Commentary Magazine


Among Arab Reformers

It was the challenge of Islamist terrorism that impelled George W. Bush to jettison, as he put it, 60 years of American policy emphasizing stability as our key goal in the Middle East in favor of a policy emphasizing freedom and democracy. The theory behind this is that, just as democracies are less likely to initiate wars, so they will be less likely to give rise to terrorism. Likewise, Bush has embraced the argument of Natan Sharansky that peace between Israelis and Arabs is contingent on the rise of democracy among the Arabs, especially the Palestinians.

Bush’s approach, which has given rise to American military action in Iraq and political interventions elsewhere, has attracted its share of criticism. Among their many points, skeptics ask whether there are really any native democrats to be found in the Middle East who could be the backbone of a new political order. Doubts have also been expressed about whether democracy would in fact make this region—where the most extreme or chiliastic positions have often seemed the most popular—more peaceful or less inclined to terrorism.

But what, in the meantime, have the Arabs been saying among themselves? As a long-time student of American efforts to promote democracy, I have been particularly interested in and impressed by President Bush’s determination to transform the political culture of the Middle East. In addition to closely following events in Iraq, I have seized every opportunity to meet and talk with reformist intellectuals and activists elsewhere in the region. An earlier report on some of my conversations, “Listening to Arabs,” appeared in COMMENTARY in December 2003. The present article, which is something of a follow-up, concentrates on the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Egypt, two key centers of democratic ferment.

In the wake of the Palestinian presidential election of January 2005, widely hailed as a landmark on the path toward Arab democracy, I was especially glad to accept an invitation to a conference in the West Bank city of Ramallah this past March. To be sure, I inquired of knowledgeable friends whether it would be safe for someone of my ilk (Jewish, neoconservative) to attend such an event, and had been duly reassured. But on the morning I was to leave Washington, my eye stopped on an Internet news item from the Middle East. Only a day earlier, a large gathering of reformers in a Ramallah hotel had been disrupted by gunmen who smashed the furniture, herded the attendees outside, and fired shots into the air to punctuate their point: the meeting was hereby adjourned.

I dashed off an e-mail to Riad Malki, the head of the nongovernmental organization (NGO) sponsoring the conference, whom I had met at other international gatherings and had come to like and respect. A one-time activist with the extremist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Malki had become an apostle of democracy and peace. He replied promptly: there would be guards at the conference, and my safety was his solemn responsibility. Comforted, I headed for the airport.

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Still adorning many walls as I entered Ramallah were campaign posters for Mustafa Barghouti, an anti-establishment presidential candidate last January. This in itself seemed to me a positive sign: in the “election” a decade earlier, Yasir Arafat, whose victory was in any case foreordained, made sure that no opponent could campaign freely.

The conference, sponsored by Malki’s Center for the Dissemination of Democracy and Community Development and a second NGO, met at a large, well-equipped facility built with foreign donations. In his opening remarks, Malki called it “a new experience in Palestine and even in the Arab world . . . to create an interactive relation between governed and government.” Some 450 Palestinians had turned up; on the first day, they were linked by video to another 150 in Gaza and 50 in Beirut. The sessions lasted four days, morning to night, and although we stopped for meals, almost all of the scheduled coffee breaks were canceled to allow for additional discussion. There were five to ten Europeans present, but only one other American.

The opening address was given by Ahmed Qureia, the Palestinian prime minister. Known more for his party loyalty than for intellectual audacity, Qureia nevertheless posed a series of questions for his fellow Palestinians that I found both provocative and germane:

What political system do we want? What kind of state? What kind of Jerusalem? What right of return? What relations with surrounding states? What is achievable?

Where is our strength: in the reasonableness of our cause or in the justice of our cause? Do we continue our resistance by peaceful means or by military means and attacks on civilians? Do we want a revolutionary legitimacy or a constitutional legitimacy?

With this, the conference turned to its announced subject: “Ten Years of the Palestinian Authority: Evaluation, Assessment, Prospects for the Future.”

Near the entrance to the auditorium, a life-size cardboard cutout of the late chairman Arafat had smiled broadly at us as we passed; inside, the criticisms of his legacy were intense. Hassan Khresheh, deputy leader of the legislature, decried Arafat’s absolute and absolutely corrupt rule, which, he said, “had imposed a new value system” on Palestinians:

Anyone who asked for a prime minister was punished. . . . We did not see anyone held accountable for stealing public funds. The monetary authority was hidden from the people. Judicial power has been non-existent.

At-Tayeb Abd al-Raheem, a leader of Fatah, then echoed Khresheh’s point, as did Ghassan al-Khatib, a member of the Palestinian cabinet. I had encountered al-Khatib a year earlier as my adversary on a television talk show broadcast from the Persian Gulf. When I referred to Arafat on air as a “world-class liar,” al-Khatib protested to the host: “I would never have agreed to come on this program if I knew what kind of person you were pairing me with.” Now, with Arafat in his grave, al-Khatib sounded a very different note.

True, the indictments were leavened with excuses and praise. “It was a patriarchal system, and we accepted it,” said al-Raheem. According to Nabil Amr, a legislator, “We used to have free discussions with Arafat, but the problem was that this was only in closed rooms.” (Amr, who knew whereof he spoke, had been shot through the window of his home the previous summer after challenging Arafat in public, losing a leg.) Several speakers repeated the most telling encomium: “he gave us our identity.”

In context, Arafat’s undimmed status as a national icon made the criticisms of him all the more impressive. No less striking were the speakers’ descriptions of the sort of political system with which they wanted to replace his “patriarchy.” Al-Raheem spoke of rule of law, separation of powers, and “diffusion of authority.” Azmi Shuebi, a parliamentarian, stressed checks and balances. A prominent Ramallah lawyer expounded on the importance of judicial independence. Nabil Amr said: “We need a rule-of-law state. Palestinian people want to see a policeman in the street and a court and a parliament and other structures. The people are sick of chaos.”

Several participants reinforced this point from the floor, including a young Ramallah woman in a hijab and, via video connection, a woman in Gaza. On the other hand, some among the audience defended Arafat or expressed unease at the sullying of their national symbol, while several others pointedly asked his critics, most of them former PA officials, why they had not spoken out while he was still alive, or publicly resigned.

These were just a few of the eddies in the torrent of pent-up criticism, complaint, and argument that poured forth whenever the microphone was opened to the floor. Innumerable subjects were raised: economics, education, law, the Israeli occupation, Arab tribalism, capital punishment, and more. Some speakers were general, pleading for experts who could “explain the causes of our weakness . . . and recommend solutions” or urging their fellow Palestinians to recognize that “the main problem is not in the law; it is in ourselves.” Others shouted and shook their fists, turning red in the face and seeming on the edge of physical violence, only to return to their seats with satisfied smiles after having vented their spleen. Despite the long hours and canceled coffee breaks, ardent participants were left vying for recognition at the end of each session.

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If there was much to warm a democrat’s heart in the spirited talk about Palestinian governance, there was, alas, no comfort at all to be had in the discourse about peace with Israel. A single day of the conference had been set aside for this topic—a sign, I thought, of the organizers’ desire to move beyond wallowing in victimhood. And indeed they were attacked for this decision.

Unlike every other session, this one began with a solo speaker, who, again in contrast to other presentations, appeared to have been given no time limit. The speaker was Hani al-Hassan, a long-time Arafat confidant, the past holder of various PA posts, including minister of the interior—and the man presumed to be behind the shoot-up of the Ramallah hotel the day before I left home. Giving him an outsized spot on the program, it occurred to me, may have been a way of insuring that nothing similar would occur here. When I asked an organizer why there were no other speakers, he replied that al-Hassan’s views were so embarrassing that no one wanted to share a platform with him.

