Why I Have New Hope for The Mideast

By Robin Wright
Sunday, March 2, 2008

In 2006, three years after the Iraq invasion, I got so tired of the divisive debate in Washington about the future of the Middle East that I went back to the region I've covered since 1973 and listened instead to the people who live there. After traveling for the better part of a year from Rabat to Tehran, I came away surprisingly buoyed.

Oh sure, the Middle East is more volatile than it was at the beginning of the Bush administration: The Arab-Israeli peace process isn't going anywhere. Iraq remains mired in ethnic tensions, religious rivalries and Islamic extremism -- and still has only limited electricity. Iran is angrily defiant toward the United Nations over its nuclear program. Lebanon teeters again.

Yet in the early 21st century, a budding culture of change is creatively challenging the status quo -- and the extremists. New public voices, daring publications and noisy protests across two dozen countries are giving shape to a vigorous, if disjointed, search for alternatives to the autocratic regimes and imperious monarchies that have proved they're out of sync with their people. Dissident judges in Cairo, rebel clerics in Tehran, satellite television station owners in Dubai, the first female parliamentary candidates in Kuwait, young techies in Jeddah, intrepid journalists in Beirut, and bold businessmen in Damascus are carving out new space for political action.

It's a hard slog for them all. Obstinate governments are ruthlessly repressing them; extremists are targeting them. Together, those forces cut short the Arab Spring three years ago, when millions of Iraqis voted in free elections, Lebanese protesters ended Syria's 29-year occupation and democracy movements such as Egypt's "Enough" challenged autocrats across the region. The Bush administration's bungling and backtracking on democracy hasn't helped much, either.

But societies have not gone back to square one. The issue in the Middle East is no longer whether to seek political change. It's how to make it happen.

"In the Arab world, the status quo is not sustainable," reflected Marwan Muasher, a former Jordanian foreign minister. "What worked 40 years ago -- when the state could decide things and expect people to follow -- does not work now. Unless the state is responsive and aware, it is in for major trouble."

That, I found, is only one of many lessons of the new Middle East.

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Two decades ago when I roamed the region, I sought out clandestine cells as the barometer of opposition. Now I look for computer nerds -- the pajamahedeen, or pajama warriors, who wield computers instead of roadside bombs. They personify Lesson 1 in the changing Middle East: The opposition is more open, ambitious, imaginative and stubborn than ever. And the YouTube generation has become a whole new political class.

"Governments have a new kind of opponent," reflected 33-year-old Egyptian Wael Abbas. His blog has posted cellphone videos of police brutality -- including one of a detainee writhing in pain as police sodomized him with a broomstick -- to hold President Hosni Mubarak's government accountable for abuse. Started in 2004, Abbas's blog was garnering up to 30,000 hits a day, jumping to 45,000 daily during a crisis, by 2007.

"We are not bound by government rules, like political parties. We can use the language of freedom," he told me. "We offer an alternative voice, especially for the young." Abbas and his brethren in Iran, Lebanon, Morocco and elsewhere are forcing governments to respond to their complaints, even as they try to silence them. In Egypt, two police officers were prosecuted for abusing the detainee with the broomstick.

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