The Bush administration's embrace of a democratization strategy for the postwar Middle East has triggered a torrent of scorn from the region's traditional political and intellectual elites, not to mention regional experts at the State Department and CIA. Less noticed is the fact that it has also produced a flurry of political reforms, quasi-reforms and grass-roots initiatives in countries across the region.
Two days before the war began last week, the Palestinian legislative council dealt a major blow to the autocracy of Yasser Arafat, rejecting his attempt to limit the powers of a new prime minister. This happened by a democratic vote after a noisy democratic debate -- which in turn came a few days after President Bush called for a strong prime minister in a Palestinian democracy.
The next day an Egyptian court finally ended the prosecution of the country's leading pro-democracy activist, Saad Eddin Ibrahim, who had twice been sentenced to prison on trumped-up charges -- and whose last conviction prompted the Bush administration to freeze aid to Egypt. Two weeks earlier, Gamal Mubarak, would-be heir to his father, Hosni, as president, announced a plan to end trials of civilians in the security courts in which Ibrahim was sentenced, and proposed an independent national council to monitor human rights.
A week before Mubarak spoke, King Abdullah of Jordan, who has not allowed an election since taking office four years ago and who dissolved parliament in 2001, set a date for parliamentary elections. He chose June 17, thereby ensuring that as the postwar political discussion gets underway, Jordan will be able to point to its own democratic exercise.
Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, has been urging Western journalists to take note of an "Arab Charter" floated by ruling Crown Prince Abdullah, which calls for "internal reform and enhanced political participation in the Arab states," and a related petition by 104 intellectuals calling for the direct election in Saudi Arabia of a consultative council, an independent judiciary and freedom of speech and assembly. In January, on Abdullah's order, a host of senior Saudi officials met with a visiting delegation from Human Rights Watch -- the first time a Western human rights group had been allowed to visit the country.
So what does this all amount to? Not, to be sure, a sudden outbreak of democracy or radical reform. It may all be cosmetic. But it does show that Arab governments, and to some extent their peoples, have absorbed the idea that political change is coming after the war, and are trying to anticipate it. This means, in turn, that the postwar era is likely to offer the United States an opportunity to promote real change, provided it acts effectively.
The Bush administration can't bully Arab governments into becoming democracies. But it can use its demonstrable leverage to convert some of the baby steps of recent weeks into meaningful moves. Egypt, for example, renewed its decades-old state of emergency shortly before announcing its court reforms, which means that civilians could still be tried in the security courts in many cases. After the war, Mubarak could be pressed to end it. In Jordan, Abdullah has so far refused to liberalize the law governing the upcoming elections so that political parties can compete. He can be urged to change it.
Crown Prince Abdullah in Saudi Arabia need only accept the petition of his own people and set up a timetable for implementing it. If Washington makes clear that that is the formula for preserving the U.S.-Saudi alliance in the future, it just might happen.
Arab leaders will be seeking to use their own leverage in Washington after the war, of course -- they'll be trying to make real the vague promises Bush has made about the Arab-Israeli peace process. If Bush doesn't deliver, and there isn't some movement toward a Palestinian state, much of the Arab political agenda may fall apart as well -- starting with the Palestinian steps toward shifting authority from Arafat to a reformist government
But there is another danger, too -- that by focusing too narrowly on an Arab-Israeli settlement, as it did after the first Persian Gulf War, the United States will allow the window for change in the Arab world to slip away. The Kuwaiti intellectual Shafeeq Ghabra, who, like Ibrahim of Egypt, rejects the conventional thinking among the Arab elites, says the potential exists for "a modernizing coalition, in the region and in each country" after Iraq -- but that much depends on how the United States weighs in.
"What role will the United States play -- that is the nightmare for us," Ghabra said during a recent visit to Washington. "There is an opportunity. But will U.S. policy move in the direction of emphasizing security over democracy, and stability over reform, as it did after the first Gulf War? Then 10 years from now the situation will look the same, only worse."
No, Washington cannot impose democracy on the postwar Middle East. But if it believes the naysayers and fails to flex its muscles, the Arabs who are working for real change won't be able to achieve it either.