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A Cedar Grows in Lebanon

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It was the kind of news you don't expect to come out of the Middle East -- the good kind: "Pro-Western coalition beats Hezbollah in vote." Pro-Western? The winning ticket might as well have been labeled pro-democracy or pro-peace or, for that matter, pro-tolerance and pro-civilization. (The two have a way of going together.) As for the losers, a defeat for Hezbollah means a defeat for terror and a couple of its more notorious sponsors -- the dictatorial regimes in Syria and Iran. Any election that disappoints those two partners in crime, like this one in Lebanon, has to be a good thing.

Syria's campaign of assassinations in Lebanon seems to have succeeded -- in arousing the suspicions, even ire, of a still free people. The empty appeals to pan-Islamic fervor, wrapped in the even emptier anti-American slogans, didn't work this time. After all, Lebanon has one of the more mixed and sophisticated electorates in the Arab world; many Lebanese have visited the United States or have relatives here. They know better than to believe the kind of agitprop that regularly sways the Arab Street. Which may be why the usual demagoguery didn't work this time. Much to the surprise of us cynics.

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The election returns in Lebanon represent an impressive comeback for the cause of the martyred Rafik Hariri. He led the party that finally drove the Syrians out of Lebanon in the Cedar Revolution of 2005. And paid for it with his life. His son Saad now leads the coalition of Sunni, Christian and Druze voters that emerged victorious. Its win revives hope -- not just for Lebanon but for democracy in the Middle East. Somewhere in Texas, George W. Bush must be smiling, for he never gave up hope for democracy even in the Arab world.

The prospects for unity, peace, and self-determination are now a little brighter for Lebanon. And beyond. Together with the growing strength of a pro-Western, pro-democratic government in ravaged Iraq, the news from Lebanon heartens. Even though we've learned not to take anything for granted in that part of the world, at least if it's a hopeful development. Where the Middle East is concerned, euphoria can be fleeting, and treacherous. So, no, this is no decisive victory for the forces of freedom; victories at the ballot box seldom are. They must be won again and again. But at least this wasn't a victory for those forces opposed to freedom. Tyranny and terror have lost a round.

There is a tide in the affairs of men, and the unexpected outcome of this election isn't just good news in itself, but an indication that things can change -- sometimes even for the better, sometimes even in the Middle East. Even a great cedar begins as a vulnerable little sapling thrashed about by the wind and rain. But if it can remain supple, and bend with the storms, it may yet grow strong, towering, sheltering. There is a momentum to democracy, just as there is to dictatorship, and the election returns from Lebanon indicate that the pendulum is swinging back toward a free and stable Lebanon free of foreign influences of the worst sort.

There is no shortage of elections in the Middle East; it is free and fair ones that are so rare there, which makes them all the more valuable. Even dictators respect the results of an honest election, for they lend a legitimacy to the victors that force never can. Which is why tyrants try to avoid them. Or if they can't, to manipulate them. Or if they can't do that, minimize their significance. They'll try to shrug off the results of this one, too.

But it won't be easy. This vote was a clear defeat for Iran's mullahs and its fiery president and demagogue-in-chief, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. That regime's support for Hezbollah seems to have set off a reaction among Lebanon's voters. Chastened by the election's results, Hezbollah (literally, the Party of God, which strikes us as a rather insolent claim) may now be much less interested in starting still another disastrous war with Israel. This time the side with the most inflammatory slogans lost an election in the Arab world -- an occasion rare enough to be worth savoring. It may be a small sign, but it is a sign.

There's still many a slip 'twixt electing a pro-Western, pro-democracy, pro-peace slate in a country like Lebanon and forming an actual government. Lest we forget, the politics of Lebanon are at least as byzantine as your average Southern primary. Hezbollah retains enough clout to be part of that country's next government, but it may no longer be able to call the shots, literally. That's dramatic progress for the Middle East, where the news tends to run the gamut from bad to completely disastrous.

How did this happen? What explains these election results, which were as surprising as they are welcome? It's tempting to think Western help played some part in this happy outcome, if ever so discreetly. But the news is so good it's hard to believe the CIA had anything to do with it. Lebanon's own voters and its democratic leaders deserve the credit. And so do the repressive, not to say murderous, tactics of the Syrians and Iranians--tactics that may have finally set off an electoral reaction. A reaction that is most welcome. Indeed, it was beautiful to behold, like the cedars of Lebanon.

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