Trucks carrying Syrian soldiers began to file out of Beirut yesterday. As they departed, Syria's President, Bashar Assad, under intense pressure from the US, promised to withdraw all 14,000 troops to eastern areas of Lebanon by the end of this month. The White House almost immediately dismissed the plan as failing to set a deadline for total withdrawal from the country.
So this was too little, too slow for Washington. But however circumscribed, the first phase of Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon is another sign of change across the Middle East. The precise extent and implications of the pull-out (or to be more accurate pull-back) are still unclear, and the same goes for the host of other developments, from Palestine to Iraq, from Egypt to Saudi Arabia. Some may be sincere and lasting, others contrived and short-lived, but all suggest the political straitjacket that has long imprisoned the Arab world is loosening, if not yet coming apart at the seams.
It is barely six weeks since the US President delivered his second inaugural address, a paean to liberty and democracy that espoused the goal of "ending tyranny in our world". Reactions around the world ranged from alarm to amused scorn, from fears of a new round of "regime changes" imposed by an all-powerful American military, to suspicions in the salons of Europe that this time Mr Bush, never celebrated for his grasp of world affairs, had finally lost it. No one imagined that events would so soon cause the President's opponents around the world to question whether he had got it right.
That debate is now happening, in America and beyond, as the first waves of reform lap at the Arab world. Post-Saddam Iraq has held its first proper election. In their own elections, Palestinians have overwhelmingly chosen a moderate leader. Hosni Mubarak, who for 24 years has permitted no challenge to his rule in Egypt, has announced a multi-candidate presidential election this year. Even Saudi Arabia is not immune, having just held its first municipal elections. Next time around, Saudi spokesmen promise, women too will be permitted to vote.
Most remarkably of all, perhaps, popular demonstrations in Beirut last week brought the downfall of one pro-Syrian government and - with the help of fierce pressure from Washington and the EU - the agreement by Syria to start withdrawing its troops in Lebanon.
How much Mr Bush is responsible for these development is debatable. The peaceful uprising in Lebanon was provoked by outrage at the assassination of the former prime minister Rafik Hariri, in which a Syrian hand is suspected, although not proven. Then the man who insisted on elections in Iraq when the US wanted to postpone or dilute them was Ayatollah Ali al- Sistani, leader of Iraq's majority Shia community. And the death from old age of Yasser Arafat, not machinations in Washington, led to the election that might break the Israeli-Palestinian deadlock.
Indubitably, however, even his most grudging domestic opponents and his harshest critics in the region admit that Mr Bush is also in part responsible. The 2003 invasion of Iraq may have been justified by a giant fraud, but that, and above all the January election to which it led, transfixing the Arab world, has proved a catalyst.
The mood at the White House, on Capitol Hill and in the punditocracy has been transformed. The weapons of mass destruction fiasco is forgotten, the deaths of US troops have slipped from the front pages. Even Senator Edward Kennedy, bitter Democratic critic of the invasion, admits that Mr Bush deserves credit "for what seemed to be a tentative awakening of democracy in the region".
The neoconservatives are predictably triumphalist. "What changed the climate in the Middle East was not just the US invasion and show of arms," exults the commentator Charles Krauthammer in Time magazine. "It was US determination and staying power, and the refusal of its people last November to turn out a president who rejected an 'exit strategy'."
Beyond argument, old certainties in the region are less certain; old equations of power are having to be recalculated. It is, of course, only a start, and things could go dreadfully wrong. Today the pro-Syrian Hizbollah party, regarded as a terrorist group, by Washington, holds a massive demonstration. Some see the spectre of Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war and this time, they predict Syria could be thrown into bloody chaos.
Success in Iraq, too, is anything but assured and there is the wild card of Iran, locked in dispute with the European Union and the United States over its suspected nuclear ambitions, and with huge mischief-making potential in both Iraq and Lebanon.
The moves by Saudi Arabia and Egypt may yet be tactical, a controlled release of steam before the lid is screwed down once more. There is no guarantee that the Islamic Brotherhood, the most powerful opposition party, will be allowed to take part in the Egyptian vote.
