What Mideast ferment means for US

Moves toward more openness in several countries could put a check on extremist impulses, but also may engender instability.

The political and social effervescence suddenly sweeping the Middle East - from Baghdad to Beirut, from Cairo to Casablanca - is providing the United States and the rest of the world with both new opportunities and new risks.

With pro-democracy demonstrations popping up in Lebanon and Egypt, and with modest but still unprecedented elections taking place in places like Saudi Arabia, Arabs and Muslims are expressing the same interest in self-determination they saw their brethren in Iraq and the Palestinian territories exercise just a few weeks ago.

The Western world especially is viewing the changes with almost giddy expectation. Certainly a more democratic and open region holds out the possibility of greater public satisfaction and therefore less attraction to extremist mobilization. But it could also expose a crucial arc of nations long governed with a strong hand to greater turmoil.

"It's a good thing that a broader spectrum of civil society is being acknowledged, that people are less timid and trying to have a voice in public decisionmaking, that all around the region there are very few places where you don't see movements of this kind," says Michael Hudson, director of the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University in Washington. "But as it unfolds, it's a tricky business."

One reason is that "people who have been in power for a long time are unlikely to give it up without a fight," he says.

As democracy and more open political systems have gained ground across Eastern Europe, Latin America, and parts of Asia, many nations in those regions have become more peaceful and solid members of the international community. This has led to speculation that the same should work in the Middle East. As for Islamic extremism, the theory - and that's about all there is to go on - is that its allure should be reduced as young Muslims find other political outlets for venting their frustrations.

But the conventional rules don't always apply in the Middle East, a region accustomed to authoritarian rule. One risk is that the deep anti-American sentiment that pervades many of the countries could turn even more resolutely anti-Western as the public gains freedom and power.

Today in Lebanon, for example, the militant Shiite movement Hizbullah is set to begin holding national demonstrations in opposition to what it sees as unacceptable Western influence in Lebanese affairs. "Freedom means that we decide for ourselves the best way to address what we see today as clear intervention of the United States and France in Lebanese internal affairs," said Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah at a Beirut press conference Sunday.

The US and France have been outspoken in their coordinated demands that Syria withdraw its troops and intelligence forces from Lebanon ahead of spring elections. Syria is a behind-the-scenes sponsor of Hizbullah in Lebanon.

"We're seeing the national unity movement with new vigor and pressing to get Syria out of the country, but at the same time we see a counter movement in the counterdemonstrations Hizbullah is sponsoring," notes Mr. Hudson. "It raises the question of whether the future holds the kind of civil strife that has hit Lebanon before."

The way greater political freedoms can open the door to greater confrontation is also on display in Iraq, some experts say. The political parties there have still been unable to deliver a new government to set about the task of writing a new constitution by next fall.

Still, no one is arguing that this is not progress - when compared to a regime that would sooner imprison or kill political opponents than listen to them.

"An Iraq without Saddam, all to the good," says Richard Murphy, a former assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs, now at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. "But there are some really major problems ahead for an untested political leadership. They're going to have to show remarkable outreach to all parts of the population if it is going to work, and I don't think we can say yet where it will end up."

The majority Shiites have been emboldened to make legitimate demands in terms of a new government, he notes, while young Kurds in particular are tempted by the idea of an independent Kurdistan - a move that would set off regional earthquakes. "So while it is undeniable that we [the US] stirred the pot, how much that stirring will end up working in our favor is still an open question," Mr. Murphy says.

For example, change in a closed system such as Saudi Arabia should be good for the US - unless it means such upheaval that extremist forces gain a greater hold, he says. The same goes for Iraq, unless it leads to the country coming apart.

AS for whether a more democratic and open Middle East will make for a safer US, unanswered questions remain there as well. With democracy having advanced around the world over the past decade, the idea has also gained ground that more exposure to democratic ideals and open societies leads to converts. But that does not explain why someone like Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's right hand man, became even more anti-Western and extremist in his ideology after attending college in the US.

The current fermentation in the Middle East also demonstrates how even a wide-ranging phenomenon like globalization can act as a double-edged sword. When pro-democracy demonstrators in Beirut wear Eastern European-style scarves as part of their protest, in an echo of the protesters in the Ukraine standing up to a fraudulent government, it's a sign of the global impact of electronic media.

But at the same time, globalization can act as a recruiting tool for extremist movements, especially among those sectors of the population that feel shut out from any of globalization's economic benefits.

Still, most experts say more political openness should make ideologies like Al Qaeda's less of a magnet. It's just getting to those more democratic societies that may be rough. "I share the idea that a population that is overwhelmingly youthful and denied meaningful political participation in their countries is more attracted to the Islamic extremist view of society," says Murphy. "And it should follow that if the social and political picture evolves to allow greater participation, the attraction of a violent extremism will diminish. But it could be a rocky transition, a very bumpy ride."

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