Whether he was an embarrassment to the other Palestinians I cannot say, but al-Hassan’s account of the history of the Arab-Israel conflict was certainly novel to my ears. In the early 1960′s, he explained to us, President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt had sent a secret message to President John F. Kennedy, proposing to resolve the regional conflict on the basis of a return of half the 1948 Palestinian refugees to their homes. Kennedy responded positively, and the two sides were near agreement—“so the Zionist forces assassinated Kennedy.” Then, in 1989, President George H.W. Bush visited Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir to ask him “to stop stirring up civil war in Lebanon.” Al-Hassan claimed precise knowledge of their conversation: “I have the minutes of their meeting that we obtained from intelligence.” It seems that Shamir refused Bush’s request, declaring that “Israel would not make peace until Iraq is destroyed.” This, al-Hassan said knowingly, is what “we are witnessing before our eyes.”

Nor was al-Hassan’s the most fanciful version of history on offer. A well-dressed middle-aged woman who was sitting next to me took the floor to explain that “world Zionism moved from Canada to New York because it’s the financial center and the place to influence Congress and the UN. World Zionism makes these decisions and puts them through Congress before they are even revealed to Israel.” When she sat down again, I asked her about the Canada part. Introducing herself, she explained that she had lived in the U.S. for ten years doing public relations for the Arab League, that the Zionist movement was based in Calgary until the 1970′s because “that was where the oil was,” and that she had had many Jewish friends. “One used to work for the Israel lobby, but he adopted a black child, and the Jewish school would not admit his son. There was even an attempt on his life.”

Nor, finally, were the tales told by al-Hassan and by my neighbor the most virulent to be heard. Although the sponsors were liberals, a place on the program had been given to a speaker from Hamas, who lambasted the Palestinian Authority for having “abandoned the pillar of Palestine ‘from the river to the sea’ ” and averred that “there will be no Palestinian state as long as the Zionist enemy exists.” A member of the Palestinian National Council (PNC) similarly lamented that “Oslo [was] the source of all the problems we are living with today,” while another claimed that “Sharon has a plan to kill as many Palestinians as possible; all Zionist leaders have had this goal.” A teleconferenced participant from Beirut exhorted his auditors to “oppose the idea of a homeland for the Jews,” to which a speaker from the floor added that “Zionism is the biggest piracy of all time.”

The two Israelis on the program did nothing to change the general tone. One, Muhammad Ali Taha, said:

They call us the “Arabs of Israel,” but we are not the Arabs of Israel. We are the Palestinian Arab nationality in Israel. We are the Arabs in Israel, not the Arabs of Israel. When the refugees are allowed to return, in whatever numbers, we will be the ones who will greet them: welcome back to your land.

The other Israeli was a Jew named Ilan Halevi, a Marxist ideologue of some sort who represents the PLO at the Socialist International. “Since 1948,” he instructed us, “the Israeli side has always sought to militarize the conflict . . . whereas the Palestinians have always tried to turn to other realms such as legality.”

Admittedly, there were a few voices of a different sort, and it was clear the organizers themselves were less than happy with the militant tone. They regained some ground in a speech by Miguel Moratinos, the European Union’s representative to the PA. Expatiating on Europe’s strong support for the Palestinian cause, he also issued an unequivocal statement against violence: “The armed intifada was a mistake. By military means you will not get your dream.” Malki hastened to praise this “fine and brave speech from a friend of the Palestinian people.”

At lunch I found myself seated next to a taciturn, middle-aged man who, from his modest apparel, I would have taken for a laborer until he identified himself as an engineer. In passable English, he dwelled on how tired the Palestinians were of the intifada, and how they longed to be able to resume working in Israel. I suggested that Israelis were also tired. “Not as much as we are,” he replied.

I wish I could say that my lunch companion represented more than half of the equation of Palestinian sentiment on this issue, but at a final session devoted to crafting recommendations, the most the participants could agree on regarding peace was a proposal “to maintain the hudna [ceasefire] at least temporarily.”

