Tipping Point in the Middle East?

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This is a partial transcript of "Special Report With Brit Hume," Feb. 28, 2005, that has been edited for clarity.

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BRIT HUME, HOST: In Lebanon Monday, as we noted earlier, thousands of protesters took to the street despite a ban on such activity and brought about an outcome that few expected, least of all this soon. The government fell and opposition leaders proclaimed a new day, not just in Lebanon, but across the Mideast.

For more on this, we’re joined by FOX News analyst Dennis Ross who served the last two presidents as special Mideast adviser and envoy. He joins us from Palm Beach, Florida.

Dennis, why did the government decide to resign? Was it some sort of patriotism? Was it fear? What was it?

DENNIS ROSS, FMR. MIDDLE EAST ENVOY: I believe that basically the Syrians (search) have decided that the pressure within Lebanon is something that they cannot contain. They need to do something, at least symbolic, to try to hold their position.

If they try to preserve the Lebanese government (search) in power when it has absolutely no credibility whatsoever, and you see this incredible growth on the street, a kind of surge of enthusiasm on the part of Lebanese that they can change the realities in Lebanon, I think this was an effort to try to buy time, buy off the opposition, and hope that in fact they can preserve some kind of position.

HUME: Now, what happens now one presumes is that parliament will choose new leaders? Is that the idea?

ROSS: Yes.

HUME: And parliament — is that a genuinely elected parliament or sort of a phony elected parliament?

ROSS: Well, it has been phony one for the following reason. That every time you have an election, the Syrians would gerrymander the districts to ensure that the only people who could be elected were the people that they selected. One of the things that turned the former Prime Minister Hariri even more against them is that they were gerrymandering the districts of all the people who were his supporters.

So he saw it again as an effort to continue to marginalize him. And he was speaking out more and more against what they were doing and joining with others in a way that invested the opposition in Lebanon with much more credibility. One of the reasons, I think, that produced his assassination was precisely he was going after the Syrian position in Lebanon and all of their friends in Lebanon.

HUME: So what do you sense now will happen? You’re now hearing the protest leaders say they’re not going stop until the Syrian military is out of there. What do you expect next?

ROSS: I believe that, in fact, they will focus very heavily on two things. One, making sure that there is an honest and open election to the parliament, so that the Lebanese produce a government of their own. And that reflects the will of the people who have been out there on the streets. And two, I think they will keep up the drum beat for the Syrians to withdraw.

I think right now rather than being bought off, what has happened is that they sense that they have a lot of momentum and they have strength on their side. And the Syrians are looking for a way to preserve a role, influence, and control, but in a less direct fashion than previously.

HUME: You spoke to me of your suspicions earlier about that the Syrians were behind the murder of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri (search). I assume you still feel that way. If so, that was a grave miscalculation.

ROSS: I think what happened is it may not have been the Syrian President Bashar Assad (search), but it certainly was those in the security apparatus and maybe their friends who are dependent upon them in Lebanon. It was, I think, a miscalculation of historic proportions.

One of the things that none of us have fully appreciated is that below the surface in Lebanon, there was always frustration. But obviously, something has been percolating from below. And the most profound things that we’re seeing is a loss of fear.

In Syria, everything is governed by fear. And the Syrians use coercion and intimidation to get their way within Lebanon. And what we’ve seen in Lebanon looks an awful lot like what we saw in Kiev. In the end, people were not prepared to accept this kind of a process any longer. And they saw it in their numbers in a kind of collective approach. They saw strength. And the more they saw strength, the more they gained confidence. They’ve gotten confidence from others as well.

HUME: Including, one presumes, the Iraqis?

ROSS: Absolutely. What they saw in Iraq, people who were in a position they were told vote and you die, went and voted anyway. Fear was not going rule out an Iraqi voice. And that was a lesson for the Lebanese, that if it can work there, it should work for us as well.

HUME: And how do you assess what’s happening in Egypt with President Mubarak (search) now talking about elections in the relatively near future, as part of all of this?

ROSS: I see it as part of a piece. I do believe the most profound thing we’re seeing in the Middle East today is in Lebanon. More than the election, it’s the empowerment of people by being willing to go on the street and make it clear they will no longer be intimidated, they will no longer be coerced and ruled by fear.

I think what we see in President Mubarak is an effort to try to get out front of this. You have two kinds of responses. One is to try to coerce it, to try to crush it. The other is to try to say hey, look. I’m in favor of reform. I’m in favor of change as well. And I think that’s what President Mubarak is trying to do right now.

HUME: Soon enough, do you think?

ROSS: I think it will help him. I’m not sure that it’s going to be soon enough. I think we’re going to have to see Mubarak do much more in the realm of real change in Egypt to satisfy what will be a burgeoning kind of impulse from the part of the Egyptian, who are not as frustrated perhaps as the Lebanese. But more frustrated, perhaps, than President Mubarak fully participates.

HUME: And where do you think this spark, a part from Egypt, where do you think this spark might next ignite flames?

ROSS: I think Saudi Arabia (search) and the Gulf State will have to prove that they are creating mechanisms for inclusion and for participation. The Saudis, I think, will try to get in front of this by not only touting their election for municipal councils, but I suspect they will try to co-opt leading reform figures. And have them assume what will be a more public and visible posture with the Saudi government.

HUME: Dennis Ross, a pleasure to have you. Always appreciate it when you take a little time for us.

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