In the Mideast, Democratic Momentum

By Jackson Diehl
Monday, December 19, 2005

Though Iraq has now held the freest election in Arab history, conventional wisdom in Washington and the Middle East still dismisses the Bush administration's hope that its military intervention will catalyze democratic change around the region. A recent survey by Brookings Institution scholar Shibley Telhami found that 58 percent of Arabs outside Iraq said the war had produced less rather than more democracy. In the United States, a Pew poll released last month showed that only 34 percent of Americans believed Middle East democratization would happen.

That's one of the perverse effects of the war: Amid all the noise of suicide bombings, talk of a quagmire for U.S. troops and a sectarian conflict that could lead to Iraq's disintegration, most people haven't noticed that in the rest of the Arab Middle East, the political momentum of the past year has been . . . distinctly democratic.

"There's enough going in the right direction . . . that I am one of those who believes that the intervention in Iraq will be good for democracy in the region in the middle term," is the way Mark Malloch Brown, the witty chief of staff to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, puts it. "I'm just not sure it will be good for democracy in Iraq."

The most obvious element of the liberalizing drift has been the elections of 2005: in the Palestinian Authority, in Lebanon, in Egypt, even in Saudi Arabia. Flawed as many of the polls were, they produced some stunning results, from the formation of a government in Lebanon committed to independence from Syria, to the quintupling of seats held by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt's parliament, to the electoral victory of two women in the Saudi city of Jiddah. Last week the Palestinian Islamic movement Hamas presented its list of 62 candidates for scheduled legislative elections next month, including 10 women. The corrupt old guard of the ruling Fatah party meanwhile has been challenged by several new lists of secular reformers; elections may bring, at last, rejuvenation of the corrupt power structure created by Yasser Arafat.

Another revealing index is the number of the Arab world's authoritarian rulers who have felt obliged to spell out plans for a democratic transition. In the past two months Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdullah have unveiled platforms to introduce a free press, an independent judiciary and liberalized election laws during the next several years. By some accounts, Saudi Arabia's then-Crown Prince Abdullah privately promised Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in June that democracy would reach his country in a decade. Whether or not they meant it, the autocrats' promises raised expectations in their countries, and gave their growing domestic reform movements a standard to hold them to.

For the first time, too, the Arab world is getting a peek at what political accountability looks like. Four senior Lebanese generals are in prison for their role in the car-bomb assassination last February of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, and Syrian President Bashar Assad is under growing pressure from a U.N. investigation; never before have the region's thugs been collared for their political killing. In Morocco, an official truth commission has spent the past 12 months listening, in public, to the accounts of citizens who were tortured or persecuted by the government; reparations are being paid to thousands.

Most intriguing of all has been the shift by Islamic movements during 2005 from terrorism to democratic participation. Despite some lapses, both Hamas and Lebanon's Hezbollah have mostly refrained from violence this year while focusing on elections. While neither has disarmed, both are under pressure from public opinion in their own countries to do so. Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, which swore off violence decades ago, has embraced the agenda of parliamentary democracy and free press put forward by the secular opposition coalition that appeared in Cairo this year. The most commonly cited obstacle to Arab democratization -- Islamic fundamentalism -- looks far less formidable than it did a year ago.

All of this is not to say that freedom, as President Bush would put it, "is on the march" in the Middle East. For every two steps forward, there is at least one step back. In Egypt, for instance, the gains of the opposition have happened in spite of massive government-orchestrated violence and fraud. It's still not clear whether Islamic movements like Hamas intend to stick to democracy or merely use it as another instrument of war against Israel and secularism. With the world focused on Iraq's troubles, naysayers who insist that there has been no positive change, or even that the situation has grown worse, mostly aren't contradicted. Yet any honest examination of the Arab world shows that the transformation Bush called for on the eve of the war in 2003 got closer in 2005.

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