TRUDY RUBIN Mideast democracy could be disastrous

The contrasting television scenes from the Middle East on Tuesday were riveting. CNN showed hundreds of thousands of demonstrators pouring into Beirut streets just as President Bush delivered another impassioned call for democracy in the Middle East.
But this biggest Beirut demonstration so far didn't echo the president's call for Syria to leave the country. These were Lebanese Shiite supporters of the militant group Hezbollah, and they opposed a swift Syrian pullout or any intervention in Lebanon by the United States or Israel.
In these contradictory TV scenes lies an important caution about the march to democracy in the Middle East.
Yes, it is thrilling to imagine that this democracy-averse region is finally getting the message that change is needed. Yes, the president deserves full credit for pushing democracy, especially after January's Iraqi elections, when he seems to have decided to press longtime Arab authoritarian allies such as Egypt.
But the contrasting TV images should serve warning that Mideast elections won't always produce pro-American governments or advance peace.
In Tuesday's speech, President Bush insisted "the Lebanese people have the right to determine their future, free from domination by a foreign power." He meant Syria, of course, which has more than 14,000 troops and thousands of intelligence agents occupying their smaller neighbor.
Hezbollah's strength
Tuesday's demonstrators, however, were challenging U.S. domination. If Lebanese elections are held on schedule this spring, the Islamist, anti-Israel Hezbollah -- labeled a terrorist group by the United States -- will no doubt be one of the major winners.
Lebanese Shiites -- the largest of the country's religious and ethnic groups -- aren't against democracy, nor do they necessarily want a long-term Syrian presence. But they admire Hezbollah for its charitable role and for forcing Israeli troops out of Lebanon.
The demonstrators made clear that Hezbollah will play a major role in Lebanon's politics, whether or not the United States likes it. The other Lebanese groups that have been demonstrating -- for democracy -- will accept this.
If promoting Mideast democracy is to be the major Bush theme, it is crucial that the administration -- and the U.S. public -- not harbor illusions about what lies ahead.
Until now, U.S. support for Mideast elections seemed limited to those in which the results would not challenge U.S. interests.
The classic case occurred in 1991 in Algeria, where the Islamic Salvation Front was on the verge of winning parliamentary elections. Algerians were convulsed over whether the FIS would respect democratic rules or use the elections to impose an Islamic state. They never found out; the Algerian military made a coup, which the United States supported, and a decade of civil war followed.
During the 1990s, fear lingered that Mideast democracy would produce anti-American Islamic states. Authoritarian regimes were seen as a necessary bulwark against terrorism, especially after 9/11.
Iraq was thought to be a convenient exception: The Bush team expected to find a secular, middle-class society. When these expectations proved wrong, U.S. officials repeatedly postponed direct elections from fear of a Shiite Islamist victory, until pressure from Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani forced them to set a date for a ballot.
Future role of Islam
Moderate Shiite religious parties did indeed win a majority, raising questions about the future role of Islam in Iraqi society and about women's rights. But in Iraq, Shiite religious parties aren't calling for an Islamic state, and secular parties will balance the religious trend.
But would the President accept election results in other Arab countries if anti-American Islamists prove to be a strong political force? Liberal democrats are a marginal group in most Mideast countries, and Islamists have strong public support in countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia -- and Syria.
Representative Arab politics will evolve only when those societies work through their own political contradictions and all factions accept democratic rules. This will not happen soon, and the process may not be pretty. Arab publics will be watching to see whether President Bush lives up to his own message and accepts the path of Arab democracy -- wherever it leads.
X Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune.