A democratic moment (JERUSALEM POST OP-ED) By SHADI HAMID 01/31/05)
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Fifteen years ago, during the momentous months of 1989, pundits
predicted that democracy would soon sweep the Arab world as it did
After 40 years of socialist dictatorship, the Iron Curtain collapsed
as millions spilled into the streets demanding that they would accept
nothing less than a new, free political order. During that
intoxicating time, it seemed as if nothing could stop the relentless
march of freedom. Perhaps, as Francis Fukuyama would later remark in
his famous article, the "end of history" was indeed upon us.
Saad Eddin Ibrahim, famed pro-democracy activist and once my
professor and teacher, said in 1989 that there were "beginnings of
democratic transformation" in the Arab world and that Egypt was "on
the road of democracy."
More than a decade later, he would find himself languishing in the
notorious Tura prison, home to Egypt´s countless dissidents.
Unique among its neighbors, Jordan was at the time experiencing
dramatic changes of its own. On November 12, 1989, a carnival-like
atmosphere pervaded the streets of Amman, as Jordanians proudly voted
for their country´s first freely elected parliament since 1957, when
Sulayman al-Nabulsi´s popular government saw its premature demise.
Georgetown Professor Hisham Sharabi was understandably generous when
he said that Jordan was playing a "heroic role" and had become "the
conscience of the Arab world."
Fifteen years later, it would be a stretch to call Jordan a
democracy, for the simple reason that it is not.
As far as political development is concerned, the past 15 years have
been nothing if not stagnant. The University of Jordan´s Center for
Strategic Studies in its tracking of popular sentiment has found that
perceptions of the level of democracy have remained virtually
unchanged for 10 years while Jordan´s ratings in the Freedom House
index have stayed nearly the same since 1989´s breakthrough.
IN THE late 1980s, Algeria showed similar signs of progress, moving
in dramatic fashion toward a multi-party system, after President
Chadli Benjedid bravely initiated sweeping political reforms. When an
Islamic party appeared poised to win the 1991 parliamentary
elections, the Algerian military intervened and cancelled the
elections, provoking a brutal civil war that would rage for years.
Algeria´s experiment with democracy had come to a tragic end, leaving
the Arab people to wonder what could have been.
Yet if anything will break the authoritarian status quo in the Arab
world, it is the imposing shadow of 9/11. It has become abundantly
clear that closed, undemocratic Arab regimes have created a poisonous
atmosphere conducive to the rise of extremist violence. There is a
new global consensus that change in the Arab world is no longer a
luxury, but an imperative.
Just as importantly, the Arab people, long neutralized by a potent
mixture of apathy and despair, are now showing signs of life. And so
it was on December 12 in Cairo, with demonstrators, 1,000-strong,
gathered in front of the country´s Supreme Judicial Court, protesting
President Hosni Mubarak plans to run for a fifth six-year term.
It was one of those terribly rare moments in modern Arab political
history. In a region that has proven so immune to change, even a
seemingly minor event is never just that.
"This is a historic protest," said Magdi Ahmed Hussein, summing up
the prevailing sentiment. "We´ve entered a new phase."
BUT HAVE we? Such a protest would have been inconceivable five years
ago. This, however, is a different time, a time when "democracy" is
on the lips of millions of Arabs who have never tasted it.
There is cause for hope, but it would be dangerous to see this as a
harbinger of great things to come. This is not Ukraine, where
hundreds of thousands rallied in the icy cold in jubilant solidarity.
At this crucial juncture, the Arab people could use some much-needed
help from outside powers. It is time for the US to prove its
rhetorical commitment to the promotion of democracy. Many
undemocratic Arab states continue to be supported, financially and
militarily, by the US.
Mubarak´s regime, to name only the most egregious example, receives
more than $2 billion in annual American aid. But it is the very fact
that the US government provides Egypt with so much aid that gives it
the leverage needed to exert diplomatic pressure on Mubarak´s regime
in the critical months ahead.
The US should encourage and – if need be pressure – recalcitrant Arab
regimes to move decisively toward greater freedoms and the opening of
political space for opposition parties.
Those who care for the future of democracy must capitalize on every
opening. Real political reform will only come about with a
combination of external pressure from the US and the European Union
on one hand, and internal pressure from pro-democracy secularists,
nationalists, and Islamists on the other.
Saad Eddin Ibrahim´s optimistic predictions 15 years ago turned out
to be dreadfully wrong. Yet, just because the Arab world fell short
in the past, does not mean it is doomed to fail in the future.
Last month, I talked to Dr. Ibrahim – as sprightly as ever despite
his declining health – at a conference here in Jordan, and was
reassured and inspired by his still indefatigable belief in the
potential for change.
Too often, the Arab world has seen itself consumed by the alternating
currents of hope and despair. Yet, today, there is something
different in the air, something that words cannot adequately
We have a window of opportunity. Let us seize the moment. If we do
not we will be forced to wait years for the stars to align themselves
The writer is a Fulbright Fellow, conducting research on
democratization and political Islam in Amman, Jordan. (© 1995-2005,
The Jerusalem Post 01/31/05)
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