Iraq isn’t the Arab world’s first democracy.


BEIRUT, Lebanon—Of all the rationales for demolishing Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, the most compelling was the Middle East’s desperate need for at least one free Arab democracy to act as a model and an inspiration for oppressed and demoralized citizens in the others. So far it is not working out, despite the recent successful elections. Most talk of Iraq on the Middle Eastern street revolves around occupation, terrorism and war. Iraq is not yet a model for anything. It looms, instead, as a warning. Hardly any Arab wants his country to become another Iraq. In time that may change, but right now that’s just how it is.

Lebanon, though, is an inspiration already—despite the assassinations and the car bombs that have shaken the country since February. I have an apartment in Beirut, and I recently traveled to Cairo. Arriving back here was like returning to the U.S. from Mexico. Almost everyone I met in Egypt—from taxi drivers all the way up to the elite—was profoundly envious when I said I live in Beirut. “It is a free and open city,” I told them, but they knew that already. Many Americans and Europeans still think of Beirut as a hollowed-out, mortar-shattered necropolis where visitors are well-advised to bring a flak jacket. Egyptians, though—at least the ones I talked to during my stay—know the truth.

Beirut is where the taboos in the region—against alcohol, dating, sex, scandalous clothing, homosexuality, body modification, free speech and dissident politics—break down. Its culture is liberal and tolerant, even anarchic and libertarian. The state barely exists. The city’s pleasures are physical and decadent. Beirut is where American and European tourists used to go to loosen up, gamble, drink booze and pick up women—and that was in the 1950s. Today it is where Saudis and other Gulf Arabs like to vacation because they can do, think, wear, and say whatever they want.

Last month the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Index of Political Freedom ranked Lebanon the freest Arab country, followed by Morocco. Iraq came in third. (Libya brought up the rear, below even Syria and Saudi Arabia.) Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution peacefully ousted the Syrian military, which had ruled the country as a raw imperial power since the end of the civil war in 1990. Free and orderly elections promptly followed. If Iraq becomes a success in the end, it won’t be the first Arab democracy. It will be the second.
That doesn’t mean Lebanon is a Middle East Switzerland. The Syrian regime still smuggles weapons into Palestinian camps, infiltrates civilian society with its security and intelligence agents, and assassinates its Lebanese political enemies. The radical Shiite Hezbollah militia still holds its own effectively sovereign territory along the border with Israel and in the suburbs south of Beirut. Though the electoral laws no longer produce a rigged pro-Syrian parliamentary majority, the voting districts are the same ones gerrymandered by the Damascus regime during its occupation.

From a distance Lebanon may look like a typical Middle East country racked with the usual chaos, but it isn’t. What makes this place unique is that the Lebanese political system is nearly incapable of producing dictatorship. The three main sects in this country—Christian, Sunni, and Shiite—do not share the same political ideals and values. They do, however, share power, since every group here is a minority. By tradition, the president is always a Christian, the prime minister a Sunni, and the speaker of Parliament a Shiite. Parliament decides who fills the top three government posts, and members of Parliament are elected by the people of Lebanon. Each sect’s parliamentary bloc keeps the others in check. The result is a weak state and a de facto near-libertarianism. Syria and Iraq, which also are composed of rival ethnic-religious sects, may do well under a similar system.

It works in a flawed-but-muddling-through sort of way. Lebanon’s model wouldn’t work everywhere else in the Middle East and North Africa. It would not work in Egypt, for example, where Sunni Muslims make up the overwhelming majority of the population. Something other than institutionalized sectarianism will be needed there to weaken the state and provide checks and balances.

Even so, Lebanon inspires Egyptians in ways that Iraq doesn’t and perhaps can’t. Iraqi freedom is being born in blood, fire and mayhem. Sometimes that’s what it takes. America’s freedom didn’t come peacefully, and neither did Western Europe’s. But because Iraqi freedom is seen as violently imposed from the outside, a huge number of Egyptians, along with plenty of other Arabs in the neighboring states in the region, dismiss it as an imperial sham.

No one thinks Lebanese freedom is a sham. This country would not be even a ramshackle sort-of democracy if the people who live here had not demanded that much for themselves. The March 14 revolt, in which almost one in three Lebanese demonstrated in Martyr’s Square for freedom and independence, reverberated powerfully throughout the Middle East. Iraq still makes most Arabs shudder. Lebanon, though, is genuinely inspiring.

Lebanon is not and should not become an American project the way Iraq and Afghanistan are. That doesn’t mean the U.S. should shrug off the importance of its security and stability. Nor should Washington see Lebanon’s troubles merely as a means to the end of pressuring or overthrowing Bashar Assad’s Baath regime in Syria. Syria matters because it exports violence to three of its neighbors, to Israel and Iraq as well as to Lebanon. But Lebanon matters for reasons beyond the continuing conflict with its former master.

It matters for one simple reason. Oppressed Arabs need an inspiring country of their own that they can look up to. And right now, they have one. Lebanon is not just a country with an elected government. It seduces the region with its culture as well.

Beirut has more in common with raucous freewheeling precommunist Hong Kong than with drab Amman, Damascus and Cairo. The nightclubs, the shopping, the restaurants, the bookstores, the intellectual cafés—these things are all world-class in Beirut. The sight of Lebanon’s famously beautiful unveiled Arab women makes a lasting impression on men who travel here from neighboring countries.

Freedom means more than just relieving the boot from your neck. Freedom also means fun and the pursuit of happiness. That’s why so many Arabs come here on holiday, and why so many would rather live here. Never forget: demand for Levi’s and rock ‘n’ roll did as much to bring down the Soviet Union as the yearning for Western-style democracy did.

Lebanon is a special place, and the U.S. should treat it accordingly. It is already what we hope Iraq someday will be.