AN ARABIAN SPRING

The raucous noises of newfound freedom ricocheted through the late-night streets of Lebanon's capital last week. Car horns blared, a cappella renditions of the national anthem erupted, ecstatic teenagers danced and shouted and waved every red and white Lebanese flag--or red and white anything else--they could get their hands on. The Lebanese government, largely chosen and controlled by Syria, had fallen in the face of their protests. Now they wanted the Syrians themselves to get the hell out of the country, ending 15 years of overt occupation and three decades of covert manipulation. When Syrian President Bashar al-Assad announced on Saturday that he'd pull out partway, that satisfied nobody in the Beirut street. "He's lying!" said 19-year-old student Francois Mitri, holding the flag atop a red Mustang. "We want Syria out. We want our freedom!"

Beirut felt like the heart of a Middle East shaking to life in a convulsion of newfound expectations. For people in the region, the last few weeks have been ones of wonderment. In January, more than 8.5 million Iraqis overcame the aftermath of a 35-year dictatorship, the humiliations of living under a badly planned American occupation and the ferocious terrorism of a relentless rebellion to vote, precisely because they wanted to put all that behind them. In the Palestinian territories, elections for a successor to the late Yasir Arafat were a model of civic order that the erratic Arafat might never have tolerated. In Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak surprised his countrymen by announcing that some opposition candidates may be allowed to run for the country's top office. And even Saudi Arabia's medieval-style monarchy is holding an unprecedented series of municipal elections.

Each experiment with freedom is helping to build democratic momentum, and after so much bad news out of the Middle East, there's suddenly so much good that the Bush administration finds itself basking in vindication. The old arguments for invading Iraq--the nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, Saddam Hussein's ephemeral ties to Al Qaeda--have faded into the background. "Democratization in the Middle East is the cornerstone of what Washington wants to achieve in the region," says one U.S. official. Amid the daily violence of Iraq, the anger and recriminations of erstwhile allies and the doomsday threats of terrorist enemies, President George W. Bush has found clarity by reaching for the broadest and most appealing theme of history: the march of freedom. Since his second Inaugural Address in January, the message has been hammered home in one speech after another. "We must be on the side of democratic reformers, we must encourage democratic movements and support democratic transitions in practical ways," Bush said on his European tour last month.

In fact, expectations are rising much faster now than anyone anticipated, encouraged by White House rhetoric but triggered by uncontrollable events like the death of Arafat in November and the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in February. Even in Iraq, it was Ayatollah Ali Sistani, not the Americans, who insisted on elections sooner rather than later. "When you look at the streets you realize we're just playing catch-up," says one State Department official. "The people are pushing for this on their own." So the administration has taken an approach that is flexible and, in Bush's word, "practical." Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice "knows how genies get out of bottles and what to do with them once they're out," says another senior State Department official. "We know the sweep of history, and we're going to do everything we can to help it along."

Yet as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld remarked while Baghdad was being looted in 2003, "freedom's untidy." Those who know history know the fall of the Berlin wall was followed by the carnage of the Balkans, the slaughter in the Caucasus. And nowhere is disorder more dangerous than in the Middle East.

Already in Iraq, the level of violence has surged to pre-election levels. Last week saw the most devastating car-bomb attack in the history of the war, with at least 122 Iraqis killed in the town of Al Hillah. When Italian negotiators finally won the release of hostage journalist Giuliana Sgrena, they found themselves fired on by American forces at a checkpoint on the way to the airport. One of the negotiators was killed and Sgrena was wounded. If nothing else, the incident showed how chaotic and mean the streets of Iraq remain. What is the elected Iraqi regime doing about this? Nothing. Almost six weeks after the polls closed, the Iraqis have yet to form a new government.

