GWEN IFILL: Syria on the hot seat. For more on this developing story, we turn to Hisham Melhem, Washington bureau chief for the Lebanese newspaper An-Nahar; he also hosts a weekly program on the Arab satellite channel al-Arabiya. He was born and raised in Lebanon, but is now an American citizen -- and Augustus Richard Norton, professor of international relations at Boston University; he's written widely about Lebanon and about Arab politics.
Professor Norton, I'd like to start with you. When we look at what's happened this week or the last several weeks involving Hariri's assassination and Saddam Hussein's half brother turned over and today's very dramatic developments in Lebanon, why does Syria seem to be in the middle of all this?
AUGUSTUS RICHARD NORTON: Well, Syria has been, of course, deeply involved in Lebanon going back to 1976. So it's not surprising that on the Lebanese front, the Syrians would be playing a very important role in events. In fact, hardly a decision is made in Beirut these days without first consulting with Damascus.
As for the Syrians looking to their Iraqi flank, of course they're seeing 150,000 American soldiers literally on their doorstep, and at the same time, their borders, which are fairly porous to begin with, but it is not surprising to me that they might look the other way in terms of allowing insurgents to move back and forth across that border with some facility.
GWEN IFILL: Hisham, let's talk about today's resignation of the prime minister. How significant is that?
HISHAM MELHEM: It a monumental event. What happened today in Lebanon is really a tremendous display of political maturity, wisdom and determination on the part of an emboldened opposition, part of the Lebanese people who said no and who brought down a feeble government without firing a shot and essentially saying with one huge chorus, one word, enough to Syrian hegemony over Lebanon.
In that sense it is extremely significant. The whole Arab world, by the way, Gwen, is watching on Arab satellite stations, which are covering live the events unfolding in Beirut; and it's having tremendous effect on the Arab people, the Lebanese developments coming after the Palestinian elections and the Iraqi elections. There is a sense of growing empowerment. And this may be the beginning of a real change. And as some Lebanese are arguing, this may be the real beginning of Lebanese independence.
GWEN IFILL: Professor Norton, I'd like to ask you about that: Was Omar Karami the problem or is there a bigger fish in the sights of the not pro-democracy I guess you would necessarily call it but these opposition demonstrators and the president himself?
AUGUSTUS RICHARD NORTON: I wouldn't say that the problem is simply Omar Karami. I mean, he is simply one of the pawns in the game. There has been a longstanding disenchantment with the Syrian presence.
This particularly became acute after 2000 when the Israelis withdrew from South Lebanon and removed one of the excuses for the Syrian role in Lebanon. And then people were really catalyzed last year when the Syrians insisted on extending the term of President Lahoud for three years under the Lebanese constitution, that's not really permitted.
In fact, I was in Beirut at the time that this discussion was going on last August. And I happened to be with the former prime minister the day that Rafik Hariri was in Damascus seeing Bashar Assad about this issue when Hariri came back to Beirut. It was quite clear there was nothing to be discussed. The Syrians were really directing that action be taken. That robbed lots of Lebanese from lots of different sectarian orientations the wrong way.
And then the following month -- the decision was formally taken in September -- the following month in October of last fall, the opposition began to meet at the Bristol Hotel in Beirut in a series of very important and very high profile and very courageous meetings. And what was interesting about those meetings with respect to the late Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was that while he didn't attend personally, he was clearly sending representatives, and he was clearly identifying himself with the opposition.
GWEN IFILL: Hisham, how much can we say the changes that we are seeing or the engagement that we are seeing going on right now is a result of external pressure either from other Arab nations or from the United States or Russia or France?
HISHAM MELHEM: The American pressure and the French pressure is mounting especially since the Security Council adopted Resolution 1559, which calls on Syrians obliquely -- obviously to withdraw from Lebanon and disarming Hezbollah and the militias and foreign forces.
But as Dick said, the opposition to Syria has been mounting for a long time. There's no official justification, strategic justification for the military presence and definitely there's intelligence presence since the Israelis withdrew from South Lebanon in the year 2000. And also, after they forced the Lebanese parliament really against tremendous popular opposition to extend the term of President Lahoud for another three years, they made a mockery of the Lebanese constitution.
That really angered many Lebanese. And Hariri was moving towards the opposition and he may have been seen as the only politician who could provide the opposition with a tremendous regional and local and international stature. And maybe those who killed him were thinking about that. So we are facing a great deal of uncertainty right now. But the assassination of Hariri was a cathartic thing in Lebanon in the sense that it liberated the Lebanese people from fear.
