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A change of Arab hearts and minds

Amid gloom, a scholar glimpses signs of democratic awakening

(Page 3 of 3)

You frequently mention women's liberation as part of this movement. Are young men really on board with that?

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Young men as much as young women argue that to really reform Arab societies you need to reform family structures and liberate women. In their minds, liberalizing means equality between the sexes.

How do you think they're going to be prepared to deal with the obvious backlash against integrating women?

I don't know how it will work in practice. But we're witnessing a dramatic shift. At almost all Arab universities more women than men are enrolling and graduating. Gender roles are bound to change as more women professionals enter the work force. This development says a lot about structural changes happening in the Arab world.

The fear is that war in Iraq has created a greater sympathy in the Muslim world for bin Ladenism.

Far from empowering the democrats or the reformists, the war in Iraq, has supplied more ammunition to militant elements and alienated moderate secular and Muslim public opinion. But anger is aimed at the US and the local regimes. Demonstrations in Egypt and Jordan against the invasion of Iraq were directed as much at local regimes as at the US. What's fascinating is that tens of thousands of Egyptians at war protests said "no" to Mubarak and shouted antiregime slogans. The Iraq war reinforced perceptions that reforms are urgently needed and that the entire structure must be overhauled from within because it is rotten.

Among Arabs, is Iraq becoming more important in shaping opinion about the US than, say, the Palestinian conflict?

For a moment, I expected Iraq to supersede Palestine in Arab imagination. Saddam Hussein was perceived as a brutal dictator, but most Arabs believe that the US didn't go to Iraq to liberate the Iraqis, that it had ulterior motives. Yet all the studies show that even after the invasion and occupation of Iraq, Palestine remains the most fundamental, critical question in the minds of Arabs. The question of Palestine goes to the heart of Arab identity because Israel is perceived as a creation of the West. As such, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and now the occupation of Iraq, is seen as a continuation of the onslaught against Arabs and Muslims.

Do you think the US investment in [the US Arab language] Radio Sawa and that kind of publicity is worth it?

Radio Sawa has a huge audience of young Arabs. They like the music but don't listen to the news - a huge gap between the cultural aspect and the political. In Arab eyes, the US suffers from a crisis of moral authority. Young Arabs admire American values but are deeply suspicious of US foreign policy. There is a great deal of attraction and fascination toward the American idea. Yes, the US could serve as a catalyst for positive change in the Arab world. But this requires more than propaganda. I'm talking about a long term strategy to assist reformists in tranforming civil society, to take risks on the younger generation's choices, and help resolve festering regional conflicts. The US is rethinking foreign aid strategy in the area. One would hope that, instead of military toys and other prestige projects, some aid would be channeled into civil society projects like reforming the educational and health systems, empowering women, and pushing rulers to open up the political system and respect human rights and the rule of law.