Amid the bloodshed and bitterness in the Middle East over the past year, one good idea has actually begun to take root: the notion that the Arab world needs political and economic reform to survive.
The horror show at Abu Ghraib prison hasn't killed the reform push. Neither have Israeli assassinations or Palestinian suicide bombers. Even the catastrophe of postwar Iraq, which dreamers once liked to imagine would be a model for the Arab future, hasn't stopped the momentum for reform.
The reform effort continues because the Arab people want change so badly they can taste it. There's a satellite television dish in nearly every village and Bedouin encampment these days, and people can see the new world they're missing. A few may want to join Osama bin Laden in retreating to the 7th century, but they are vastly outnumbered by those who want to share in the wealth and freedom of the 21st -- if only their leaders would open the door.
The desire for reform was one theme of a gathering here this week of the World Economic Forum. The other message was hostility toward the United States. In 25 years of covering the Middle East, I have rarely seen anti-American feeling so intense. As Jordan's King Abdullah put it Monday, "As a friend of the U.S., this is the first time I am really concerned about this feeling about America."
Secretary of State Colin Powell came here to try to repair some of the damage. He looked like a diplomatic version of a punching bag, buttoned up in his blue suit in the hot midday sun, taking shots from Arab and U.S. interviewers about Abu Ghraib and the Bush administration's hapless efforts to deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
And yet, even on this poisonous terrain, the reform trek continues. The Arabs have decided it is their issue -- not America's. A heavy-handed effort by the Bush administration two months ago to impose its own reform plan in something called the "Greater Middle East Initiative" infuriated the Arabs. But rather than sitting around sulking, they have drafted their own reform agenda -- which they are scheduled to endorse at an Arab League summit in Tunis this weekend.
The Arab League, which spends much of its time in internal feuding or shooting spitballs at the United States and Israel, is hardly a moral beacon. But if the group endorses the five-page outline called "Development and Modernization Document for the Arab World," it will have achieved something important. According to a source who quoted what he said was a rough translation of the draft, it would pledge support for "democracy, widening of political decision-making, judicial independence, freedom of expression and the rule of law in a system that respects the rights of all citizens."
The document is a statement of principles rather than an action plan -- and a political prisoner in Egypt or Syria might take little comfort from its fine words. But it's a beginning.
Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher, who has prodded the Arab effort to take ownership of the reform process, noted how far the debate has come: "A year ago reform was not even on the radar screen of most Arab countries," he said. "Today the debate has moved from defining the elements of reform to how to implement it."
If the Arab leaders back the reform plan, they can then take it to the Group of Eight summit meeting at Sea Island, Ga., in June. The United States has invited the leaders of Bahrain, Jordan and Yemen (along with those of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Turkey) to a lunch with the G-8 leaders on June 9. The Bush administration hoped Egypt and Saudi Arabia would come, too, but for the moment they've asked not to be invited, which is a reminder that there are still a few twists and turns along the reform path.
The economic giants that will gather at Sea Island wisely plan to do more listening about Arab reform than lecturing. Western aid proposals will mostly be low-key, for projects such as "micro-financing" to help build an Arab middle class, new training for teachers to improve education, and new forums for political dialogue.
What's important right now is that a reform process is about to begin, with Arab sponsorship. As the Bush administration finally seems to understand, trying to impose change from the outside is impossible. And as the Arab leaders will see, so is trying to stop it from the inside, once the momentum gathers. In a ravaged Middle East, here's one small flower poking up through the sand.