DUBAI, United Arab Emirates
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.
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.
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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.