GWEN IFILL: Have you heard anything, Professor Norton, implicating Syria in the bombing of Tel Aviv on Friday in which so many people were killed? There seems to be so many tracers going back to Syria with so many of these events. How about in that one?
AUGUSTUS RICHARD NORTON: Well, in that case, of course the Islamic Jihad organization does maintain offices in Damascus. The Syrians argue that those are basically press and public affairs offices. From the standpoint of others looking at the situation, like Israel, for example, they draw a very different conclusion.
I don't have any particular information that indicates a Syrian role. I think that the fact that Syria does allow these offices to be maintained in its capital though says something about its sympathy for what's happened.
GWEN IFILL: Well, what is the official response, Professor Norton, of Syria's leadership to all of these implications coming at them from so many different directions?
AUGUSTUS RICHARD NORTON: Well, with respect to the assassination of Prime Minister Hariri, they argue that they had nothing to do with it; that it would have been stupid for them to do it. I certainly agree with that. It was a very stupid thing to do -- and that basically, basically they were as much the victim of this as anyone else.
The fact of the matter is however, there is a record of assassinations in Lebanon, including the leader of -- including the father of one of the leaders of the Lebanese opposition, Walid Jumblatt, whose father was assassinated in 1977; Bashir Gemayel, the president-elect who was assassinated in 1982 and Rene Moawad, who was assassinated in 1989.
And these assassinations are often traced to the Syrians, particularly the first two. The evidence is quite clear. So on the basis of past performance, it's very hard to credit the Syrian denials since their record of performance certainly indicates a willingness to participate in these kinds of killings at other times.
GWEN IFILL: The U.S. Government has been anxious to say that what's happening in Lebanon is the pressure to get Syria to leave may be part of a larger trend towards democracy -- what happened to Egypt over the weekend with the call for elections. Is that what it looks like to you, Hisham?
HISHAM MELHEM: I think there is some truth in that. Obviously the administration would like to take credit for it and they will give it their own spin which is expected. But definitely millions of Arabs watched the Iraqis go and vote under difficult conditions. They watched the Palestinians engage also in active elections and nobody questioned their results. And now you see what happened in Lebanon.
Even the Egyptians, there is a growing grassroots movement against President Mubarak running unopposed for a fifth term. And that's why after the Iraqi elections and the Palestinian elections all of us said it's going to be interesting to watch President Assad in Syria, President Ben Ali in Tunisia, President Mubarak in Egypt run unopposed in sham elections and receiving the support, reportedly -- supposedly of more than 95 percent of their own people. It is going to be extremely difficult for these Arab rulers to conduct business as usual after the Palestinian elections, the Iraqi elections taking place in Lebanon.
These developments are not without problems, are not ideal and I'm not saying that we are going through a pre-Eastern Europe revolution like what happened in Eastern Europe late '80s and early '90s but definitely there is a different wind sweeping the region and even autocrats like Mubarak or Assad or Ben Ali or different monarchies in the Arab world, one man or one family rule are watching Lebanon, are watching what is taking place in the streets in Egypt and I'm sure they are not very happy. They don't like electoral politics definitely. They don't like people's power.
GWEN IFILL: Professor Norton, does this wind that Hisham said is sweeping, does it necessarily lead to democracy? It may lead to electoral politics but not as he was describing necessarily democratic electoral politics by western standards.
AUGUSTUS RICHARD NORTON: Well, Gwen, this is -- this is going to be a long process. I think that some of the advocates of promoting democracy who are on the sort of fringes of the Bush administration sometimes deal with this as though you sort of take two Thomas Jefferson aspirins at night and wake up a democrat. It doesn't work like that.
We need to come to grips in the United States with the fact that this is a very complicated process. Moreover, many of the beneficiaries of democratization are going to be Islamic groups. We see this in Syria where -- I'm sorry, Lebanon where Hezbollah, the party of God is the best organized political party in the country; representing arguably half a million, three quarters of a million people if not more than that.
So we're going to see parties that we may not like very much coming to power. In Iraq, the victor in the election, the new prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, is the head of the Adalwa Party which not too many years ago was considered a horrible terrorist group a few years ago by the United States government.
So we need to come to grips with the fact that in many of these cases we're going to see parties coming to power that are not secular liberals, they're not the parties comprised of people that we like to invite to Washington, DC -
GWEN IFILL: Right.
AUGUSTUS RICHARD NORTON: -- and that means we need to think much more seriously and much harder how this process is going to work and we need to think about some of our own policies, which categorically deny a role for some of these groups in the political system.
GWEN IFILL: All right, Richard Norton and Hisham Melhem, thank you both very much.
HISHAM MELHEM: Thank you.
AUGUSTUS RICHARD NORTON: Thank you.