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Will the Mideast Bloom?

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Listen to the conversations in the cafes on the edge of the creek that runs through this Persian Gulf city, and it is hard to believe that the George W. Bush being praised by Arab diners is the same George W. Bush who has been widely excoriated in these parts ever since he took office.


By Youssef M. Ibrahim

Sunday, March 13, 2005; Page B01

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates

Yet the balmy breeze blowing along the creek carries murmurs of approval for the devoutly Christian U.S. president, whose persistent calls for democracy in the Middle East are looking less like preaching and more like timely encouragement.

Nowadays, intellectuals, businessmen and working-class people alike can be caught lauding Bush's hard-edged posture on democracy and cheering his handling of Arab rulers who are U.S. allies. Many also admire Bush's unvarnished threats against Syria should it fail to pull its soldiers and spies out of Lebanon before the elections there next month -- a warning the United Nations reinforced last week with immediate effects. For Bush, it is not quite a lovefest but a celebration nonetheless.

"His talk about democracy is good," an Egyptian-born woman was telling companions at the Fatafeet (or "Crumbs") restaurant the other night, exuberant enough for her voice to carry to neighboring tables. "He keeps hitting this nail. That's good, by God, isn't it?" At another table, a Lebanese man was waxing enthusiastic over Bush's blunt and irreverent manner toward Arab autocrats. "It is good to light a fire under their feet," he said.

From Casablanca to Kuwait City, the writings of newspaper columnists and the chatter of pundits on Arabic language satellite television suggest a change in climate for advocates of human rights, constitutional reforms, business transparency, women's rights and limits on power. And while developments differ vastly from country to country, their common feature is a lifting -- albeit a tentative one -- of the fear that has for decades constricted the Arab mind.

Regardless of Bush's intentions -- which many Arabs and Muslims still view with suspicion -- the U.S. president and his neoconservative crowd are helping to spawn a spirit of reform and a new vigor to confront dynastic dictatorships and other assorted ills. It's enough for someone like me, who has felt that Bush's attitude toward the Mideast has been all wrong, to wonder whether his idea of setting the Muslim house in order is right.

And yet, it is too early for congratulations. Bush may feel inspired by the example of President Ronald Reagan, who told Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down this wall" in Berlin, but the Middle East may more closely resemble 1989 Beijing than 1989 Berlin. While communism collapsed largely of its own weight in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union without U.S. intervention, pro-democracy demonstrators in China were squashed. What will U.S. policy in the Middle East look like if the autocrats, princes and religious fundamentalists make a stand against the voices of freedom?

That said, there have been many reasons in the past two months for Arab democrats to feel giddy.

On Jan. 9, Palestinians cast ballots in free elections where the winner did not, unlike candidates in "elections" so often held elsewhere in the region, get 99 percent of the vote. And within the late Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, younger members are calling for primaries to choose fresh candidates before July's legislative elections.

Then at the end of January, 8 million Iraqis marched to the polls, despite threats of violence, to vote for a new parliament. Since then, the winners have been negotiating and balancing legislative blocks in ways that have defied predictions of Shiite domination and which, despite continued bombings and Sunni discontent, could yet be a model of the multiparty political process.

On Feb. 10, in the veiled Saudi kingdom, royal princes let in a crack of light with the first municipal elections in 42 years. Instead of being welcomed as a step forward, the elections were sarcastically derided on Saudi Internet chat sites as Mickey Mouse exercises in which half the people -- women -- couldn't vote, and half the winners were appointed by government. In the past, this sort of brazen truth-telling wouldn't have taken place, and it shows that sham or limited elections won't satisfy people.

Above all there has been the outburst in the streets of Beirut following the Feb. 14 assassination of Lebanese leader Rafiq Hariri. The murder was, to use the phrase that Napoleon's foreign minister Talleyrand is often credited with coining, "worse than a crime; it was a blunder." It laid bare all the resentment of Syria's 30-year occupation, meddling and hit squads. The demonstrations against Syria, and even the massive counter-demonstrations last week by Hezbollah, have framed a broad and (so far) nonviolent debate on the future shape of the entire Arab world.

In the largest Arab country, Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak grudgingly announced on Feb. 26 that the constitution would be altered to allow other candidates to run for the presidency. While everyone expects Mubarak, who has ruled for 24 years, to win yet another six-year term in elections this fall at the age of 77, the Sphinx had blinked. More evidence of Bush's pressure.

The groundswell continues to spread. A few days ago, Kuwaiti women hit the streets to demand the right to vote, challenging bearded Islamist parliamentarians over what the Koran says, or does not say, about the rights of women. They won the government's support for a new proposal to parliament. The Saudis then rushed to say they would allow women to vote in the next municipal elections. It matters little whether they mean it, Saudi women heard it.

