Mideast surprise: Changes are astir

Observers report democracy coming — dictators going

Last March, an elderly woman walking down a Cairo street was taken aback by the hundreds of protesters shouting anti-government slogans and demanding the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak, who has ruled Egypt for the past 26 years.

“Quit, quit, Hosni Mubarak,” they chanted in a protest against a package of constitutional amendments Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party says will revitalize Egypt’s political life but the opposition counters will curtail political freedoms.

“They are insulting the president!” said the woman, who was clad in a traditional black galabia and held a plastic bag filled with vegetables. “This has never happened in my time.”

Her disbelief is a major reason why some political observers believe democratic change, despite recent setbacks, is under way in the Middle East and dictatorship is on its way out.

“Each time I visit the region, there has been something new,” said James Zogby of the Arab American Institute in Washington, D.C., who has been traveling to the region for some 30 years.

Among the changes he has personally witnessed over the past decade: the creation of Al-Jazeera, the freewheeling satellite news channel with more than 40 million subscribers and an English-language network; protesters demanding — and getting — reform in Bahrain; the first municipal elections in the history of Saudi Arabia — albeit with the little real power given to the councils; moves to establish a national council in the United Arab Emirates that includes women by next year; and Egypt’s first contested presidential election.

Encouraging Middle East democracy has been a policy priority of both Republican and Democratic administrations for the past two decades. But when 19 Arab hijackers — 15 Saudis, two from United Arab Emirates and one each from Egypt and Lebanon — crashed four U.S. civilian airliners into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field on Sept. 11, President Bush made it a top priority. Some say it was one of the underlying reasons behind the invasion of Iraq.

Bush has also said the Sept. 11 terrorist acts were due in part to the absence of democracy in the hijackers’ countries.

But the efforts have been halting. Egypt’s presidential election, for example, saw Mubarak winning with 88 percent of the vote, in a contest in which the electorate knew nearly nothing about the other nine candidates, who were given only a few weeks to campaign. In recent weeks, hundreds of members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the banned religious group that won 88 seats as independents in Egypt’s 454-seat legislature, have been arrested in a new crackdown on political dissent. The group’s popularity raised fears in pro-government quarters that Islamists would take over the country in truly democratic elections.

Elections last week for Egypt’s upper house of Parliament were described by independent organizations as manipulated to ensure that the ruling party won a majority.

“Egypt has made some strides, but change doesn’t happen in the blink of an eye,” said Gehad Auda, a professor of political science at Helwan University, in Cairo. “The question is how to manage this foreign pressure and the domestic need for change without destabilizing the country.”

That conflict has been repeated throughout the Arab Middle East.

On Thursday, Hamas gunmen seized military control of the Gaza Strip, which could doom the prospects of Gaza and the West Bank becoming a united, democratic Palestinian state.

Some Middle East observers say Bush administration policies have, paradoxically, increased the hold of authoritarian regimes.

“The very American policy that was said to be aimed at spreading democracy increased the conditions that terrify the public and reduced the attraction of democracy itself,” Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat professor for peace and development at the University of Maryland, wrote recently in an article on the University of Maryland’s Web site. “If Iraq is an example of the democratic change they can expect, who, anywhere, would want it?”

In Cairo, Abdel Wahab al-Missiri, the new chairman of Kefaya, a protest movement that emerged two years ago, was roughed up in March by plainclothes police while leading a demonstration against the ruling party’s constitutional amendments.

“The message was: ’We will not tolerate these protests anymore,’ ” said al-Missiri. “Things are taking a turn for the worse.”

At the same time, the Egyptian government challenged a Cairo high court that rejected a Mubarak fiat to refer 34 businessmen with links to the Muslim Brotherhood to a military tribunal on charges of being members of the banned Muslim group, money laundering and supporting terrorism.

“Countries like Egypt took steps forward,” said Joshua Landis, an assistant professor of history at the University of Oklahoma. “But soon these countries took steps backward.”

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