Then there is the law of unintended consequences. The maddening thing about democracy, from the viewpoints of Mr Bush and Mr Mubarak alike, is that you cannot be sure of what you will get. A Shia-dominated government will emerge in Iraq, but no one knows whether it will be secular or theocratic. What will Washington do if Islamic movements threaten repressive but reliable autocrats such as Mr Mubarak? And for all Mr Bush's argument that the survival of liberty in the US depends on liberty abroad, there is no guarantee that democracy will end terrorism.
Some US officials compare the situation in the Arab world with that of eastern Europe in 1989, when the people's discontent with their rulers reached boiling point, and repressive regimes simply lacked the will to repress any longer.
The same happened with the Soviet Union in 1991. But that year offers two other, more depressing parallels. One was the futile insurrection by Iraqi Kurds and Shias against Saddam Hussein. Then in Algeria, the US and the West sat silent as the military regime, faced with the victory of the Islamist FIS movement in elections, simply cancelled them. The result was a brutal civil war in which more than 100,000 died.
When push has come to shove in the Middle East before, the US has invariably sided with the devil it knows, true to the philosophy: "He may be a sonofabitch, but at least he's our sonofabitch." Will this President Bush be as good as his soaring words on that icy morning in January? Lebanon may provide the first test.
The winds of change
No sign yet of democracy arriving in the Great Socialist People?s Libyan Arab Jamiriyah. Although once regarded by the West as a pariah state, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi?s decision to take responsibility for the Lockerbie bombings and renounce WMD brought it back into the fold. However it remains a dictatorship.
The post-Arafat era has begun. Palestinians voted for a new president in January?s free elections and a parliamentary poll is set for July. New leader Mahmoud Abbas is raising hopes of peace but it is still unclear whether he will be able to exert control over militant groups and negotiate a territorial deal with Israel.
Assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri acted as a catalyst for change. Syria today begins withdrawing its forces to the eastern Bekaa Valley. Free elections may take place in May after protests brought Black down the pro-Syrian Sea government. Not known when a final pull-out of Syrian forces will take place.
Washington and Damascus are locked in a dialogue of the deaf. President Bashar Assad refuses to relinquish his trump cards (support for Hizbollah and radical Palestinians) as long as conflict with Israel over Golan Heights continues. Blamed for the murder of Rafik Hariri, Assad has reluctantly ordered his forces in Lebanon to pull back.
Bush and his allies believe democracy is finally flowering in Iraq. Eight million voted to elect government in January. A constitution enshrining personal, political and religious freedoms is to be drawn up by October. But a bloody insurgency continues to mar progress. The under-representation of Sunnis in the new government will be a problem.
President Hosni Mubarak ? unopposed in power since 1981 ? surprised the West in February announcing multi-candidate presidential elections for September. Health troubles have sparked succession worries though Mubarak has denied a plan for dynastic succession by his son Gamal. A close US ally, Egypt receives $3bn a year in tied aid.
Fearful of change, accustomed to a system in which it holds enormous power and privileges, the Saudi royal family views serious reform as a risk not worth taking, although the greatest risk to its survival comes from doing nothing at all. Elections for local councils were recently held for the first time, but women were barred from voting.
Yemen is a fragile not a failed state. A nascent democracy with the most open political system in the Arabian Peninsula, its government has shown a general commitment to developing the instruments of a modern state and has cooperated with international efforts to uproot the al-Qa?ida network. Presidential elections planned for this year.
Kuwait?s parliament has agreed to speed up moves towards a law to grant women the same political rights as men. The decision came amid noisy street rallies by women activists. The country?s ruler, Sheikh Jabir al-Ahmad al-Sabah, is moving slowly towards giving women the vote. But political parties remain outlawed.
Voted in 2001 to become a constitutional monarchy with elected parliament and independent judiciary.
Greater political openness since current head of state came to power in 1995. Democratic elections were held in 1999.Reuse content