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Middle East: Are Washington's Efforts To Promote Democracy Bearing Fruit? (Part 1)

Can Bush take credit for the so-called "Arab Spring"? Elections in Iraq. Pro-democracy rallies in Lebanon. Constitutional reform in Egypt. Renewed peace efforts between Israelis and Palestinians. Some are calling it an "Arab Spring" -- a long overdue turn in the Middle East toward democracy. For U.S. President George W. Bush, it's an affirmation of his policy of vigorously promoting democracy as a way of fighting terrorism. Do recent events mark a true turning point? And if so, can the United States take the credit? In a three-part series on democracy in the Middle East, RFE/RL looks at the changes under way -- what might be causing them and where they might lead.

Prague, 22 March 2005 (RFE/RL) -- "The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world."

That's the view of U.S. President George W. Bush. He sees a link between terrorism and tyranny -- and believes that promoting democracy is the best way to prevent future terrorist attacks.

Bush has focused U.S. efforts on the Middle East -- seen as the main breeding ground for terrorists. And, so far, those efforts appear to be bearing fruit.

After nearly two years of war and amid a violent insurgency, Iraqi voters in January went to the polls to elect their own legislature.

A million-strong pro-democracy movement has sprung up almost overnight in Lebanon, following the assassination last month of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.

The Palestinians have elected new leadership, and many of the main militant groups have declared a cease-fire.

And in Egypt, tentative steps have been taken to change the constitution and open up the political process.

To be sure, there's a long way to go -- but for Bush it's arguably been a good year.
"I think that it was very important that the U.S. changed its policy [to promote democracy]. And I do think there is a big influence, of course, because the U.S. is, after all, the leader of the free world." -- Nadine Ghanem, Lebanese lawyer

Mohamed Fadel Fahmy, a Canadian-Egyptian commentator now living in Dubai, says a wind of change is blowing through the region. "I feel that a lot of people are craving democracy, and the movement is obviously spreading to Saudi Arabia and Egypt," he says. "And I don't know if you want to call what is happening in Libya 'democracy,' but I definitely see it in the street, in the media; and it's a good movement -- a good move."

He credits Bush and the Americans for pressuring their long-time allies in the region -- like Saudi Arabia and Egypt -- to open up their political systems. Fahmy says the changes would not be happening without Washington's prodding.

That's also the opinion of Nadine Ghanem, a Lebanese lawyer in her 30s. She says, for example, that the current effort in her country to restore democracy and expel Syrian troops owes much to the United States.

"I think that it was very important that the U.S. changed its policy [to promote democracy]," she says. "And I do think there is a big influence, of course, because the U.S. is, after all, the leader of the free world."

But that's not a universal view, especially in a region where many remain deeply suspicious of U.S. motives.

Detractors say that Iraq, because of the war, is a special case. They also point out that Lebanon already had a tradition of democracy. Many argue that movement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has more to do with the death of Yasser Arafat last year than any policy prescriptions designed by the Bush team.

Hania Refaat, an Egyptian businesswoman in her late 20s, says Bush's initiatives might have hastened the process toward democratization but that this movement would have happened anyway. "It would have taken a longer period of time, but it was going to be inevitable because the Arabs -- their mentality is changing," she says. "They are becoming more educated, more open-minded, exposed to the world. [They] are very much aware -- especially the younger generation -- of all of the problems politically and economically and socially that the countries are facing."

Refaat says there are limits to what the United States can do and that U.S. influence ultimately will be more of a hindrance than a help.

"I am not hopeful because there's a lot of intrusion coming from the Western world," she says. "I would have liked it to happen more with Arabs doing it independently without being pushed into it, because I have a feeling the Western world, specifically the U.S., has its own agenda."

Regardless of the role of the United States, it's undeniable that the outlook in the Middle East is more positive than it's been for a decade. The question now is whether those changes can last.

In Part Two, we look at the limits to democratization in the Middle East.

(RFE/RL correspondent Peyman Pejman contributed to this report.)
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    Mark Baker

    Mark Baker is a freelance journalist and travel writer based in Prague. He has written guidebooks and articles for Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, and Fodor’s, and his articles have also appeared in National Geographic Traveler and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.