March 2, 2008
By Robin Wright
In 2006, three years after the Iraq invasion, I got so tired of the divisive debate in Washington about the future of the Middle East that I went back to the region I've covered since 1973 and listened instead to the people who live there. After traveling for the better part of a year from Rabat to Tehran, I came away surprisingly buoyed.
Oh sure, the Middle East is more volatile than it was at the beginning of the Bush administration: The Arab-Israeli peace process isn't going anywhere. Iraq remains mired in ethnic tensions, religious rivalries and Islamic extremism -- and still has only limited electricity. Iran is angrily defiant toward the United Nations over its nuclear program. Lebanon teeters again.
Yet in the early 21st century, a budding culture of change is creatively challenging the status quo -- and the extremists. New public voices, daring publications and noisy protests across two dozen countries are giving shape to a vigorous, if disjointed, search for alternatives to the autocratic regimes and imperious monarchies that have proved they're out of sync with their people. Dissident judges in Cairo, rebel clerics in Tehran, satellite television station owners in Dubai, the first female parliamentary candidates in Kuwait, young techies in Jeddah, intrepid journalists in Beirut, and bold businessmen in Damascus are carving out new space for political action.
It's a hard slog for them all. Obstinate governments are ruthlessly repressing them; extremists are targeting them. Together, those forces cut short the Arab Spring three years ago, when millions of Iraqis voted in free elections, Lebanese protesters ended Syria's 29-year occupation and democracy movements such as Egypt's "Enough" challenged autocrats across the region. The Bush administration's bungling and backtracking on democracy hasn't helped much, either.
But societies have not gone back to square one. The issue in the Middle East is no longer whether to seek political change. It's how to make it happen.
"In the Arab world, the status quo is not sustainable," reflected Marwan Muasher, a former Jordanian foreign minister. "What worked 40 years ago -- when the state could decide things and expect people to follow -- does not work now. Unless the state is responsive and aware, it is in for major trouble."
That, I found, is only one of many lessons of the new Middle East.
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Two decades ago when I roamed the region, I sought out clandestine cells as the barometer of opposition. Now I look for computer nerds -- the pajamahedeen, or pajama warriors, who wield computers instead of roadside bombs. They personify Lesson 1 in the changing Middle East: The opposition is more open, ambitious, imaginative and stubborn than ever. And the YouTube generation has become a whole new political class.
"Governments have a new kind of opponent," reflected 33-year-old Egyptian Wael Abbas. His blog has posted cellphone videos of police brutality -- including one of a detainee writhing in pain as police sodomized him with a broomstick -- to hold President Hosni Mubarak's government accountable for abuse. Started in 2004, Abbas's blog was garnering up to 30,000 hits a day, jumping to 45,000 daily during a crisis, by 2007.
"We are not bound by government rules, like political parties. We can use the language of freedom," he told me. "We offer an alternative voice, especially for the young." Abbas and his brethren in Iran, Lebanon, Morocco and elsewhere are forcing governments to respond to their complaints, even as they try to silence them. In Egypt, two police officers were prosecuted for abusing the detainee with the broomstick.
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In countries long ruled by a single party or single family, I picked up Lesson 2: There is no longer a single truth, in either ideology or religion, and challenges to the status quo are coming from unlikely quarters.
Hadi Khamenei, a Shiite cleric, campaigned across Iran and in his newspaper against the idea of a supreme leader who has veto power over legislation, presidential decrees and judicial decisions and who can even run for office. "The most important thing we're looking for today in Iran is the rule of law," he told me. "And that means no one, whatever his position, is above it."
Because of his activism, Khamenei has been barred from running for office, his paper has been banned, and he was hospitalized after being attacked by religious vigilantes. "Unfortunately for the rest of us," he said, "there are still people at the top who don't accept that basic right."
