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International Journalists Discuss Outcome of Political Developments in Lebanon

A Lebanese opposition protestor waves national flag as Syrian military intelligence agents leave their office at Ramlet el-Baida in Beirut.
Under intense international pressure, Syria ended its 29-year military presence in Lebanon and withdrew its forces late last month. Rami Khouri, editor of the Beirut Daily Star, works just three blocks from where former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated, touching off popular demonstrations that ultimately brought down the Syrian-backed Lebanese government. Speaking with host Judith Latham of VOA News Now’s International Press Club, Mr. Khouri called what is happening in Lebanon “quite historic” – in regional terms and in terms of Western-Arab relationships.

Rami Khouri explained that, from a Middle Eastern perspective, it represents the first time that domestic, spontaneous grassroots activism at the street level and the political elite level has combined with external pressure from the United States, Europe, and Arab world to tell the Syrians to get out. And Mr. Khouri predicted that it might end up serving as a model for bringing about democratic change in the Middle East.

The Assad government in Damascus has defended its lengthy stay in Lebanon as a response to the U.N. request to calm the civil strife that began in 1975. And indeed, the two nations have shared historical and cultural roots. Nonetheless, Syrian journalist Ammar Musarea, who heads the public relations committee of the Hurriyat [Freedoms] organization, said many Syrians had serious doubts about their government’s occupation of Lebanon and thought it had made a mistake by staying so long. But he warned that the economic impact of the withdrawal on Syria is likely to be huge. That’s partly because about a quarter of a million Syrians had been working in Lebanon and their fate is uncertain.

Rami Khouri concurred that it’s as yet unclear how Damascus might react to its weaker and more vulnerable political position – whether it would become more open and speed up the reform process or it would “circle the wagons” and crack down on dissent. Either way, Mr. Khouri says, Syria’s conduct will affect the entire region because of its relationships with Israel, the Palestinians, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Iran, and Turkey. He said the major lesson from Lebanon is that Damascus is susceptible to pressure. Syrian journalist Ammar Musaria agreed that, if it had not been for foreign pressure, Syria might have remained in Lebanon “forever,” since it is “not the trend in the region” to give up power.

Syria’s withdrawal has paved the way to elections in Lebanon slated for the end of May. Rami Khouri noted that the nation’s sectarian political tradition, which accommodates nearly 20 religious and ethnic groups from Shi’ites and Sunni Muslims to a variety of Christians and Druze, would be competing for the first time with a new civic group. He said the younger generation of Lebanese who have experienced nearly 30 years of Syrian rule, represent a “wild card” in the political process. And despite the long tradition of tribal politics, most of them have been waving the Lebanese flag. According to Rami Khouri, the important thing is that there is now a true debate about national identity, political configuration, and international relationships – issues that formerly were handled only by a small elite or by foreign powers.

Rami Khouri suggested that in Lebanon and in some other Arab countries there might be a legitimate role for external involvement. But it must be a “mutually beneficial process” - for Arabs, Americans, and Europeans. He also warned that Western nations should not operate by setting the rules unilaterally or by making threats. Rami Khouri pointed out that the promotion of freedom, democracy, and “accountable government” is the only place where there is mutual agreement among the vast majority of Arabs, Israelis, Americans, and Europeans. And he predicted that Lebanon might represent the first example of a “self-determined” Arab people

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