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If my days in Ramallah left me somewhat more encouraged about the prospects of Palestinian democracy than about Palestinian readiness for peace, a later trip took me to a place where presumably the issue of peace has long been settled but the issue of democracy is very much up for grabs.

Residents of Cairo refer to their city as “the mother of the world.” One might more justly say that it, or rather Egypt as a whole, is the center of the Arab world, the wellspring of its cultural and intellectual life and home to nearly a third of all Arabs. If, following Iraq, Egypt were to turn toward democracy, much of the rest of the region would likely follow. Conversely, if democratization were to fail to take hold in Egypt, it is hard to see how, in the long term, America’s overall project could be judged a success.

Rage at the United States is the order of the day in Egypt, as it is in the rest of the Arab world. Indeed, a Zogby poll has showed a plurality of Egyptians saying they dislike not just American policy but Americans per se. Nevertheless, in my interviews with political activists, in my daily excursions, and in a number of public talks, I encountered nothing of the kind. On the contrary, I found Egyptians to be friendlier and more welcoming than people I have met almost anywhere else in my travels.

In meetings where I spoke, audiences seemed hungry to hear my answers to their questions even when the questions themselves were very angry. At Cairo University, over a hundred students showed up for a talk billed as an exposition of “neoconservatism”—a phenomenon that, though hardly understood, is viewed as the essence of everything infuriating about America. I spoke for 45 minutes and took questions for another 90, at which point my hosts called a halt even though tens of hands were still waving in the air. As refreshments were served, I was mobbed by students wanting to talk further. Finally I handed out every business card in my pocket, telling them to e-mail me. Something similar happened at an evening in Alexandria, where a knot of hostile college-aged questioners pleaded with me to come for coffee so that we could continue the argument.

Apart from the way I was received, I found that attitudes toward America were somewhat more nuanced than I had anticipated. Although most of the people I spoke to were uninhibited about criticizing Washington, they also frankly welcomed the pressure that the administration was putting on the Egyptian government. And although most expressed skepticism about America’s sincerity or lasting power, they were clearly aware that the political ferment in their society owed much to George Bush’s advocacy and actions.

The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR), the country’s most venerable human-rights group, had been refused legal recognition for more than a dozen years; recognition was finally granted in the wake of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, and the group’s chairman told me that the large American footprint in the region had everything to do with his government’s about-face. The year’s big political development was the announcement of Egypt’s first multi-candidate presidential election, proclaimed by President Hosni Mubarak the day after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice canceled a planned visit to Egypt in protest against the imprisonment of the opposition politician Ayman Nour. “Pressure in the region is very high,” the leader of another human-rights group said to me, “so we have a flu of democratization.”

Not that Egyptians believe that Mubarak’s opponents stand a chance, or that the seventy-seven-year-old president will fail to secure yet another term in office. Many, however, expressed optimism about a transition to democracy between now and 2010-2011, when the next parliamentary and presidential elections are scheduled. A number of recent developments, some of which I was able to witness with my own eyes, seemed to presage such change.

During my stay in Egypt, the government-appointed National Council for Human Rights, composed almost entirely of members of the establishment and chaired by former UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, issued a surprisingly tough report accusing the state security forces of systematic abuse, documenting nine cases of death by torture, and calling for an end to the decades-old official state of emergency. Only two or three of the council’s 27 members are independent human-rights figures, but over the course of a year they had succeeded in pressuring the rest to adopt a much tougher stand than intended.

Then, the Judges Club of Alexandria, representing about one-fifth of the nation’s jurists, issued a manifesto demanding judicial independence, later seconded by the still larger Cairo club. The judges threatened to boycott this year’s presidential and parliamentary elections if their demands were not met.

