- The Washington Times - Friday, March 4, 2005

It’s not just the Iraqi elections that inspire hope, or formation of the first real parliament that country has known for a half-century, if ever. Democracy seems to be gaining ground all over the Middle East.

The surest sign freedom is coming there is how nervous the region’s autocratic rulers seem. Nervous enough to make at least some gestures toward government by consent of the governed. That may be an old principle here in the West, but it is quite a novelty in the Arab East.

Look what happened in Egypt: Hosni Mubarak, formally its president and informally its pharaoh, ordered his parliament to set up direct, free, secret, multiparty elections for president.

That would be unprecedented. The Land of the Pharaohs has never known anything like a real republic, as opposed to the sham republics in name only, as in the United Arab Republic.

There has never been a democracy in Egypt, the memory of man runneth not to the contrary. And in the Valley of the Nile, the memory of man runneth way back. But the hieroglyphs reveal no trace of any election returns.

Yet here was the de-facto dictator of Egypt, sounding like one of the dissenters his secret police usually lock up, promises his people a real choice at the polls. Mr. Mubarak may have been be just talking through his tarboosh. But that he feels the need to talk democratically is heartening evidence of regional change.

In his State of the Union message, President Bush ever so diplomatically told Egypt’s dictator to get with the program: “The great and proud nation of Egypt, which showed the way toward peace in the Middle East, can now show the way toward democracy in the Middle East.”

Can the word be getting through? Even if Gen. Mubarak is only trying to protect Egypt’s $2-billion-a-year subsidy from Washington, the fact he feels the need to make a gesture toward democracy says something about the pressure being exerted on the Middle East’s dictators.

It certainly won’t hurt America’s long-abused standing in the Arab world to be associated with democracy instead of the dictatorships supported in the name of an elusive “stability.”

The all-too-conventional wisdom says democracy is impossible in Arab countries. That’s what the foreign policy “realists” have been telling us for years, but look how unreal their advice has proven. Instead of stability, their counsel set the stage for chaos, terror and generations of resentment. Isn’t it time to give democracy a chance?

Look at the galvanizing effect of all those purple fingers raised in defiance of terrorists in Iraq. Real and free elections have an effect. They clear away all the propaganda about what people want in a country like Iraq and a region like the Middle East.

More good news: In post-Arafat Palestine, a new, freely elected leader is working up his nerve for the showdown with terrorism that will have to precede any real Arab-Israeli peace.

And note the welcome turn of events in long-occupied Lebanon. Walid Jumblatt, leader of a Lebanese faction, said: “It’s strange for me to say it, but this process of change has started because of the American invasion of Iraq. I was cynical about Iraq. But when I saw the Iraqi people voting three weeks ago, 8 million of them, it was the start of a new Arab world…. The Syrian people, the Egyptian people, all say that something is changing. The Berlin Wall has fallen. We can see it.”

And now Lebanon’s puppet government, its strings long pulled by Damascus, has resigned in disgrace. Its usual tactic — blame the Americans and Israelis for everything bad in Lebanon, including assassination of a popular former prime minister — didn’t work this time. A new wind is sweeping through the Middle East. Eyes are opening. People are beginning to realize their own power — and the courage to exercise it.

Cynics just might be surprised how powerfully freedom appeals to that part of the world. Hosni Mubarak may think he’s only paying a little prudent lip service to democracy, but he may find he has set in motion a process no dictator can stop.

Remember Mikhail Gorbachev? He was just going to do some economic restructuring and let people speak a bit more freely in his one-party state. Before his experiment was over, the Soviet Union was gone. Freedom has a momentum of its own.

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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