From Baghdad to Beirut, and from Cairo to Jerusalem, stirrings of freedom are unsettling deeply entrenched autocratic rulers, as Arab civil societies are beginning to challenge their ruling tormentors.
In Egypt, for instance, one of the most populous and important Arab states, President Hosni Mubarak responded to critics of his autocratic style by agreeing to hold free elections. Although it is too early to draw any definite conclusions about the nature and substance of recent developments, they point to a more assertive civil society and a real longing for political empowerment and emancipation. Careful support and nurturing by the West will be critical for their success.
Most Arabs and Muslims in the Middle East are fed up with their ruling autocrats who had promised heaven but delivered dust and tyranny. These sentiments clearly show that there is nothing unique or intrinsic about Arab and Islamic culture that inhibits democratic governance. Like their counterparts elsewhere, Arabs and Muslims have struggled to free themselves from the shackles of political authoritarianism without much success, thanks partly to the support given by the West, particularly the United States, to powerful dictators.
This support, of course, is rooted in history. At the heart of the problem in the developing world, including Middle Eastern countries, lays the fact that the new elite that assumed power after the end of colonialism came mostly from the military-security apparatus, one that is deeply hierarchical, rigid and authoritarian. The colonial state invested many more resources in the military-security apparatus than in other civil-legal institutions in order to maintain control over restive indigenous societies.
In the 1950s and 1960s, in most Arab/Muslim countries, including Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Sudan and Libya, young army officers launched coup d'états and seized power from the regimes affiliated with the loathed British and French colonialists. One can speculate at the extent to which the colonial state's conduct alienated people further from Western constitutionalism and the concept of representative government.
In the last decade, the further economic weakening of Middle Eastern states has brought popular dissatisfaction to the fore. Islamists -- political activists who aim to abolish secular, social and political order, and replace it with an Islamic one -- are the main beneficiaries of the decline of the post-colonial state. Of all the social and political groups, Islamists tend to be the most successful in building large constituencies, thanks to the social and economic services they provide to a suffering population. Instead of directly tackling the existential crisis facing their societies, secular Arab rulers have used the fear of Islamism to perpetuate their absolute control.
Now, however, we are witnessing the emergence of rudimentary social movements that could dramatically revolutionize Arab and Muslim politics. These movements -- be they professional associations, workers organizations, students or women's groups -- are much more assertive, mobilized and challenging of governments' autocratic methods, thanks to the power of the new media, which has broken official monopoly on the flow of information. As a result, consensus is emerging in the Muslim world regarding respect for human rights, legal transparency and the peaceful transfer of power.