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In the quest for historical change, Bush Administration policies are proving crucial to the transformation. Many Arabs, though sometimes grudgingly, now acknowledge that by ousting an Arab tyrant like Saddam Hussein and demanding that old allies like Mubarak acquiesce in change, the U.S. has made a crack in the edifice of authoritarianism that is giving reformers a historic opening. "You can't impose democracy," says Hisham Kassem, chief of the independent Egyptian daily newspaper Al-Masry al-Youm. "The reform process has to be homegrown. But the U.S. is providing air cover for reformers, protecting them from regimes."
Egypt is a case study in how that is working. Reformers got a boost last June when U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice chose Cairo as the venue for a landmark speech in favor of democracy. In her address, Rice admitted that the U.S.'s alliances with Arab dictators had not enhanced global stability, and that henceforth Washington would "support the democratic aspirations of people." Six months prior to Rice's appearance, however, various groups, including many involved in street demonstrations against the U.S.-led war in Iraq, had already come together and formed the Kifaya (Enough) movement demanding democratic elections. Soon, Mubarak stunned the country by announcing that he would allow the first competitive presidential election in Egyptian history. He proceeded to use the state apparatus to crush his nine rivals, but not before being compelled to run a campaign promising reforms and endure stinging criticism about corruption and ineptitude from opposition candidates and commentators. In the parliamentary balloting that followed, Mubarak tolerated a move by the Muslim Brotherhood to field a slate of 150 candidates, and proved unable to prevent 88 of them from winning seats. The minority Brotherhood bloc cannot pass or stop legislation, but it is the liveliest parliamentary opposition in memory, calling officials to account for mishandling the bird-flu outbreak and a recent Red Sea shipping tragedy.
Mubarak, sadly, has responded to the growing pressure by pulling back on his campaign promises and cracking down. Last week, Egyptian police clubbed protesters and journalists and arrested hundreds during a demonstration in support of the judges, following the recent detention of scores of activists, including an irreverent local blogger. Before that, Ayman Nour, who ran for President against Mubarak, landed in prison on a five-year sentence (see box). A State Security Court convicted him of forging signatures in registering his new al-Ghad (Tomorrow) party. Last month, Mubarak pushed through an extension of the 25-year-old Emergency Law that restricts civil liberties and provides broad powers of detention. He also postponed municipal elections scheduled this year.
For the first time, however, the regime is paying a political price for blocking domestic reform. Partly to protest Nour's treatment, the U.S. froze talks on a coveted Free Trade Agreement with Egypt. The U.S. Congress is also taking a closer look at $1.8 billion in annual aid to the country. Mubarak is feeling some heat within his own party. In March, political scientist Osama Gazali Harb, who had been recruited to bring new reform ideas by Mubarak's son, Gamal, became disillusioned with the backtracking. So he quit the governing party and told the Egyptian press why, hence making a mockery of Mubarak's promises of change from within. "The genie is out of the bottle," says veteran civil-society activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim. "There is no way the regime can go back to one-man rule as it was. The fear barrier has been broken."
Lebanon's independence revolution in March 2005, the work of 1 million ordinary Lebanese who took over Martyrs' Square after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, remains the most spectacular example of homegrown change in the Arab world. The protest brought down the pro-Syrian government in Beirut, forced Syrian military forces to end nearly 30 years of control over the country, and inspired hope that Lebanon's system of feudal power sharing would give way to full democracy.
What happened next, however, shows why fundamental change will not come overnight. Sectarian politicians who supported and then hijacked the independence revolution proceeded to make deals that divided up the results of parliamentary elections among themselves. The governing coalition of anti-Syrian factions is unraveling and has failed to achieve a key goal, the ouster of Syrian-backed Lebanese President Emile Lahoud. Hizballah, a pro-Syrian Shi'ite Muslim group, is also refusing to disarm.
But Lebanon's democracy activists are not giving up. The independence revolution spawned advocacy groups, civil-society organizations and quixotic personal initiatives involving a new generation of activists who are determined to realize the dream of a new Lebanon. In order to keep an uncomfortable spotlight on Lahoud, law professor Chibli Mallat declared his symbolic candidacy to replace him and is running a slick, well-publicized campaign promoting the notion of a nonsectarian Lebanese President. New groups with names like Let's Go and Toward Patriotism are mobilizing students, scrutinizing officials and demanding reform. Activists who played a key role in organizing the independence revolution have formed amam, the Arabic acronym for "civil society," and plan to bring dozens of independent organizations under one umbrella group as a more potent lobbying force. "Much has been done and there remains much to be done," says Asma-Maria Andraos, one of the founders. "It's important to realize that today we can talk about issues that were taboo under Syrian rule. For us, that's huge."
Such has been the momentum for change that some autocrats are allowing or even pursuing reform. Possibly the single biggest development in the past decade was the creation in 1996 by Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the Emir of Qatar, of al-Jazeera the first relatively independent television channel in Arab history. Despite its tendency toward sensationalism, al-Jazeera broke the monopoly of authoritarian regimes that used Arabic broadcasting to peddle propaganda, and quickly inspired the birth of rivals, including the respected Al Arabiya channel, headquartered in Dubai. More recently, hereditary rulers in Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and the United Arab Emirates have appointed women to Cabinet posts for the first time important steps aimed at changing attitudes toward women in the patriarchal gulf states. In Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al Saud responded to pressure for change by sponsoring national dialogues including women and religious minorities, and put the issue of women's driving rights on the table for discussion. In Morocco, King Mohammed VI broke ground by pushing a major women's rights law and establishing an Equity and Reconciliation Commission to address horrendous rights violations committed during his late father's reign.
For all these initiatives, however, it has become clear in the past year that achieving democracy in the Middle East will be a slow and perhaps tumultuous process. A number of factors guarantee that. Bush's support for Arab democracy and reformers represents a U.S. policy shift, but the Administration's record remains mixed. The Arab-Israeli conflict has long stunted democratic development by bolstering Arab strongmen and feeding Islamic fanatics, yet, in marked contrast to many of his predecessors, Bush has neglected Arab-Israeli peacemaking. To most Arabs, Bush's intervention in Iraq has produced an outcome of daily violence, religious domination and sectarian fighting that they have no wish to copy. Even Arab democrats wonder whether Washington's commitment to democracy is solid, given the continuing cooperation between the U.S. and Arab regimes on strategic issues like Iraq, Iran's nuclear program, oil prices and the war on terrorism. Will the Bush Administration, they wonder, be silent if Mubarak's regime crushes the Revolt of the Judges?
Yet Arab democrats are nonetheless proceeding with their vital spadework. Their task can be as dangerous as it is tedious, as they take on not only entrenched rulers but powerful forces security apparatuses, tribal systems, religious orthodoxies that are resistant to expanding freedoms. Instead of measuring success by how many elections Arabs can hold, it might be better to take a closer look at the work of thousands of brave reformers like Hisham Bastawisi. Collectively, they have begun to make a difference. But they still need all the air cover they can get.