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Sudden, Painful Rebirth Unsettles Stagnant Region

March 26, 2004|Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writer

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — These are days of heady promises, when kings and despots are making emphatic gestures of reform. There are petition drives in Syria and Saudi Arabia and women's rights negotiations in the United Arab Emirates. Human rights initiatives are suddenly being aired by members of oppressive regimes.

Saddam Hussein's fall unsettled Arab leaders by demonstrating that the United States is willing to do away with hostile regimes. Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh said it best: We must shave our beards, he warned, before others shave them for us.

But behind the gestures of political change, contradictions and resentment are as thick and dark as the pools of oil under Saudi sands. One year after the campaign to oust Hussein, other regimes have lost their sense of invulnerability and appear uncertain of the new order. Pro-democracy reformists from Damascus to Dubai took strength from the disintegration of the Iraqi regime -- but also were saddled with the poisonous label of American sympathizer.

The United States has paid for the war and the occupation with a profound anti-American backlash. The fires of jihad have been fueled in the hearts of a new generation of extremist recruits. Sectarian tensions are spilling from Iraq, drawing out tribal, religious and ethnic splits in neighboring countries and raising fears of instability.

The United States argued that toppling Hussein would ease the path to peace between Israel and the Palestinians. But another year of horrendous bloodshed in the Palestinian uprising has sunk Arabs deep into despair and intensified rage against U.S. foreign policy. That anger found form in wide-ranging street protests after the assassination of Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the founder of the militant Hamas movement.

"If you ask us whether American foreign policy is working, we will say no," said Mustafa Harmarneh, head of Jordan's Center for Strategic Studies. "We went to American schools, and we will tell you: 'No. "

Talk of Change

Western officials point out that change takes time. It's too early to measure Iraq's influence, they say, adding that in the long run, the ouster of Hussein can't help but set off waves of political progress in the region. Optimistic analysts insist that the mere discussion of human rights and democracy is an important step.

"The removal of Saddam Hussein brought politics back to the Middle East," Lebanese lawyer Chibli Mallat said.

But others say talk is cheap, and backsliding common. In autocratic regimes such as those in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, they say, discussion of change has become a tool of rulers -- a way to ease U.S. pressure, discourage unrest and, above all, keep a firm grip on power.

"Many, many regimes are very frightened -- they're illegitimate, but they've always been buttressed and covered by American support, which they don't seem able to rely on anymore," Lebanese analyst Michael Young said. "And they realize their own people are not very happy with them, so they're caught in this sort of ambiguous situation."

Reform is an old ghost in the Arab world, frequently discussed and seldom realized. Egypt is a case in point: Aging President Hosni Mubarak this year lightened media constraints, approved the formation of a human rights committee and made several much-studied remarks indicating that he wouldn't bequeath the presidency to his son, Gamal.

But how deep is the change? Egyptians have lived under emergency law almost continuously since 1967. Independent nongovernmental organizations and religious parties are illegal, and human rights groups have criticized Egyptian security forces, saying they torture opposition demonstrators, gay men, street children and Islamists alike. Egypt says the problem isn't serious and that officers suspected of torture are investigated.

"Democracy is what the people think, not what the government says it is," said Manal Khalid, a 32-year-old Egyptian woman. "We hear about democracy in government-owned newspapers. On the streets, there is no democracy."

The slim television producer sat in a smoky cafe in Cairo's downtown one recent evening, drinking a Heineken and sucking on a succession of Cleopatra cigarettes. She checked over her shoulder, her eyes flickering nervously over the men at the next booth.

Exercise in Democracy

Khalid was among thousands of demonstrators who took to the streets of Cairo a year ago and seized Tahrir Square to protest the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. They started out screaming against the war, but as the angry crowds swelled, the chants turned against Egypt, then against Mubarak himself. The raw street protests were Egypt's largest eruption of popular discontent in 30 years.

When demonstrators surged back for a second day, security officers beat them with pipes and clubs and arrested more than 800 people, according to a Human Rights Watch investigation.

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