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A change of Arab hearts and minds

Amid gloom, a scholar glimpses signs of democratic awakening

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There are three factors driving this new wave. First, autocratic Arab regimes can no longer control the flow of information, thanks to satellite TV stations like Al Jazeera. The new media are challenging the status quo by telling what's happening at home and abroad.

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The second factor is the Arab world's profound socioeconomic and political crisis. Unemployment among young men and women is reportedly 78 percent in Egypt; 68 in Syria; 58 in Jordan; 45 in Tunisia. Not having a job means you can't get married, start a family, or have a decent life. So this profound social crisis is mobilizing - forcing - young men and women to play a different role than their elders did.

Finally, Arabs see their world is being recolonized - you have very proud kids who feel outraged because their countries are being invaded, humiliated, and their religion conflated with terrorism.

Are they blaming their plight on the US or their own leaders?

While they fault the US for the injustices inflicted on Palestinians and other Muslim communities, they lay the blame for their plight squarely at the feet of their own repressive regimes. For example, in December at a Beirut conference of thousands of politicians, academics, and activists, one Saudi Arabian girl in her late teens said Arab leaders have failed and should be replaced by women. There was total silence in the big hall - you should have seen the look on the faces of the old guard. We're not talking about a [modern] Lebanese, Syrian, or Palestinian woman; it was a woman from [conservative] Saudi Arabia who reprimanded the autocrats.

You say militant Islamism is a spent force but the violence continues: We've had 9/11, foreign fighters going into Iraq, the promotion of violence from mosques, Palestinian suicide bombers. It doesn't feel as if it's waning.

Throughout the Arab world Islamists have concluded violence and terrorism not only hurt their movement but harm the interests of the Muslim community. Since 9/11 some of the most militant Islamists published books condemning Osama bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri's tactics.

So if the US were to prod autocratic Arab regimes to liberalize, then would they be overrun by a wave of Islamists?

I think there is no danger, now, that any Middle Eastern government will be overrun by Islamists. Islamist movements are having second thoughts about their use of terror in service of the political. They've paid dearly for their miscalculation.

I'm not suggesting that the US should shift gears overnight and get rid of its autocratic Arab allies. But if the US is as genuine about reform as it says it is, if it believes authoritarianism played a decisive role in giving rise to bin Ladenism, it's in the US's own vital interest for its allies to gradually open up the political process, integrate the rising social classes into the fold, and liberalize from within. I suggest the US could also help by investing in education, academic exchange, training of teachers, and other aspects of civil society.

What Arab leaders do you think recognize the problem as you've outlined it and are responding to it?

As a result of social upheaval among young people, almost every Arab cabinet now includes a ministry of youth. For example, listen to Egyptian President Mubarak often talk of the importance of the youth, concern for their future, and how he wants to integrate them into the political process. The Tunisian and Moroccan governments are doing more than other Arab countries to open the socioeconomic and political system, to integrate women - an enlightened authoritarianism. Although other Arab rulers pay lip service to the idea of incorporating young men and women into political life, they're trying to find ways to control this new wave.