Why democracy stirs in Mideast

The factors behind the political opening from Baghdad to Beirut, and beyond

The letters came from the Committee on the Present Danger - an international group established to support the war against terror - and carried the imprimatur of such figures as former Secretary of State George Shultz and "Velvet Revolutionary" Vaclav Havel.

One letter invited Egyptian prisoner Ayman Nour, leader of the political opposition party Al Ghad, to join the organization. The other asked President Hosni Mubarak for permission to meet with the jailed leader.

On Saturday, under the mounting international pressure, Mr. Nour was released on bail.

This case represents another small opening in a series of momentous stirrings sweeping a region that has long seemed stuck under entrenched authoritarian regimes.

Why all the ferment? As the Egyptian case suggests, outside influences - in particular Bush policies pairing Arab reform with global security - are at least part of the explanation for the abrupt rise of democracy activism. But so, in a circuitous way, is Osama Bin Laden himself. So is the ripple effect of elections in Afghanistan, Iraq, the Palestinian territories, and Ukraine.

And so, as experts on the region emphasize, are the many home-grown democracy advocates who have long laid the groundwork for an Arab bloom.

"We are witnessing the twilight of the old order. Partly that is because the Arab world is feeling the pressure from outside," says Hassan al-Ebraheem, a former Kuwaiti education minister and longtime advocate of democratic reforms in his and other Arab countries. "But democracy is not made by outside influence," he adds. "To have democracy, you must have democrats."

The post-9/11 mode

It is unlikely that the letters to Egypt would have been sent before the terrorist acts of Sept. 11, 2001: Most Arab regimes have long jailed political opponents without much interference from the West. But now a growing roster of international leaders, led by President Bush, is pressing democracy as the best antidote to the kind of Islamic extremism that advocates anti-Western violence.

Responding to that pressure, Mr. Mubarak has directed the parliament to amend electoral law to allow for the first multiparty presidential election in Egypt. It remains unclear, however, just how far-reaching the reform will be: Will the popular Nour, for example, be allowed to mount a candidacy?

More broadly, Mr. Bush has been citing his policies - foremost among them the idea that war in Iraq could plant a democracy to be an example for the region - as a catalyst in what some are calling an Arab spring. In a speech at the National Defense University in Washington last week, the president said, "At last, clearly and suddenly, the thaw has begun."

Various former skeptics, including some Arabs who say they hate to admit it, now say the impact from what Bush calls Iraq's "purple revolution" (referring to the ink-stained thumbs of Iraqi voters) is too obvious to discount. But many experts say it is a combination of two crucial elements - long-frustrated longings meeting unprecedented external support - that is setting things off.

"There is a convergence of internal aspirations and calls for reform in Arab and Muslim lands, with external pressures exerted by the international community, particularly the Bush administration," says Fawaz Gerges, a Mideast expert at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y. "It would be misleading to say it is either/or," he adds, "despite those in the region who really want to believe that it is all springing from Arab soil, or some neoconservatives here who say it is all thanks to the Bush policy."

The Middle East produced its own crop of democracy advocates in the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, much as Eastern Europe did, Mr. Gerges recalls. But they were muffled from within and met with no forceful support from outside.

"There were many people enthusiastic about building civil societies: That was the buzzword of the 1990s. But they were suppressed at their birth by the Assads and the Mubaraks" and other authoritarian regimes, he says. "Then two things happened that no one could ignore: the Sept. 11 attacks on the US and the political emancipation of the Iraqi people."

Different factors in play

But not all the moves toward change should be seen as having the same impetus, specialists say. Most see Mubarak's proposal for multiparty presidential elections as the clearest case of a direct response to new pressures from Washington. And Bush is keeping up pressure, using the Defense University speech to advise his friend Mubarak of what the presidential elections would have to offer in order to pass the democracy test: "freedom of assembly, multiple candidates, free access by those candidates to the media, and the right to form political parties."

Other cases, like Lebanon, are more suggestive of the mix of pressures - internal and external, political and economic - that are at play.

Kuwait is a case suggesting that the winds of political change have been blowing for a while, certainly before Sept. 11. Sometime in the next few weeks, the Kuwaiti parliament is expected to vote on a government-backed reform to allow women the right to vote and hold political office. The reform was first proposed in a 1999 edict by the ruling emir but lost by two votes in a parliamentary vote.

Many experts also point out that the Arab Human Development Reports, widely considered the most comprehensive and critical calls for Arab reform of recent years, were launched by the United Nations Development Program in 2000 and were researched and written by Arabs.

"To hear so much talk of change in the Middle East resulting from the war in Iraq, it's as if the Arabs have no idea or meaningful tradition of reformist thinking," says Clovis Maksoud, a Lebanese development specialist at American University in Washington who is also on the board of the Arab Human Development Reports.

Just back from the Middle East, Mr. Maksoud says he encountered a growing irritation among Arabs, "a feeling that the US, which did not find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, is now trying to snatch away these political movements and lay claim to them."

That raises further questions of why the Middle East bloom is on right now. Bush reduces it to a universal hunger for democratic freedoms, but others say the explanation lies elsewhere.

"People in these countries have a strong sense that things have gone wrong, but they are not convinced that democracy is the answer," says Jon Alterman, a Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "What they really want are better results."

That means people want jobs and better living conditions and services, he says, than what their current government regimes are delivering. But they don't necessarily see democracy as the answer, and that is where the Bush doctrine of democratic reform as the universal answer and local perceptions may end up in conflict. "The real challenge we face," says Mr. Alterman, "is that there is no widespread belief that American-style democracy delivers better results."

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