That's because the majority in the new Iraqi Parliament is dominated by religious Shiites, many of whom have historic ties to Iran and want Qur'anic law as a foundation of the new Constitution. "During the elections, people were motivated by religious directives," says Humam Hammoudi, a senior official of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, part of the coalition that led the ballot. (The ayatollahs had told the Shiite faithful to vote.) "So we believe in the role of religion in the regime," says Hammoudi. But the more secular Kurds make up the second largest bloc. "We will not allow religion to be used as a tool in the hands of politicians," says Barham Salih, a senior Kurdish politician and deputy prime minister under the interim government. What do the Kurds want? An all-but-independent autonomous region that includes the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. Mistrust is the order of the day. Shiite religious candidate Ibrahim Jafari, who remains the most likely choice for prime minister, likes to cite an Iraqi proverb: "When you see the teeth of a lion, don't assume the lion is smiling."

The good news is that many Sunni Arab leaders who boycotted the elections in January are now looking for ways to join the political process. Mudher al-Kharbit, a powerful tribal leader from Iraq's rebellious Anbar province, told NEWSWEEK flatly, "We want to prepare for the next election." The political horse trading is healthy, certainly, as long as it stays peaceful. But meanwhile "the great momentum that built up after the election is eroding," frets a U.S. official in Baghdad. "We'd sure like to see some progress."

The new Palestinian leadership, for its part, has been working hard to show that it's ready to shoulder the responsibility of serious peacemaking. A one-day conference that was convened in London last week demonstrated international support for the Mahmoud Abbas government. But the credibility of the process for the Palestinians lies with ending Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Jerusalem, not just Gaza, and that goal is nowhere in sight. President Bush's speeches have focused special attention on Egypt and Saudi Arabia; the ad-ministration's praise for their "democratic" openings has been muted at best. Mubarak, 76, has ruled the country under emergency laws since he took office in 1981, and while opposition politicians welcome word that in September Mubarak will allow rival presidential candidates for the first time, they doubt he'll change the rules enough to allow a serious challenge.

"We're getting there," says activist Aida Seif el-Dawla, who has helped organize Cairo street demonstrations in the past few months. "But it's still an incomplete step." The emergency laws are likely to remain in place. The most credible liberal opposition figure, Ayman Nour, has been imprisoned. And the requirements for running as a presidential candidate may allow only those "opponents" approved by Mubarak's ruling party. Saudi Arabia, for its part, has never shown any hint of modern democracy, and the municipal elections it's holding now, while a sign of progress, do little to challenge the royal family's grip on power.

In a classic bit of Mideast politicking, seeking favor in one area to fend off criticism in another, the Egyptians and Saudis have taken a leading role in pressuring Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to withdraw from Lebanon. But Washington doesn't see that as a substitute for more democracy on their home turf. "While we certainly appreciate what the Saudis have said to Syria, or Egypt's leadership in the Middle East, those are separate subjects," a senior U.S. official told NEWSWEEK.

Lebanon, in fact, has emerged as the critical test for both the administration's new focus on democracy and Rice's emphasis on diplomacy. To help improve cooperation, the saber rattling has been minimal by Bush administration standards. Washington has even calmed fears that the United States is about to attack Iran to stop an alleged nuclear-weapons program. Instead, the administration is looking at ways to better cooperate with Britain, France and Germany in talks with Tehran. To liberate Lebanon, meanwhile, Washington is working through the United Nations, where Security Council Resolution 1559, demanding Syrian withdrawal, was passed last September. And--this is a shocker--French President Jacques Chirac has emerged as Bush's key European ally in the effort. "When the United States and France say withdraw, we mean complete withdrawal, no halfhearted measures," Bush said.

To date, nothing has ever been quite that simple in Lebanon. It's a small but complicated nation of Shiites, Sunnis, Druse and Christians, where all the passion, nihilism and nuance of the Middle East have been compressed into a few thousand square miles of mountains and Mediterranean shoreline. During its bitter sectarian civil war from 1975 to 1990, Lebanon endured a massive invasion by Israel and a creeping one by Syria. Lebanon became the favorite proxy battleground of its two more powerful neighbors. Often Damascus manipulated the rival factions, assassinating its enemies and provoking new outbreaks of fighting to make itself appear the indispensable peacemaker. When the United States tried to intervene along with France and Italy, its citizens were kidnapped and its troops targeted by terrorists. In a single incident in October 1983, 241 Americans were killed by an enormous suicide-bomb attack on a Marine barracks in Beirut.

