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Middle East: Are Egypt's Pro-Democracy Demonstrations Sign Of Broader Change?

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Thousands of Egyptian students have turned out in Cairo to stage fresh demonstrations in support of political reform. The demonstrations are just the latest protest against the regime of President Hosni Mubarak. They exemplify a rising desire for change in the Middle East, and their action comes amid U.S. calls for increased democracy in the region. But is change really on the political horizon?

Prague, 6 April 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Egyptian university students have stepped up their campaign for political reform, with a fresh series of demonstrations at a number of campuses.

The biggest rally came yesterday at Cairo's Al-Azhar University, where according to police estimates, about 4,000 students gathered. Another 1,000 protested at the Ain Shams University, and there were also protests at two provincial campuses. An RFE/RL correspondent reported that the demonstrations continued today.

The students are demanding limits on the presidential powers and the repeal of "emergency" laws in force for almost 25 years. They also want the release of political prisoners and more freedom on campuses.

A heavy police presence blocked the students from marching into the streets, but there were no reports of violence yesterday. Paradoxically, the protests follow President Hosni Mubarak's offer in February to the country's opposition parties to allow multicandidate elections for the first time, later this year.

Joost Hiltermann, head of the Mideast program at the International Crisis Group, speaking to RFE/RL from Amman, expressed some skepticism about the motivation of opposition parties, and also about the chances for real change soon in Egypt or elsewhere in the Mideast.

"Opposition parties in the Middle East, as in other parts of the world, always call for democratic reforms; it's their way of coming to power. The question is, what is their true commitment to democracy? And the fact is, there is very little. There is great hunger for democracy [among the people], but very little experience with democracy. And so the likelihood of a truly democratic group coming to power in any of these countries is remote," Hiltermann said.

Hiltermann sees the impulse toward democracy in the region as fragmented and localized, responding to concrete conditions in each country, and without an overriding theme. He does concede, however, that events in one country can influence developments in another. "When people in one country see on television people demonstrating in another," he said, "they say, 'Hey, that's a method we can also use.'"

For instance, he said the huge demonstrations for political change that have occurred in Lebanon following the murder of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri may well have emboldened Egyptians to continue expressing their own feelings.

Analyst Alireza Nourizadeh, director of the Centre for Arab and Iranian Studies in London, views the matter in another light. He said there is a new mood emerging in the Middle East, and that modernization could come rapidly in societies which are ripe for it.

"Lebanon would be the first. Because in Lebanon you have the basis and infrastructure for democratic changes, you have an elected parliament, you have an elected president, therefore all sorts of changes are possible in Lebanon. And also Egypt, one of the most important Arab countries in the area, where also you have civil society, a sort of free press, and political parties," Nourizadeh said.

Nourizadeh noted that democracy is coming into being in Iraq, and there are at least some moves in the same direction in Jordan, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia. Even Iran, where conservates are now dominant, has a lively democratization movement among young people.

Nourizadeh finds that the "whole Middle East is at a turning point," and he gives credit to the U.S. administration of President George W. Bush for developing a vision of a democratic Middle East.

Meanwhile, a United Nations-sponsored report says Arab governments must step up the pace of democratic reform or face chaotic social upheaval.

The warning comes in the Arab Human Development Report released in Amman yesterday. It criticizes authoritarian regimes in the region and calls for more freedom of speech as well as political and judicial reforms.

The report was written by leading Arab scholars and intellectuals and is sponsored by the UN Development Program.