-- The future is about to begin in the Arab world, and few people can describe it with more clarity than Jordan's young foreign minister, Marwan Muasher.
Political change is coming, Muasher believes, not because America demands it but because ordinary Arabs want it. The United States may try to jump-start the process soon by toppling Saddam Hussein from power in Baghdad, but the forces at work are deeper and more powerful than even the U.S. Army.
"I don't think a war in Iraq will reverse this process" of change, Muasher said in an interview Thursday. The effects of the war, he argued, "will depend on what the U.S. does in Iraq -- whether it is willing to help Iraqis rebuild their country -- and on what the U.S. does in the Palestinian-Israeli peace process."
"The process will also be aided by the coming to power of a new generation of Arab leaders," the Jordanian official continued. "Whatever you want to say about this new generation, one thing that's clear is that they are more in touch with the 21st century." Jordan's King Abdullah, 43, illustrates this generational change, as does Muasher himself, who is 46.
Muasher spoke with me the day after Secretary of State Colin Powell had presented his evidence against Iraq to the U.N. Security Council. Powell's speech probably changed few minds here. Commentary in the Arab papers yesterday ranged from skeptical to nasty, with most analysts convinced that the Bush administration decided long ago to go to war.
But Muasher seemed guardedly optimistic. "We all have responsibilities -- you do and we do," he said. "If we do this right, we can look forward to a better future for the region."
The Jordanian official is hardly the typical Arab. He's a member of a Western-educated elite that has a big stake in Jordan's political and economic reforms. Even so, it's hard to find anyone here -- from cabdrivers to newspaper columnists -- who doesn't want more democracy.
Muasher's optimism is based partly on a belief that Sept. 11, 2001, marked the high point for Islamic terrorism rather than the beginning of a new wave. "September 11 made Arabs rethink where the Arab world is going," he said. "Do we allow this militant minority to speak in the name of Islam, and suffer the consequences? Do we allow the U.S. or any other country to impose its vision of democracy on us? Or do we take the initiative ourselves and start this process?
"We also felt some responsibility that we allowed this [Sept. 11] to happen," the Jordanian continued. "We acquiesced in the face of a militant ideology that was developing among us, without taking action." In the aftermath, he argued, the Arab majority began to express itself more clearly -- and to demand change.
The winds of political change are swirling even in Saudi Arabia. Sources here point to a "bill of rights" that was signed last month by 140 Saudi business leaders, professors and intellectuals. The four-page document, "A Vision for the Present and Future of the Country," called for a Saudi parliament, free elections, a fairer distribution of wealth, a crackdown on corruption and more rights for women.
The Saudi manifesto concluded: "We need not go beyond Osama bin Laden to prove that the new Islamists are on the wrong path." Sources say that King Fahd met with a delegation of 40 of the intellectuals to receive the document -- a sign that the royal family takes its demands seriously. Though it has been mentioned in the Arab press, the document has received surprisingly little attention in the West.
When the bombs begin exploding over Iraq, this reform process may be threatened by anti-American protest and renewed Islamic militancy. Muasher argues that the best way for the Bush administration to stem such a reaction is to show it is serious about reviving the peace process and halting Israeli settlements in the West Bank. "If you don't deal with settlements quickly, we are approaching the time when a viable Palestinian state isn't possible," Muasher warned.
Viewed from a distance, the Arab world sometimes seems a different planet, seething with emotions that Westerners can barely understand. But Muasher's comments are a reminder that people here have the same dreams and fears as everyone else.
In the political turmoil of the next few months, that human reality will be easy to forget. So will the fact that however loud America's guns roar, the political future in this part of the world will depend on the Arabs themselves.