This much is real. And while many Arab democrats have been struggling for years, there is a keen sense of irony that a passionately Christian American president who has supported Israel, invaded an Arab country and presided over an occupation marred by violence might actually make a positive difference in the Muslim world. It has people here citing the Koranic verse that speaks of a catastrophe that bears good fruits.

The din of democracy talk has been amplified by satellite television, the Internet and cell phones, and that is a new wrinkle for autocratic regimes experienced at quiet repression.

Al-Jazeera, whose audience numbers in the tens of millions, gave blanket coverage of the Lebanese protests, including live interviews from Beirut's Martyrs' Square as well as debates, analysis and talk shows. CNN and BBC broadcasts seen here have also tracked the events hour by hour.

As the Beirut anti-Syria demonstrations attracted the young and the hip, their images appealed to their well-to-do, educated but usually detached peers throughout the region, triggering new interest in politics. Other governments must sense popular opinion moving because none, except Iran, has rallied to Syria's side.

The intensity of it all has drowned out, at least for now, the usual noise about alleged Israeli conspiracies, neoconservative plots and America's misadventures in Iraq.

Instead, more people are baring their souls, with little apparent fear. On Tuesday an all-women's program on al-Jazeera featured a verbal wrestling match between a veiled advocate of multiple marriages and male supremacy in Islam and several other women who swatted down her views. Even the infamous religious authority Sheik Yusuf Qaradawi of Qatar -- whose edicts range from legitimizing wife beating to the killing of foreigners in Iraq to the shunning of Christians and Jews -- has been remarkably demure on his TV show.

The slogan for this nascent people's revolt has become "Kifaya," which means "enough." It's a word that is both emphatic and vague enough to be all-encompassing yet effective: enough of autocrats, enough corruption, enough occupation, enough repression. It has acquired magical and perhaps lasting power.

A respected Egyptian analyst of the Arab condition, Abdel Moneim Said , argued in the Saudi-owned newspaper Asharq al-Awsat last Wednesday that the "Enough" movement can already claim an important achievement -- sweeping aside the tired argument that "special circumstances" preclude Arabs and Muslims from sharing universal democratic principles.

Another notable voice, Egypt's guru of Arab nationalism, author and writer Muhammad Hasanayn Haykal, has pronounced 2005 "the year of the big scare" where old assumptions crumble in the face of demands for reform.

A cartoon that appeared March 3 in a Jordanian newspaper, al-Ghad, captured the sense that the age of autocracy may be drawing to a close. Political cartoonist Emad Hajjaj drew four statues on pedestals. The one furthest to the right, Saddam Hussein, is cracking at the knees and toppling into an almost identical statue of Syrian leader Bashir Assad, which is teetering into a statue of Mubarak, who is falling into a statue whose face can't be seen.

Bush, in his inaugural address, proclaimed America's commitment to spreading democracy. "All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: The United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors," he said. "When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you."

This isn't the first time that a President Bush has encouraged Arabs to rise up against their oppressors. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush egged on Iraqi Shiites and Kurds to revolt, only to abandon them when Saddam Hussein cracked down.

The question that lingers is whether the current president's resolve will last longer than his father's. How hard will Bush pressure Mubarak, while sending terrorist suspects to him and relying on Egypt for help in Gaza? If Mubarak keeps his leading opponents in jail, if Syria keeps its intelligence network in place and uses Hezbollah as its right arm, if the extensive Saudi royal family and its fundamentalist allies cling to power, what is Bush's Plan B?

Not a single Arab ruler is a willing participant in democratic reform. Their regimes are festooned with opportunists attached to their financial and political privileges. And while the Arab media have changed, these regimes still possess the same coercive instruments that have proven effective means of control in the past.

Just as important, many of the potential forces for change are wary of going along with Western-inspired momentum. And violent extremists threaten progress made in Iraq and within the Palestinian Authority.

In Lebanon, Hezbollah is a wild card. In a speech to some 500,000 supporters who gathered under his movement's banners on Tuesday in Beirut, Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah said the real objective of the United States and Israel was to disarm and dismantle Hezbollah rather than to institutionalize democracy. While it would be better to have the heavily armed Hezbollah, which already has 12 seats in the Lebanese parliament, brought into the political process, that would be hard for the Bush administration to swallow. Hezbollah is still on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations. Will the administration be willing to make a deal?

Given the uncertainties about U.S. policy, perhaps the most pertinent question is whether the resolve of Arab reformers will prove durable and effective even without substantive U.S. support.

So one is left to wonder if this moment will last more than a moment, whether it will turn into a repeat of the tearing down of the Berlin Wall or whether it will be a reprise of the truncated Beijing Spring. The region lacks China's economic dynamism, but it also lacks a Gorbachev and his policy of perestroika.

For now, all the Middle East has are demonstrators and brave voters who, ballot by imperfect ballot, e-mail by e-mail are burying a culture of fear. And for the moment, that may be enough.

Created by keza
Last modified 2005-04-01 08:37 AM

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