By Donna Bryson ~ The Associated Press
CAIRO, Egypt -- Across the Arab world, citizens have long been too weak, divided and fearful to push their autocratic leaders for democracy. Now some Arabs are saying U.S. plans to force regime change in Iraq may offer hope.
"It could have some political advantages," said Egyptian sociologist Abdel-Hamid Abdel-Latif, striking his fist on his desk for emphasis. "The bang -- and something happens."
Such notions, which could be read as supporting one of the U.S. arguments in favor of war, are not widely voiced in a region where the prospect of GIs occupying an Arab country is highly unpopular. Still, it's one measure of how soul-searching about the Sept. 11 attacks and the focus on Saddam Hussein's regime are challenging what Bahey El Din Hassan, director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, calls the "stagnated situation" of Arab politics.
Saad Eddin Ibrahim, Egypt's best-known liberal critic, said in an interview the simple fact is "that wars, bad as they are, they break empires, they break dictators, they leave the ground clear for new systems to be created.
"They create havoc, they create disorder. But they also create opportunity."
Since the end of the Cold War, Arabs have watched democracy take root almost everywhere except in their own two dozen countries. When Arab families sit down to dinner in front of TV images of huge anti-war demonstrations in the West, for example, they know that such crowds could never come together except with government approval.
As kings, generals and presidents-for-life have clung to power over the 280 million people of the Middle East, a debate has opened over what makes this region different. Is it the destabilizing existence of Israel, as the rulers themselves are quick to claim? Or the conservative, patriarchal nature of Arab societies? Or Islamic fundamentalism?
Whatever the reason, "An overwhelming majority of people are not benefiting from the current system," says Mansoor Moaddel, an Eastern Michigan University sociologist.
Those who claim culture and religion make Arab democracy unworkable would have to explain the University of Michigan survey between 2000 and 2002 that found almost unanimous agreement in Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Algeria that "despite its problems, democracy is better than any other form of government."
The survey-takers found democracy was particularly popular among Arabs with access to satellite television. Television and the Internet are reaching younger Arabs, and breaking down strict social codes. Nowadays a cell phone message can spread word of a political demonstration as easily as it can set up a romance away from a chaperone's prying eyes.
Ibrahim, the Egyptian rights activist, served nearly a year of a seven-year prison sentence in a case widely seen as an attempt to silence his criticism of President Hosni Mubarak's 21-year regime. He was freed Tuesday after winning an appeal.
Friends had advised him to be less outspoken pending his appeal, but Ibrahim says that if the Arab world is to change, Arabs must take risks. So he doesn't shy away from dismissing unelected Arab presidents as "riffraff who, in a moment of luck, took power and will cling to it to the last drop of the blood of their people."
Fares al-Braizat, a researcher at the University of Jordan, says few can be expected to follow in Ibrahim's footsteps. Three-quarters of Jordanians recently surveyed by his Center for Strategic Studies have said they were afraid to openly criticize their government.
Moreover, he said in an interview, Arab governments are big employers, with the power to fire troublesome employees or revoke their passports.
When Arabs are stirred to protest, it can be effective. Tiny Bahrain was wracked by violent campaigning for reform and government crackdowns in the 1990s. Since taking the throne in 1999, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa has pardoned more than 1,000 political prisoners and allowed exiles to return. Last year, Bahrain's first parliamentary elections in nearly three decades gave secular candidates a slight majority over Islamic fundamentalists.
"Fortunately, we had a ruler who understood the ambitions of his people," said Sabika al-Najjar, secretary-general of the Bahraini Human Rights Organization, who also credits her people's determination. She cautions, though, that Bahrain now needs to institutionalize reform to fireproof it against any future, less democratic ruler.
While elections in Iraq, Syria and Libya are still rubber-stamp affairs, democracy has made inroads in Lebanon, Algeria and Jordan. Morocco's parliamentary elections last year were praised as clean and fair, and credit went to King Mohammed VI. In Saudi Arabia, a nascent reform movement is capitalizing on the pointed questions being asked about why 15 of the 19 hijackers on Sept. 11 were Saudi.
Ahmed Bishara, a Kuwaiti political activist, is among those who believe a U.S. war that brings democracy to Iraq might light fuses elsewhere. Autocrats in neighboring countries might be inspired to allow reform rather than risk the United States turning on them as it turned on Saddam, he said.
"Iraq is not a small country. It's big, and central to the region," Bishara said.
So is Egypt, and there seems little chance of unseating Mubarak at the ballot box as long as the opposition is divided and encumbered by legal restrictions. But some Egyptians draw encouragement from an emerging united front that stretches from communists to religious hard-liners in battling the government's broad powers to limit free speech and assembly.
Like Saudi Arabia's, Mubarak's government is one of several in the region that have strong U.S. support. In fact many see this as one of the reasons terrorists could hate America enough to perpetrate the horror of Sept. 11.
Last year, announcing $29 million for educational, economic and political development in the Middle East, Secretary of State Colin Powell said the United States was "firmly on the side of change, of reform, and of a modern future for the Middle East."
The United States will have to work long and hard to convince Arabs that it is not on the side of the tyrants. But some think they heard in Powell's words a promise of regime change coming their way too.
Ibrahim said Arabs may at first look with skepticism on U.S.-imposed democracy, and their rulers may try to paint it as dangerous meddling. "But if our autocratic rulers do not allow the internal unfolding of reform, then they should be the last to object to a democratic experiment somewhere else, even if it is instigated by external forces."