There's an old joke Arabs like to tell that illustrates the condition of democracy in the Arab world. A flunky to an Arab dictator breathlessly informs his leader that 99.9 percent of the population reelected him in a nationwide poll in which he was the only candidate.
"That means only 0.1 percent of the people didn't vote for you, Mr. President," he says. "What more could you want?"
"Their names," comes the cold reply.
President Bush says one of the justifications for unseating Saddam Hussein is to bring democracy to Iraq, which, it is hoped in Washington, will spread to the rest of the Arab world.
That is no easy task, however, in a region with few democratic traditions. The phrase "tribes with flags" has been used to describe the Arab world, where the concept of the modern state, imposed by European powers in the 20th century, has sat uncomfortably with Arab traditions of loyalty to one's sect, feudal overlord, or religious leader.
Many ordinary Arabs, while appreciative of democratic values, have little faith that democracy is feasible in the Arab world.
"It's not a good idea for an Arab country to become democratic. I am against it," says Rima Zeitoun, a teacher here. "Arabs tend to be tribal and feudal. If you don't have a strong leader forced on them, to keep them living in harmony, they will fight against each other continuously."
That line of thought, however, wins little sympathy from some Arab intellectuals and academics who maintain that democracy can be successfully introduced to the Middle East as it has been elsewhere in the world.
"It's a grave mistake to assume that Arab democracy is simply something that Arabs cannot have when everyone else can have it," says Michael Young, a Lebanese political analyst and commentator in Beirut. "Democracy can work, free markets can work. I don't think you are destined in the Arab world to either have a Saddam [Hussein] or a Bashar [al-Assad, president of Syria]."
The trappings of democracy do exist in many Arab countries with parliaments, political parties, elections, and a relatively free press. Some Gulf countries, most of which are ruled by single powerful families, have introduced tentative reforms - Bahrain allowed women the vote for the first time last year, and Qatar has introduced municipal elections. But the fledgling democratic systems in the Arab world are far removed from the Anglo-American model.
"I call it 'Oriental democracy,' " says Rami Khouri, a Jordanian-Palestinian and executive editor of Beirut's English-language Daily Star. "You have a demo-cratic system on the ground, but decisions are made according to old Oriental rules of power relationships in society based on ethnicity, religion, control of money, and control of the Army."
Analysts agree that the democratic systems found in the US and Europe cannot simply be transplanted onto Arab society. Mr. Khouri argues that the transition to Western-style democracies will be a natural process of evolution, citing the experience of the US as an example.
"The early democracy of the United States was not really a democracy.... Real power was tightly controlled by small groups of white guys who owned land, had slaves, and whose wives couldn't vote," he says. "I think the transition comes with time. It comes with emergence of a middle class, it comes with prosperity."
One of the obstacles hindering the emergence of a true democracy is the artificial nature of the nation states in the Middle East. Most were carved out by Britain and France to suit their respective imperial interests in the wake of World War I and took scant account of the demographic complications that would ensue.
"Most of these countries don't make sense," says one analyst here. "None of these countries drew their own borders, none of them chose their own leaderships, none of them designed their governance systems, that's why they don't work very well.
"What has to happen is a process through which the peoples of the region sort out what kind of countries, what kind of sovereignties they want to live in."
Take Jordan. On paper, it is a constitutional monarchy with prime ministers appointed by the king and elections for an 80-seat House of Representatives. But in reality, power rests with the monarch and the tribal elite.
"There is no real constitutional monarchy in Jordan," says Chibli Mallat, a professor of international law at Beirut's St. Joseph University. The wielding of power "operates at the whim of the king," he adds.
Lebanon is perhaps the Arab country with the strongest democratic tradition. It has a 128-seat Parliament elected every six years, a Cabinet, and a prime minister appointed by the president in consultation with Parliament. To reflect the many sects in Lebanon, a power-sharing agreement exists whereby the president is always a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of parliament a Shia Muslim. Cabinet and Parliament have a 6 to 5 Muslim-Christian ratio.
Mr. Young argues that the checks and balances in the complicated power-sharing arrangements prevent the emergence of a dictator.
"Lebanon is a curious case," he says. "It is a semidemocracy. The system is corrupt, you have a political elite which imposes itself on the people, you have the traditional zuama [political bosses]. But the paradox is that this has created a balance of power in the system so that you don't have this one dictator emerging to crush all the communities."
Syria is the opposite. Like Lebanon, Syria has many different sects. But unlike Lebanon, the state in Syria has been traditionally strong.
Lebanon suffered a brutal civil war from 1975 to 1990 which arose in part from the weakness of the Lebanese state. The ruling regime in Syria, however, has ruthlessly crushed any sign of dissent. While Syrians have enjoyed more than three decades of internal stability, the price is paid in living under an authoritarian regime.