Arab Spring Not Quite in the Air

BEIRUT – Taking a cue from the 1968 uprising in former Czechoslovakia, many pundits are wondering whether the new breeze of democracy in various Middle East countries is an Arab spring.

The jury is still out on the question, but many hope that the "spring" such as it is does not lead on to gloomy days of a dictatorial fall.

From the early days of his first term in office, U.S. President George W. Bush made the spread of democracy in the Middle East a central point of his foreign policy. He then claimed that the invasion of Iraq would be just the first step in a region-wide quest for freedom.

In a speech to U.S. Army soldiers Tuesday, Bush likened the fall of Baghdad to the collapse of the Berlin Wall. He said that if Iraq can build a democratic system, it would open the democratic floodgates from Damascus to Tehran.

Iraq has new presidential and parliamentary leaders, Saudi Arabia has held limited municipal elections, the lights on Syria’s dogmatic control over Lebanon are being turned off, and thousands of people have repeatedly filled the streets of Cairo to ask President Hosni Mubarak to step down.

But those who applaud the newly found democratic movement raise three disturbing questions: How many of the concessions rulers are making under U.S. pressure would disappear if Washington toned down its policies? Where are these movements likely to lead? And will it all collapse like a domino if one fails?

Many analysts believe that while there is some connection between the democracy movements in various countries, the outcome in each will be determined only by internal conditions.

"Yes, we, the Arabs, are all talking about democracy because the U.S. is talking about it, but at the end of the day, each country has its own characteristics, and whether a movement succeeds or not will have to do with what’s going on in each country, not on Washington," Jihad Khazen, a prominent London-based columnist told IPS.

"That’s why I have my suspicions that some of this talk [about democracy] is insincere because the people who are saying it are saying it out of pressure and not because they are committed to it," he said.

Several analysts are suspicious about the genuineness of the democratic movement in Egypt. President Hosni Mubarak recently asked parliament to amend the constitution so voters can choose from several candidates in this year’s presidential elections, rather than being asked to endorse just one – Mubarak. But critics argue that he has been cracking down on opponents at the same time.

"About the same time that Mubarak was talking about allowing more democracy, the secret police attacked my parents’ house, interrogated my family members, and wanted to arrest my father for an article he had written but [that] was not even published," Mohamed Fadel Fahmy told IPS.

Fahmy says his father, an engineer who holds dual Egyptian-Canadian citizenship, is a member of the opposition Wafd party and often writes columns in the party newspaper and other publications.

The article that raised the ire of the security "called for continued demonstrations against Mubarak, and accused him of being a dictator in a liberal’s suit," Fahmy said.

The Wafd newspaper did not publish the article because the editors "thought it was too direct."

Fahmy said his father was in Kuwait, where he works, at the time of the visit by the security forces. The father was later arrested by Kuwaiti security officials, but the circumstances are not clear, and it is not evident whether the brief detention was at the request of Egyptian authorities.

Egyptian security forces have arrested dozens of other political activists in various cities in the past month after they called for their president to step down.

The case of Egypt is important because analysts say many Arab countries have traditionally looked to it for political guidance.

"Egypt is a tricky case," said Khazen. "It always leads the rest of the region, either in the right path or the wrong path. If there is a movement in Egypt, it would be easier to have it in other countries."

There is also the question what will happen to indigenous movements in each country if one fails or if Washington tones down its demands for more democracy in the region.

"If these experiments do not succeed, let’s say in Iraq or Lebanon, definitely it will have an impact on the internal dynamics of politics in the region because leaders in other countries would say, ‘see, they tried it there and it only brought instability,’" Professor Nizar Hamza at the American University in Beirut told IPS.

"I would have liked for it to happen more as an initiative from the Arabs themselves, not because of pressure from the outside," says Hania Refaat, a marketing executive in Egypt.

"Without outside pressure, it would have taken more time, but it would have been inevitable in the end," she said. "People are becoming more educated, more open- minded, more aware, especially the young, of the political, social, and economic problems in their country."