After the Arab world's half-century of independence, democracy remains elusive and distant. Few Arab leaders have tolerated challenge to their rule or relinquished power voluntarily. But the entrenched political order is under increasing pressure from popular demands for economic improvement and more openness in the age of satellite television and the Internet, according to a wide range of analysts, activists and diplomats.
Few predict a wave of democratization is about to be unleashed in the Arab world. Even fewer predict the United States will be an agent of that change, or that a war in Iraq will help bring it about.
These analysts and officials said the Arab world remains knotted by unresolved questions about rulers and the ruled: Whether governments obsessed with stability will willfully give room to dissent, what compromises they will make with mainstream Islamic groups that pose the only real opposition, and what role the United States will play.
"People in the Arab world now really live in a kind of frustration between the behavior of the regimes and the behavior of the United States," said Diaa Rashwan, an analyst at Cairo's Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. "There's a great risk of radicalization -- for the Islamic movement and for ordinary people -- that lies within those contradictions."
Stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Persian Gulf, the Arab world counts among its diversity monarchies in Morocco, Saudi Arabia, the Persian Gulf states and Jordan, single-party governments in Iraq, Syria and Egypt, and states with a degree of pluralistic rule like Lebanon. But analysts say its 280 million inhabitants share a striking lack of democracy that has become more apparent as reforms take root elsewhere in the world.
"The wave of democracy that transformed governance in most of Latin America and East Asia in the 1980s and Eastern Europe and much of Central Asia in the late 1980s and early 1990s has barely reached the Arab states," said the Arab Human Development Report, authored by a group of Arab intellectuals and released by the U.N. Development Program last year.
In a region described in that report as having the fewest freedoms in the world, there are signs of change. Since its inception in 1996, the pan-Arab satellite channel al-Jazeera has redefined debate in the Arab world. Giving voice to Islamic and other opposition figures, it has electrified audiences more accustomed to opaque reports in state-owned media of official visits to and from Arab capitals.
Dozens of human rights groups have opened their doors in Arab countries, and the Palestinian uprising has given rise to a grass-roots network of activism. The Internet and e-mail are increasingly used as tools of protest. Last year, for example, supporters of a popular Egyptian preacher collected 10,000 signatures in his defense via Web sites after he was banned by the government from delivering sermons. He then left the country.
Despite the heavy hand of neighboring Syria, Lebanon maintains a vibrant civil society, although a more restricted press and the growing prevalence of intelligence services have taken the veneer off what was once a model for the Arab world. In Morocco, mainstream Islamic groups have achieved success in elections by capitalizing on a revival of piety and suspicion of U.S. power.
In the Persian Gulf, Bahrain and Kuwait have taken tentative steps toward parliamentary rule. In far-reaching reform, neighboring Qatar has abolished its Ministry of Information, given women the right to vote and drive, and held municipal elections. Yet even in Qatar's experiment, considered the boldest in the Arab world, some complain that top-down reform is limited. By virtue of the world's largest gas field, which will keep pumping into the 23rd century, its 140,000 citizens are among the world's wealthiest and demands for greater rights are rare. A local councilman, Mohamed Saif Kuwari, complained that he had too little power to stop cafe-goers from smoking their water pipes on the sidewalk.
Far more prevalent is the experience of such pivotal countries as Egypt and Syria, where the politics of secular nationalism still dominate. In Egypt, activists and intellectuals complain that the authoritarian government of President Hosni Mubarak has produced a landscape of deep political stagnation. Security forces, hardened by years of conflict with Islamic militants in the 1990s, brook little dissent, particularly from the Islamic opposition. Despite early expectations of change under President Bashar Assad, Syria remains in the repressive shadow of his father, Hafez. The ruling Baath Party he molded shows little inclination to share power.
Many trace the legacy of single-party rule to Gamal Abdel Nasser, who seized power in Egypt with fellow disgruntled army officers in 1952. Riding a wave of disgust with the fractious politics of parliamentary rule, the agenda of Nasser and his colleagues was not democracy, but rather independence, economic development and a vision of Arab unity. His leadership wilted with a devastating defeat by Israel in the 1967 war. But the vast security apparatus that he developed remains in force in much of the region today.
Another legacy of Nasser is a social contract in which the public surrendered its right to rule as long as governments provided for basic necessities. That contract held through the decades, despite strains. But as economic woes mount in countries like Egypt and popular discontent grows over U.S. policy, some analysts believe the Nasser-era contract, and the stability it produced, has come to an end. What follows, they say, remains unclear -- a political calculus still being defined.
Governments "used to have a silent deal -- I run the country, you don't interfere, you don't participate, and in return I promise you security and jobs," said Adnan Abu Odeh, a Jordanian analyst. "That patriarchal system in the Arab world is cracking."
The most immediate repercussion of those fissures has been wide-ranging and occasionally fierce crackdowns against dissent.
In North Africa, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, governments have moved against their Islamic opposition. Jordan has twice postponed parliamentary elections, now expected later this year, and restricted the press and professional unions dominated by Islamic activists. Egypt has rounded up Muslim Brotherhood cadres and warned its leadership not to exploit discontent over U.S. policy and the deteriorating value of the Egyptian pound. In what activists call a blow to the country's feeble civil society, a law passed last year requires Egyptian nongovernmental organizations to register with the Ministry of Social Affairs by June or risk being dissolved. The government reserves the right to reject applications and have a say in who is appointed to the board.
"What is shocking is that there is so little political space," said Hani Shukrallah, managing editor of the Al-Ahram Weekly. "You have all this anger, and at the same time, you have no means of expressing it."
A question that remains unanswered is what role will be taken by mainstream Islamic opposition in countries such as Tunisia, Morocco, Jordan and Egypt. Egyptian officials are blunt in arguing that too much reform will give the Muslim Brotherhood too much influence, and in public statements, they draw few distinctions between the Brotherhood and smaller, more militant currents that have yet to renounce violence. "If you open the door for genuine democracy, you have the chance that fundamentalists will come to power. What will the Americans do with them?" said Mostafa Faki, head of the Foreign Relations Committee in Egypt's People's Assembly.
At the same time, across the Arab world, many analysts say the Islamic opposition is too significant a force to ignore. In a striking show of strength, the Brotherhood brought an estimated 100,000 people into the streets of Egypt in November to mark the death of its 81-year-old leader, Mustafa Mashour -- far overshadowing the few hundred supporters other groups can mobilize. The demonstrations were particularly revealing given that state radio, television and newspapers failed to mention his death.
Anti-U.S. sentiments are shared across the political spectrum in the Arab world, and many point out the difficult task ahead for the Bush administration in convincing the region that it is sincere in promoting democracy, particularly by way of war. "The Arab world needs democracy and modernization," said Mohamed Kamal, a professor at Cairo University. "But if you do it through military occupation, it will backfire. People will resent America and everything it is doing in this part of the world."
Special correspondent Alia Ibrahim in Beirut contributed to this report.