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Middle East: Can Democracy Succeed In The Region? (Part 2)

Efforts to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process were boosted by the election of moderate Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas. The signs from the Middle East are hopeful, but how far can democracy movements go? This is the question after recent elections in Iraq, pro-democracy protests in Lebanon, and tentative signs of openness in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Can an "Arab Spring" blossom in the harsh soil of the Middle East? In the second part of a three-part series, RFE/RL looks at the limits on democratization efforts in the Middle East.

Prague, 22 March 2005 (RFE/RL) -- For many in Washington, recent events in the Middle East confirm deeply held convictions that people everywhere want freedom -- and that democracy is the best weapon against terrorism.

For U.S. President George W. Bush, freedom is now "on the march."

"In the last five months, we have witnessed successful elections in Afghanistan, the Palestinian territories, and Iraq; peaceful demonstrations on the streets of Beirut; and steps toward democratic reform in Egypt and Saudi Arabia," Bush said in his radio address of 19 March. "The trend is clear: in the Middle East and throughout the world, freedom is on the march."

But it's this Washington connection that has analysts like Jihad Khazen most worried. Khazen is a former editor of the pan-Arab newspaper "Al-Hayat." He says democracy won't flourish if it's seen as a foreign import from the United States.

"I wish [the democratic changes] had been homemade, but [they're] not," he says. "And this is why I have my suspicions that some of the talk is insincere, that it will lead to nothing. It does not come from the convictions of the people saying it, but really under pressure from the United States."

Khazen says that while the most visible changes are in Iraq and Lebanon, he's watching Egypt most carefully. He says Egypt traditionally sets the trends in the Arab world.

"Egypt is a very tricky case, because Egypt always leads the Arab world -- on the right path or the wrong path," Khazen says.
"The regimes are being threatened [by Washington], and they are shaping up -- or they are pretending to shape up. What you've seen in Egypt is cosmetic, and what you've seen in Saudi Arabia is also cosmetic." -- Nadim Shehadi, Center for Lebanese Studies, Oxford University

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak recently proposed changes to the constitution that would allow for multiple candidates in the upcoming presidential election. And earlier this month, authorities released a leading opposition figure from jail after coming under strong international pressure.

Yet there are widespread doubts over whether Mubarak is sincere.

Mohamed Fadel Fahmy, a Canadian-Egyptian commentator who now lives in Dubai, says he is doubtful. Fahmy says as long as martial law remains in effect, the authorities can detain anyone they see as dangerous.

"[The democratic changes are] definitely not a bunch of isolated incidents," Fahmy says. "But I must say [that] I am a little bit skeptical of what's happening in Egypt, for example. I see it as a democracy in the shadow of a dictatorship."

The same criticism is frequently heard about reforms in Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi kingdom is holding phased nationwide elections this year as a first step toward greater power sharing -- although women so far have been denied the right to vote.

Nadim Shehadi is the director of the Center for Lebanese Studies at Oxford University. He sees the "democracy movement" in Saudi Arabia and Egypt as a mere reaction to pressure from Washington.

"The regimes are being threatened [by Washington], and they are shaping up -- or they are pretending to shape up," he says. "What you've seen in Egypt is cosmetic, and what you've seen in Saudi Arabia is also cosmetic."

The consensus on Lebanon appears to be more positive. Analysts say Lebanon has a tradition of democracy that many other countries lack. But accommodating the wishes of opposing pro- and anti-Syria camps could prove difficult.

Optimism is also running high about Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, even as the risks to success in both areas are considerable.

In Iraq, the anti-occupation insurgency remains potent despite January's nationwide elections.

Efforts to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process -- boosted by the election of moderate Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas -- could be derailed by a new wave of suicide attacks or Israeli intransigence over removing its settlements in the West Bank.

And what if democracy efforts succeed? Even that, Shehadi says, is not without its risks.

He says that, in Iraq, the election process has not brought Western-leaning liberals to power. Rather, he says, it's helping reactionary forces that might or might not support the policies of the United States or the rest of the West.

"This democracy initiative may end up bringing people into power that the U.S. does n-o-t intend to bring into power," he says. "It may end up being the unintended consequence of a policy instead of the scheme with which it initiated."

Shehadi says his crystal ball can't yet see very far into the future -- but there are two likely scenarios for the region. It will either become more radical because of perceived interference by the United States. Or it will become increasingly democratic -- inspired by the U.S. vision.

(Part Three, to be issued 23 March, will focus on the evolving role of technology and the media 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.

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