A 'Baghdad Spring'?

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When President Bush started gearing up his war machine a year ago, you heard a lot of gallows humor in the coffee shops of the Middle East. Arabs were fed up with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and had no stomach for another war in Iraq.

In a joke that mutated into a hundred variations on the Web, a guest leans over at a White House dinner and asks Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair what they are discussing. "World War III," Blair replies. "We're going to kill 14 million Arabs and one dentist." When the perplexed guest asks why a dentist should be killed, Bush slaps Blair on the back and says, "What did I tell you? Nobody is going to care about the 14 million Arabs."

Hopefully the jokes circulating these days are a small sign that optimism is beginning to replace last year's pessimism. A current favorite casts Saddam Hussein in the role of a chump: The Iraqi leader is standing on the banks of the Tigris River as his colorful Information Minister Mohammed Saeed Sahaf holds up two fingers making the "V" sign. "What happened?" Saddam asks. "Were we victorious over the Americans?"

"No," Sahaf replies. "We're the only two left."

Although anger at the U.S. remains high, Arabs are recognizing that the fall of the seemingly invincible dictator has destroyed a powerful myth. Events in Iraq have made clear that the authoritarian regimes that have dominated Arab politics for more than a half century will not last forever. Few Arabs, of course, want democracy imposed by America. Many see a charade in the U.S.-sponsored meetings of Iraqis debating the future. Yet, after 9/11 and especially now after the Iraq war, Arab democrats are sensing an opening. The columns of the Arab press are filled as never before with commentaries about reform. For better rather than worse, many hope, change is in the air.

Nobody seems to recognize this more than the autocrats themselves. There is only one Saddam Hussein in the pantheon of Arab despotism. But every Arab leader has something to answer for when it comes to freedom and human rights. Many of them began initiating political and economic reforms on the fringes years ago, but the threat of Islamic extremism and Bush's dramatic response to it has moved the matter of reform to center stage.

In Qatar, home to the freewheeling Al Jazeera satellite television network as well as the forward headquarters of the U.S. Central Command, voters approved a new constitution last month that creates a parliament and enshrines the right of women to stand for election. In Bahrain, significant reforms including elections last year have eased sectarian conflict between ruling Sunni Muslims and the majority Shiites. Last September, Morocco held parliamentary elections widely regarded as the first free, fair, and transparent balloting in the country's history.

The most prominent, if unlikely, advocate of substantial change in the Arab world is Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al Saud. Although he has been dabbling with change since becoming the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia several years ago, the Iraq crisis has made him a man in a hurry. Last January, the Saudis sent Abdullah's reform proposal to the Arab League. It called for "political participation," "building Arab capabilities," "an Arab common market" and "a comprehensive Arab awakening." He proposed that states be jettisoned from the Arab League if they didn't adopt principles of reform, democracy and trade.

In recent months, Abdullah has been holding more town meetings, unprecedented in the Kingdom, with prominent groups of Saudis, including intellectuals, civic leaders and minority Shiite Muslims. The government has also begun creating professional unions as a step toward participation in civil society. Even elections, still almost unthinkable in a country ruled by a family dynasty for a century, are on the table. One Western diplomat calls it all the "Riyadh Spring," likening developments to the wave of political liberalism that flowered in communist-ruled Prague in the late 1960s.

Over in Egypt, however, President Hosni Mubarak seems less certain of how to pursue reform. Nothing illustrates this more than the fact that his 39-year-old son, Gamal, is being groomed as his possible successor, despite the fact that Egypt is a republic rather than a monarchy. Still, Gamal's swift rise up the ranks of the ruling National Democratic Party is heralding change. Educated at the American University in Cairo, he is a businessman rather than a military man. During a town meeting at his alma mater this week, he frankly acknowledged that "much still needs to be done" in reforming Egyptian politics.

After a hesitant start, Jordan's King Abdullah II seems to be finding his way along the reform path. Long-delayed parliamentary elections are due to take place next month, offering a chance for Jordan to begin creating a more inclusive political system.

Perhaps the most hopeful political change in the region is the appointment of a new government for the Palestinian Authority headed by Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas. Few Arabs are pleased that the "regime-change" was in effect mandated by the Bush administration. But as they try to settle their dispute with Israel, the political standing and moral position of the Palestinians can only be enhanced by a government that is less tightly controlled by an old-style leader like Yasser Arafat.

Top-down reform, alone, is never going to produce true freedom in the Middle East. But the democratic openings we are seeing could create a dynamic that gradually forces the autocrats to share more power with others, truly open their stagnant economies to outside investment and respect human rights. Peace, free trade and respect for the rule of law will give democracy a better chance. Evolutionary change, so long as it is not really an excuse for the status quo, will doubtless be less disruptive than revolutionary change.

Still, the outlook is anything but certain, and things can go very badly awry. If much depends on Arab leadership, much also depends on American leadership. With hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops actually occupying an entire Arab country, it is hard for Washington to pretend that it does not have the power to influence decisive change elsewhere in the region. It will have to help foster democracy in Iraq and not embed American puppets in Baghdad. But it will also have to midwife a settlement in the Holy Land that is truly fair to Palestinians as well as Israelis.

The Bush administration, in short, will have to follow the road map of Middle East reform. More than ever before, America is entrenched here. As a current wisecrack circulating the Middle East puts it, "Why doesn't the U.S. just join the Arab League?"