Khamenei should know. His older brother just happens to be Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
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In countries where pro-Western activists were once the most outspoken, I found Lesson 3: Old Cold War enemies have become unexpected allies -- and the pluckiest agitators for change.
Decades ago, when the Middle East was a battlefield between U.S. and Soviet interests, the West encouraged Islamic movements to foil Moscow's influence. But with Islamic parties on the rise, the ultimate irony is that many of the secular activists now taking the biggest risks, organizing the boldest protests and penning the most scathing criticisms are reformed Marxists.
Riad al-Turk is the Nelson Mandela of Syria. He was locked in a windowless underground cell about the length of his body without furniture or a toilet for 18 years. He kept from going mad by using uncooked grains of rice from his evening soup to etch geometric designs on the floor. "You must accept hell as a price to pay for remaining faithful to your convictions," he later reflected.
After his release in 1998, Turk went at it again, lashing out at the Assad dynasty in Damascus for "relying on terror" and demanding that it move "from despotism to democracy." In 2001, he was arrested a fourth time. Freed in 2005 at age 75, the reformed Marxist refused to be silent, even while acknowledging that he was only a starting point.
"The regime will eventually collapse on its own, due to isolation internally and internationally," he told me. "That's what happened in the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia. That's what will happen here."
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To understand political trends, I once turned to intellectuals and elites. Now I look to ordinary people galvanized out of apathy to fight for change. Lesson 4: Watch out for the soccer moms.
That's how I'd describe Ghada Shahbender in Egypt. A middle-aged mother of four athletic teenagers who was in the throes of a divorce, Shahbender had never joined a party or voted -- until May 2005, when she became infuriated by televised pictures of police watching as thugs beat women, old and young, on referendum day. A week later, she went to her first protest.
"An elderly woman turned to me and said she thought I was new and did I have 100 [Egyptian] pounds," Shahbender recalled. " 'Why 100 pounds?' I asked. She told me, 'That's what you need for bail.' "
Shahbender didn't flinch. With friends, she formed We're Watching You to monitor elections for president and parliament in 2005. The group chronicled more than 1,000 violations, complete with video of police firing tear gas and live ammunition at voters. With international observers barred, We're Watching You became the leading source for the media and foreign governments on the fraud in the contests, which were won, again, by Mubarak and his ruling party.
Shahbender has since been invited to monitor elections elsewhere in the region, has sued the government for not complying with an international treaty on corruption, and has started Kid-mocracy, a competition to help teenagers learn about constitutions. Last year she brought the winners to Washington.
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While it's conventional wisdom to view political Islam as part of the problem in the Middle East, it may actually be part of the solution. Lesson 5: Pay attention to the moderate Islamists; many are seeking compromise.
Saadeddine Othmani, a psychiatrist-turned-politician, heads Morocco's Justice and Development Party, a movement he compares to Europe's Christian Democrats. Since it began competing in parliamentary elections in 1997, the party has adopted the earthly challenges of poverty, corruption and constitutional reform as its prime causes. There's no talk of imposing sharia, or Islamic law, or of overthrowing the government. Indeed, the only picture in its Rabat headquarters is of King Mohammed VI.
"Islam has no fixed form of governance. Instead this has been left for human creativity. . . . The people's will is the decisive factor," Othmani told me. "Our approach is to have gradual progress and avoid haste and shortcuts, which is the major mistake committed by many leftists, nationalists and Islamist movements." In elections last fall, amid a field of 33 parties, the Justice and Development Party officially became Morocco's second most popular party.
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Not all of the Middle East's new actors will succeed. For all the signs of promise, the region is still full of shadows.
Democracy is about differences, which are bound to explode once disparate sides of society are free to speak and make demands. Opening new space also does not guarantee who or what will fill it. And all the factors contributing to change make the region susceptible to greater turmoil.
Yet what I found most inspiring in my travels was not the dreams that the outside world has for the people of the Middle East. It was the lofty goals they have set for themselves, and begun -- only begun -- to act on.