 “We don’t want to be extras on somebody else’s stage,” said Aly Abdel Fatah, a high-ranking Brotherhood official. “We want to change the system, not just a person.”


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