Over the last decade and a half, most of the world has forgotten how bloody Lebanon once was. Syrian intelligence officers have decided who runs the country. Syrian officials have grown rich in the smuggling business. Syrian workers, meanwhile, have filled menial jobs, earning low salaries and widespread contempt from the more sophisticated Beirutis. Many of the kids now demonstrating in Beirut's streets have no first-hand memories of the bad old days. But the leaders of Lebanon's opposition know just how dangerous their country can be, especially when the Syrians start to play rough. They remember the ruthlessness of President Hafez Assad, Bashar's father, who died in 2000 after more than 30 years in power. They recall the way he used every tool at his disposal, from diplomacy and bribery to terror and massacres, to defeat Israeli and American designs in Lebanon.

"Bashar al-Assad is reading from the old playbook of 1983 or 1984," says a former Lebanese intelligence officer who saw the secret wars of that time firsthand. That's one reason so many Lebanese were so quick to blame Damascus for the Valentine's Day bombing that blew up former prime minister Hariri. "Hariri sent messages to the Syrians through the French, the Saudis, the King of Jordan and the Egyptians, asking for guarantees for his physical security," says the intelligence source. "The Syrians replied there was no way they would hurt him. Weeks later, he was dead."

The Lebanese opposition is gambling that the age of 24/7 satellite news and the Internet is just too public for the Syrians to get away with Hafez Assad's old tactics. "He was able to do what he did," says one Shiite political analyst in Beirut, "because the world ignored or allowed it. That's not the case today."

Walid Jumblatt, the hereditary religious and political leader of Lebanon's Druse community, has become the most prominent voice of opposition to Syrian rule--and he spent much of last week holed up in a heavily guarded castle among the hills south of Beirut. "I've got to expect anything," he told NEWSWEEK. "It's total chaos. Who is controlling who in Lebanon? And on whom should you rely to ask for protection?"

Jumblatt knows that if the opposition is going to win, it's going to have to find a modus vivendi with Lebanon's Shiites, a plurality of the population that has tended to ally itself with Syria. To do that, he'll have to come to terms with Hizbullah. Lebanese see the "Party of God" as a heroic militia that fought Israeli occupation. Washington brands it an international terrorist organization. "They have their legitimacy," says Jumblatt. "They have their institutions. They are in Parliament. Maybe their military role, if they accept, will be reduced, will be over. But they are really part of Lebanon."

Jumblatt is a survivor, and if you want to know the way the treacherous political winds are blowing, he's a good man to keep an eye on. He knew that the Syrians murdered his father in 1977, but he worked closely with Damascus anyway throughout much of the Lebanon war, fighting bloody battles mainly against Lebanese Christians. A year and a half ago, Jumblatt's was one of the most bitter voices raised against the unpopular U.S. invasion of Iraq. When a dozen rockets hit the Baghdad hotel where Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz was staying in November 2003, Jumblatt said he wished they'd killed "this virus wreaking corruption in the Arab land of Iraq." (Jumblatt's visa to the United States was pulled after that.)

Now Jumblatt has been in indirect contact with Wolfowitz, and says he re-grets some of his previous rhetoric. Wolfowitz, who always preached the spread of democracy as part of a grand American design for the Middle East, told Lebanese television he's not holding a grudge. Jumblatt, he said, has "shown a lot of courage."

"I think the Middle East is changing," Jumblatt told NEWSWEEK. "The Arab people want to join the rest of the civilized world. They want freedom. I have denounced the American invasion of Iraq, but I also admit that the Iraqi people are now free." He recounted the recent steps toward democracy in other areas. "And in Lebanon, the young people of Lebanon--the youngsters of Lebanon--are just fed up! Fed up. And it's a revolt, a popular revolt triggered, of course, by the killing of Hariri. We say we want a new Lebanon. We've had enough of blood, killing and assassinations. We want independence."

Indeed, that sentiment may be the strongest one sweeping the Middle East. But what does it mean, really? Democracy is not the only rallying cry, or even the most potent one. As Jumblatt is quick to say, Arabs are sick of living in occupied countries, whether the occupiers are Syrian or Israeli or, for that matter, even the well-intentioned United States of America.