America's Double Standard on Democracy in the Middle East

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In Lebanon as in Gaza, democratically elected governments are being challenged by political opponents demanding fresh elections — and in each place, the standoff threatens to spark a civil war. Yet, the response of the U.S. and Britain to each crisis has been so different as to provoke accusations of double-standards and questions about the West's commitment to democracy in the Arab world.

In Lebanon, the beleaguered U.S.-backed government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, which took power in July 2005, is resisting an opposition drive led by the militant Hizballah, to hold new parliamentary elections. Hizballah supporters and their allies have held a mass sit-in in Beirut since Dec. 1, paralyzing the city center. The White House accuses Hizballah, which is backed by Iran and Syria, of attempting a "coup" against a democratically elected government. But in Gaza, the roles are reversed: Last week, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called for new elections after talks broke down with the rival Hamas movement over forming a national unity government. Hamas, which took the reins of government after winning elections in January, rejected Abbas's call — and, in an ironic echo of the White House, accused the Palestinian president of plotting a "coup" against a government elected to office until 2010. Indeed, legal experts question whether Abbas has the constitutional authority to call new elections.

Unlike in Lebanon, of course, the U.S. and Britain are backing the opposition in Gaza, declaring that Abbas' move is a step toward peace between the Palestinians and Israel. Despite Hamas's democratic victory at the polls in January, the West has imposed a blockade on financial aid to the Palestinian Authority because Hamas refuses to recognize Israel. British Prime Minister Tony Blair, on a tour of the Middle East, appealed to the international community to back the Palestinian president, hailing Abbas as a leader of "moderation and tolerance."

This apparent double-standard in the West's stances on Lebanon and on Gaza has not gone unnoticed by Arab commentators. "How could the U.S. support the democratically elected government in Lebanon and do just the opposite in Palestine?" asked Talal Salman, the publisher of Lebanon's As-Safir newspaper.

The U.S., wrote Abdel-Bari Atwan, editor of the London-based Al-Quds al-Arabi, opposes the toppling of the elected Siniora government in Lebanon, but "is in favor of toppling Hamas's government which is also an elected one and, more dangerously, is even starving over four million Palestinians to punish them for electing it. What kind of hypocrisy is that?"

Promoting democracy in the Arab world has ostensibly been a cornerstone of Bush Administration policy. In the post 9/11 era, the argument goes, U.S. interests are best served if the region's corrupt dictatorships and stifling theocracies which foster extremism are replaced by moderate Western-friendly secular democracies. If U.S. zeal for democratization made many Arab allies uncomfortable, they needn't have worried: The focus of the democratization drive has always been on Washington's regional enemies — Iraq, Iran and Syria — rather than on autocratic friends.

In early 2005, the U.S. adopted the mass anti-Syrian street rallies roiling Beirut, proclaiming a "Cedar revolution" and using its diplomatic weight to help end almost three decades of Syrian domination. With Iraq sliding into unmanageable chaos, Lebanon looked like a rare success story, with Damascus humbled and the resulting pro-Western Siniora government being backed as a bulwark against the regional ambitions of Iran and Syria though their Lebanese ally, Hizballah.

"I'm proud of Prime Minister Siniora," Bush said at a press conference this week. But that is not an accolade you will find reciprocated by Siniora's ministerial colleagues, some of whom have come to regard the Bush Administration as a fair-weather friend.

"We're a little bit angry at our friends [in the U.S.]. They did nothing for us in our first year [in office]," Ahmad Fatfat, the minister of sport and a leading anti-Syrian politician, told TIME. Such bitterness is rooted in Washington's foot-dragging over ending last summer's month-long war between Hizballah and Israel that cost over 1,000 Lebanese lives and billions of dollars in damage. Siniora's tearful pleas for international assistance to stop the onslaught went unheeded, while Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice described the devastation as the "birth pangs of a new Middle East." Despite the window of opportunity granted by Washington, Israel was unable to smash Hizballah's guerrilla army. Now the Shi'ite group is seeking revenge against Siniora's government, accusing it of tacitly siding with Israel and the U.S. in plotting Hizballah's destruction.

So, while the Bush Administration continues talk the talk of promoting democracy in the Middle East, many in the Arab world have a jaundiced view of Washington's intentions: Democracy, yes, but only when the outcome serves the interests of the U.S.