A step forward was also taken for freedom of the press. Three journalists at al-Masry al-Youm (“The Egyptian Today”), the country’s most independent daily, had been sentenced in absentia to a year in prison for libel; their offense lay in reporting that the minister of housing was under investigation for corruption. The paper’s staff staged a sit-in protest in the courtroom, and the next day Egypt’s rather timid journalists syndicate followed suit with its own demonstration. The government promptly announced a new law under which libel would no longer be punishable by jail terms but would be a matter for civil adjudication as in Western countries.

These events were quite apart from the street demonstrations that have attracted so much attention in the West and that have been increasing in size and tempo. The government’s response has been to intimidate protestors with huge throngs of police; armored cars and officers clothed in riot gear were a frequent sight as I moved about Cairo. Several oppositionists, knowing that the security forces were tapping their cell phones, told me gleefully that they had been hitting back by staging conversations about phantom demonstrations, thus provoking costly police mobilizations to no purpose. What all this action in the streets would lead to, no one knew.

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Saad Edin Ibrahim, the former political prisoner and dean of Egyptian dissidents, recently described his country as torn among “three visions of the Arab future,” belonging respectively to “the autocrats, the democrats, and the theocrats.” As a generalization, this may be fair enough, but from up close the picture looks more textured. For one thing, each of the three components is itself riven. For another, forces are at play that do not fit easily into any of the three categories.

Consider first the autocrats, meaning the incumbent regime. There are the throngs of police and the systematic surveillance, imprisonment, and torture of dissenters like Ibrahim and Ayman Nour. There are the three new tabloids that appeared as if out of nowhere whose principal purpose seems to be to calumniate Nour. There is the deliberate stoking of anti-Americanism through, for example, a vicious press campaign against six NGO’s for having accepted a total of $1 million from the U.S. Middle East Partnership Initiative. (This, from a government that slurps down $2 billion a year from the same poisoned chalice.) And there are stalwart factotums like Osama el-Baz, the debonair presidential adviser who, when I asked him what had led to the announcement of a multi-candidate presidential race, answered with a straight face that Mubarak’s entire 24 years in office had been one unbroken march of reform.

But that is only one side of the regime. There are also the rebellious judges. There is Ismail Serageldin, head of the Alexandria Library, a magnificent structure designed by the government as a symbolic reenactment of the ancient world’s greatest repository of learning; there, in 2004, a gathering of intellectuals from all the Arab countries had issued as clarion a call for democracy as one could imagine. And there is Hala Mustafa, editor of the government-sponsored journal Democracy, who, when I interviewed her in her luxuriously appointed office, startled me with the fierceness of her denunciations:

In order to have a real election, fair and free . . . we need to switch from a closed system to an open one. The closed system is mainly run by the secret police and the one party [and] the state-controlled media. . . . This is the heavy legacy of the past and of the socialist one-party system that has existed for the last 50 years. It is not easy to shift from this type of regime to one with real elections without changing the whole system.

Despite the occasional words of scorn for figures like Serageldin and Mustafa that I heard from oppositionists, and setting aside the ethics of their choice to stay inside the system, my conversations with them and many others made it clear that, on the question of democratization, the camp of the autocrats is far from a monolith.

As for the camp of the democrats, this also has its complexities. There are, to begin with, the liberals. These include not only Ibrahim himself but also Nour and his al-Ghad (“Tomorrow”) party, whose name, he told me, had been borrowed from a 19th-century liberal movement. Nour says he was the country’s youngest political prisoner when he was locked up as a high-school leader under President Anwar Sadat. In prison, he became the disciple of a fellow inmate named Fouad Serageldin, the uncle of Ismail and the head of Wafd, a party that had spearheaded the forces of liberal nationalism from the end of World War I until the time of Nasser.

