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Saad Eddin Ibrahim, one of Egypt’s leading proponents of democracy, was secretary general of the Egyptian Independent Commission for Electoral Review, which monitored the 1990 and 1995 parliamentary elections, and is chairman of the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies in Cairo. He was imprisoned on state security charges in 2001 and cleared two years later.

He spoke with Global Viewpoint editor Nathan Gardels and others at the Pacific Council on International Policy in Los Angeles on April 27.

Q. You are among the most long-standing advocates of democracy in the Arab Middle East. Are we experiencing an Arab Spring, comparable to the democratic wave that swept Eastern and Central Europe over a decade ago?

A. It is not yet an Arab Spring. But it is not a mirage either. We’ve seen elections now in Afghanistan and in Iraq, where more than 8 million people voted. Palestinians circumvented Israeli roadblocksand threats by Hamas to vote. There was a mini-election in Saudi Arabia. Young people who were said to be indifferent to politics have filled the streets of Beirut, creating pressure that has pushed out the Syrians. Even in Cairo, people are taking to the streets, saying kifaya — "enough" — to autocracy. (President Bashar) Assad is losing his balance in Syria.

Clearly, a long, cold winter is ending. The idea of Arab exceptionalism,which bordered on racism — that Arabs and Muslims are not suited to democracy — is at last fading. People are remembering that as far back as 1866, in Egypt, for example, we had our first election and greater freedom of the press and debate than we do today.

I do think this is all part of what some call "the third wave" of democracy that began in Portugal in 1974 when the autocratic regime was cast out and continued on through the collapse of the Soviet Union and the democratization in Eastern and Central Europe.

Critically, the full flowering of this trend now depends on bringing the Islamists into any democratic initiative. I had many discussions in prison with members of the Muslim Brotherhood and saw they were ready for compromise and reconciliation. In May 2004 they endorsed, as never before, democracy without qualification, including rights for women and non-Muslims. Hezbollah, Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood are such a key part of the Arab world that you can’t have democracy without them. Their "faith-based" social service organizations will also be important to governance. They have to be held accountable to their pledges, but they are key to the democratic alternative.

Q. For all the courageous advocacy of democracy over the years by you and others, though, wasn’t it because the U.S. invasion of Iraq shook things up that we now see this eruption of democratic stirrings?

A. The most honest and generous answer is that George Bush was the "midwife" of the changes taking place today. But he is not responsible for the pregnancy. The seeds were laid over many years by people fighting for democracy. Some went to prison. Others died. What we see today is that people have lost their fear. They don’t want either autocracy or theocracy. They want democracy.

I don’t mean to compare Bush to Napoleon, but there is the analogy of the French expeditionto Egypt in 1790. It delivered an external jolt. Over the past 200 years, it seems that it is usually such external jolts that enable the seeds of change to materialize, for the pregnant to give birth.

Q. Is the U.S. presence in Iraq an obstacle or an aid to this full flowering of democracy? Should it leave sooner rather than later?

A. That is up for the Iraqis to decide. Recently I met a large group of Iraqi women — it was the women who pushed their men to get out and vote in the recent election. When I asked them this question, they said, "Not yet." They don’t want the U.S. to leave until stability is assured. Who can say when that will be?

Q. How can the West best help the flowering of democracy into an Arab Spring?

A. It does not help to come with tanks and planes and arms. Rather we need the equivalent of a Helsinki Accord. It was this Cold War agreement between the West and the Soviet bloc over respect for human rights that ultimately brought down the Soviet system without a shot, eroding its legitimacy from within.

The West can give us a hand, but from a distance. For the U.S. especially, it is important not to taint us in front of our own constituents.

(c) 2005, Global Viewpoint
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