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Will the Mideast Bloom?

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.

_____Outlook Live Online_____
Youssef Ibrahim will be online Monday, March 14, at 9 a.m. ET to discuss his article.

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?


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