Becoming active in Wafd, Nour was elected a member of the National Assembly in 1995 at the age of thirty. He carved out a place for himself, running for deputy speaker and pulling a hundred-odd votes from the ruling National Democrats against their own candidate. Then, clashing with Serageldin’s successor, he was expelled from Wafd and with a few colleagues founded al-Ghad. Opposition parties had been outlawed by Nasser and legalized anew under Sadat but only if licensed. It took repeated appeals before al-Ghad secured such recognition in 2004, becoming the country’s most clearly independent party. That the authorities should have legalized al-Ghad in one breath and in the next arrested Nour on the charge of forging signatures on the party’s application suggests, in itself, a certain disarray within the regime.

I met with other members of the liberal camp as well. Both Hafez Abu Se’da, the leader of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, and Nihad Abu Qomsan of the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights, a feminist in a head scarf, impressed me as genuine and thoughtful democrats. Most impressive of all was Hisham Kassem, publisher of al-Masry al-Youm, chairman of the board of EOHR, and vice-chairman of al-Ghad. This Western-minded intellectual is also a scion of Bedouin chiefs who sees the struggle for democracy as a continuation of his forebears’ ancient battles against central authority.

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But there is also another, better-known side to the democratic camp, and that is the organization called Kifaya, or “Enough,” that has been responsible for many of the street demonstrations. This is a coalition of disparate political tendencies whose common goal is the end of Mubarak’s rule. I interviewed Abdel Halil Qandil, the group’s official spokesman, as he sat beneath two immense portraits of Nasser in his office at a Nasserist party newspaper. He propounded a democratic platform—freedom of the press and assembly, the release of political prisoners, and so forth—while also incongruously insisting that neither Mubarak nor his offspring should be allowed to run for office. When I asked him if Nasser, whose rule was more totalitarian than that of his successors, was a democrat, he replied: “Nasser was a revolutionary.” When I repeated my question, he said, “Nasser did not get to complete his project before he was assassinated.” (There is no evidence that Nasser died other than by natural causes.)

In contrast to this evasive answer, Qandil’s views on economic policy could not have been more clear. He would, he told me, renounce U.S. aid and restore the public sector of the Egyptian economy, building state factories to employ all those without work. When it came to foreign policy he was equally forthright: he would abrogate the peace treaty with Israel.

What he was offering the Egyptian people was, in short, repression, impoverishment, and war, or what might also be described as Nasserism without Nasser. Like Gaullism without de Gaulle, or Peronism without Peron, Nasserism without Nasser is hard to define, but it still retains a mystique in Egypt, and it is a factor missing from Ibrahim’s triangle of contending forces. Qandil himself represents the traditional Nasserist party, while another group that broke away to form a new party is no less fierce in its sentiments. Its leader, the parliamentarian Hamadein Sabahi, recently remarked on Egyptian television (as transcribed and translated by the Middle East Media Research Institute): “Any weapon that kills an American is good. . . . I support al Qaeda when it kills Americans.”

The two main elements of Nasserism without Nasser are militant nationalism, in this case in the form of pan-Arabism, and socialism. The second of these, exemplified by Qandil’s proposals, is also enshrined in the Egyptian constitution, where it acts to retard the country’s economic progress. During my stay, the Egyptian Gazette ran an exposé of a government-owned “pasta and macaroni factory” that had been padlocked for 25 years awaiting the return of the foreign experts needed to install new equipment. Like certain blather about “revolution” that I heard among some of the Palestinians in Ramallah, this newspaper story brought home to me how baneful the influence of Communism has been even in countries that did not fall directly under Soviet rule, including in most of the Arab world.

