Whispers of democracy across the Middle East

Ever so gently, the breezes of change - we can't yet call them "winds" - are rippling across hitherto repressed parts of the Islamic world.

• Saudi Arabia announced last week it will hold elections for municipal councils within a year - its first flirtation with real elections.

• In Morocco, King Mohammed VI outlined sweeping changes in polygamy, marriage, and divorce laws, proclaiming: "How can society achieve progress while women, who represent half the nation, see their rights violated and suffer as a result of injustice, violence, and marginalization?"

• In Iran, the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi - the first Muslim woman to win it - gave heart and a fillip to the embattled reform movement. Ten thousand Iranians turned out at the Tehran airport to welcome her home.

• Arab intellectuals, in cooperation with the UN, released a report Monday calling for reforms that would advance the cause of women's rights in Arab lands and make governments more accountable.

• Afghanistan has virtually finished a constitution that will affirm adherence to Islam, but provide for national elections in 2004, and set up a two-chamber parliament in which women would have a significant role. The draft constitution guarantees the protection of human rights.

• In Iraq there's movement toward swifter empowerment of the Iraqi Governing Council, to be followed by a new constitution and national elections, perhaps in 2004.

We can be heartened, but not too euphoric. For instance, is Saudi Arabia's foray into municipal electioneering - dramatic in light of the country's nondemocratic history - for real or just showboating for the outside world? In Iran, thousands may have turned out to cheer their new Nobelist's human rights crusade, but it doesn't mean that sour conservative mullahs have seen the light.

Afghanistan's quest for stability and democracy could yet go awry. The new constitution must be approved in December by a national assembly made up of diverse elements. Hard line conservatives may press for more Islamic - less democratic - influence. The post- Taliban era has seen improvement in women's rights, but a recent Amnesty International report paints a still-bleak picture. A male-dominated society may be reluctant to afford women equal standing. And warlords are reluctant to surrender their power and embrace democratic ideals that might erode it.

As for Iraq, prospects are tantalizing, but the challenges immense. Saddam Hussein remains at large and his diehard gunmen and suicide bombers, in concert with others who seek to undermine the American presence, are taking their toll of US troops, Iraqi citizens, and foreign aid workers and diplomats. The aim is to sabotage economic reconstruction and the building of democratic institutions that could make Iraq a showcase for neighboring Arab countries that have drifted listlessly in repressive backwardness.

Pessimistic observers of the Iraqi scene say time is running out, and that Iraqi animosity toward the Americans is mounting, fueled by disappointment over the lack of security and the paucity of jobs. Democratic contenders for the American presidency, in full pursuit of George Bush, and inspired by the success of Howard Dean's anti-war stance with the liberal wing of the party, are strongly criticizing what they see as a postwar muddle.

Optimists say things are improving and cite polls suggesting Iraqis believe better days lie ahead. The Economist says: "The shroud of gloom is not as uniform as it looks from afar. America's occupation of Iraq is proceeding messily but progress is being made. ... Step by awkward step, the country is groping towards democracy."

The storm cloud that really overshadows this admittedly tenuous movement toward democracy in the Islamic lands of the Middle East is the collapse of any hope for an early breakthrough in the Israeli-Palestinian impasse. Palestinian suicide bombers take innocent Israeli lives. Israeli troops take innocent Palestinian lives in vengeance attacks. And an Israeli wall extends day by day in a direction that makes peace and stability even more difficult.

All the more reason to welcome and nurture the tender shoots of democracy whenever and wherever in the Middle East they appear.

John Hughes is a former editor of the Monitor.

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