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.
Power of the Media
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.
Even mainstream Islamists, such as the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt, the most powerful transnational organization, have now come to this very same conclusion: Democracy is the most effective mechanism to guard against political authoritarianism and protect the human rights of the Muslim Ummah (the Muslim community worldwide).
Still, in the minds of many Arabs and Muslims, liberal democracy remains synonymous with Western political hegemony and domination. Democracy tends to be seen as a manipulative tool wielded by Western powers to intervene in Arab/Muslim internal affairs and to divide and conquer.
Within the past 10 years, mainstream Islamic voices have worked arduously to redefine liberal democracy in Islamic terms and make it comprehensible and acceptable to Arab and Muslim masses. Simply put, Muslim and Islamic democrats have been trying to Islamize democracy and modernity and strip them of their Western clothing. Although they have come far, the journey is just beginning. Islamicizing liberal democracy is still a work in progress; a great deal of hard work remains.
There now exists a two-pronged dialectic: anti-Muslim sentiments in the Christian West and anti-Western sentiments in the world of Islam, which run parallel. Widespread apprehension remains regarding Bush's intentions and policies throughout Arab and Muslim lands. Many Arabs and Muslims are reluctant to buy what they perceive to be his inauthentic and faulty democratic goods. They view his rhetoric as a means to justify and legitimize his illegal invasion of Iraq to the American people, as well as to wage a relentless war against Arabs and Muslims. Leading social and political groups vehemently oppose intervention by the great powers, particularly the United States, in their internal affairs under any pretext, including that of spreading democracy.
On the other hand, anti-Islamic sentiment has risen in the West in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks. Even in traditionally tolerant societies, like France and the Netherlands, there have been growing voices against Islam.
While Muslim liberal and democratic voices are concerned about Islamophobia, they are also anxious about public backlash against American intervention in their countries' internal affairs. They prefer that the international community led by the United Nations, not the United States, lead the drive for promoting democratic governance in the area by exerting pressure on Muslim dictators to open up their political systems. For all these reasons, the promotion of liberalism and democratization must be accompanied by a genuine and systematic struggle to confront the root causes and manifestations of the rising Islamophobia in the Christian West and deepening anti-American sentiments in the Muslim world.
For now, some of the rhetoric coming out from Washington is refreshing, and carries tremendous potential for American foreign policy and Middle Eastern societies alike. There is no denying that there is fresh thinking in Washington regarding the need to support the aspirations of democratic voices in the area, as well as to keep a healthy distance from Arab dictators. Only time will tell if this appreciation gets institutionalized within the decision-making process, or whether U.S. policymakers will ultimately revert to the simple business-as-usual approach with Arab dictators.
The United States could be much more effective if it worked jointly with the international community in assisting progressive forces in the region. A broad coalition could more successfully exert systematic political, economic and diplomatic pressure against Arab ruling autocrats and force them to be attentive to their citizens' aspirations. This complex multilateral approach would produce the desired effects much more effectively than military pre-emption à la Iraq.
The United States must also recognize that actions speak louder than words, and that institution building requires the resolution of simmering regional conflicts, such as the Arab-Israeli conflict, and reducing the socio-economic inequities that breed militancy and extremism. Only then may this exceptional historical moment be translated into a concrete political reality, whereby the Muslim Middle East can undergo genuine democratic transformation.
Fawaz A. Gerges holds the Christian A. Johnson Chair in Middle East and International Affairs at Sarah Lawrence College and is senior analyst for ABC News. He is author of the forthcoming book "The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global."