Qandil assured me that Nasserists were the main force within Kifaya. This may or may not have been an empty boast. I also met with George Ishaq, a Copt who is the movement’s coordinator. A large, handsome, voluble man, Ishaq, a former Communist, is more prepossessing than the diminutive, tightly wound Qandil. But what he seemed to be proposing did not sound much different. He handed me Kifaya’s “Declaration to the Nation,” a brief manifesto around which its various constituencies have coalesced. Headed “The Cure of the Ongoing American Occupation and Zionist Devastation Is Political Reform,” it says:

We believe there are two grave dangers which beset our nation today. They are two sides of the same coin, each nourishing the other, and neither curable alone: First, the odious assault on Arab native soil through: a) the U.S. occupation of Iraq; b) the Zionist devastation daily wreaked on the Palestinian people bordering on a holocaust; and c) the designs, including the [American-inspired] Broader Middle East Initiative, to recast the chart and fate of the Arab region and people. All civil and political efforts must be massed and coordinated to ward off this peril to the future survival of the Arab peoples and society. Second, the repressive despotism that pervades all aspects of the Egyptian political system.

Since the specific demands listed in Kifaya’s manifesto concern democratization at home, it might be argued that the incendiary rhetoric should be discounted as a pitch for popular support. But there is no escaping the fact that democracy is advocated here not as a value in itself but as a method for strengthening the heroic fight against America and Israel. Movements that have come to power elsewhere on such programs have regularly discarded their democratic goals in favor of their heroic ones.

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The most reasonable and appealing leader of Kifaya I met was the man in whose home the group had been founded. He was Abou Elela Mady, and he was an Islamist, having spent some eighteen years in the Muslim Brotherhood before splitting off to form the al-Wasat (“Center”) party. Over the years, as he has pursued his efforts to legalize al-Wasat, Elela Mady has also elaborated positions on democracy, human rights, sharia, and the role of women and non-Muslims that diverge notably from the traditional stance of the Brotherhood. In response to a question from me, he said that the party had avoided taking a position on Israel because this was a divisive issue, but that he himself supported diplomatic recognition.

What the example of al-Wasat illustrates is that the third leg of Ibrahim’s triangle—the “theocrats”—is also divided, and indeed may be the most variegated of all. Having officially renounced violence as far back as the 1970′s, the Brotherhood has been assiduously moderating its image. In recent demonstrations, however, its marchers have carried paper flags of Israel and America to stomp on in the ultimate Arab sign of disrespect, and have even shouted for jihad. Besides Elela Mady, I also interviewed Essam al-Arian, another leader of the Muslim Brotherhood who likewise spoke about the importance of political freedom and even about the need to “liberalize society”; nevertheless, he stood out as my one clearly hostile interlocutor. I did not attempt to see anyone from Gamaa Islamiya, the group that carried out the 1997 massacre of some 60 European tourists at Luxor—although it, too, has decided to renounce violence.

But for every “theocrat” who abandons violence, another seems ready to take his place. This is illustrated not only by the recent murderous bombings in Sharm el-Sheikh but also by the story of Sayed al-Kamni, a flamboyant atheist writer who in his well-guarded home spoke to me of America’s overdue awakening to the Islamist menace. Since then, he is reported to have bowed to mounting death threats and to have recanted his anti-Islamist writings.

Nor do these exhaust the varieties of Islamism making themselves felt in Egypt, whose future will be determined in part by what happens inside the Islamist camp, perhaps the most popular and surely the most opaque political force on the scene. On the campus of the University of Cairo, I observed approximately two-thirds of the young women covering their heads with scarves; beneath these hijabs, though, some were carefully made up and wore tight clothing. When I asked some older Egyptian friends what it all meant, they could only respond that they were puzzled and worried.

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How strong are the Islamists, and what do they want? Arab democrats are wrestling with these questions not only in Egypt but across the region. “The problem,” said one Tunisian at an international conference I attended later in the summer, “is that secularists don’t have any weight but Islamists don’t have a democratic agenda.” He himself advocates “dialogue” with Islamists for the purpose of reforming them. So does Saad Ibrahim in Egypt; his Ibn Khaldun center runs an “Islamic reformation program” aimed at disseminating a “new interpretation of the basic Islamic religious texts that would show that Islamic values are in full compatibility with the principles of human rights and freedoms.”

More controversial than the question of dialogue with Islamists is the question of forming a coalition with them. For the democrats, a bloc with the Islamists holds the tantalizing promise of an instantaneous mass base. Advancing the case for such a coalition, a Lebanese at one conference this summer pointed to the encouraging behavior of contemporary Islamists in power; he cited the current government in Turkey as well as parliamentary participation in Jordan and Lebanon. “What about Iran, Afghanistan, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia?” retorted a Kuwaiti woman, adding that in Jordan the Islamists had opposed changes in the law in order to protect women from “honor killings.”

At another conference, Egyptians who favored collaboration with the Muslim Brotherhood were disputed sharply by one of their countrymen. True, asserted their interlocutor, “The Muslim Brothers now say ‘freedom is the answer’ ”—a welcome switch from the old slogan “Islam is the answer”—but “if they came to power they would do as Hitler did.” A number of Saudi liberals also expressed dismay at the prospect of such alliances, since the Islamists in their society are their dire enemies. They would altogether prefer to speak only of human rights rather than of democracy. At first I thought they meant that democracy was too radical a platform for their country, but they soon made it clear that they were afraid of a free vote, which could bring to power forces still more repressive than those ruling them today.

Questions about the support enjoyed by Islamists and about the compatibility of Islamism with liberalism are another way of asking whether the region is in fact ready for democracy. One of the more auspicious tokens of change in recent years has been the series of UN-sponsored Arab Human Development Reports, each written “by Arabs for Arabs.” The first volume, in 2002, lamented the Arab world’s deficits of knowledge, freedom, and women’s rights. The second, in 2003, focused on the knowledge deficit, while the third, issued this year, bears the welcome title, Toward Freedom in the Arab World.

Like its predecessors, this year’s report is unsparing in its criticisms—“however we define rights and freedoms, the level to which they are actually enjoyed in Arab countries remains poor”—and clear in its democratic prescriptions. Disappointingly, however, and like its immediate predecessor, it is larded with diatribes against Israel and the United States that are as absurd as they are tedious.

For example, the report blames the phenomenon of Arab despotism on America’s willingness to “indulge” any Arab ruler who did not challenge Israel. This ignores the plain fact that the most despotic Arab regimes—Iraq under Saddam Hussein, Syria, Libya—have been precisely those least accommodating to Israel or to America’s Middle East policies. It also claims that “Israeli occupation of Palestinian land is one of the most significant impediments to human development in Arab countries.” If this is true, it is true only in the sense that the report itself exemplifies, namely, that the Arabs’ obsession with Israel has distracted them from the sort of productive thinking and useful activity that would have ensured their own advancement.

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Which brings me back to the split I observed in Ramallah between the discourse about democracy and the discourse about peace. In fact, nothing is more likely to spur Arabs’ progress toward democracy than overcoming their anti-Israel and anti-American obsession. For this to happen, however, a political consensus would need to be forged that, as I saw in Ramallah, is still far from even being contemplated.

In his speech to the conference there, Prime Minister Qureia asked many of the right questions, not only about the desired political system of a future Palestinian state but about its desired stance toward the world outside it. But, as some in the audience complained, he did not tell them the answers. Worse, in the following months, as Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza neared, Qureia seemed to be trying to steal the thunder of Hamas, for example by referring to the Palestinian people as “the children of [Hamas founder] Ahmed Yassin, the martyr, and the children of all the martyrs,” a standard euphemism for suicide bombers.

In Ramallah as in Egypt this summer, and from the lips of Saudis, Kuwaitis, Tunisians, Lebanese, Iraqis, and others, I heard the voices of people who genuinely yearn for freedom—and I think for peace, too, though this was less clear. Their voices are stronger today than ever before. What happens next in Iraq will, obviously, have a powerful effect on their prospects at home. They deserve whatever support we can give them—and that it will not compromise them to accept—for, from what I also saw and heard, a considerable journey lies ahead before their countries are likely to harken to what they have to say.

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About the Author

Joshua Muravchik, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is working on a book about Arab and Muslim democrats.




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