Are we in the midst of an Arab spring of democracy?
President Bush has made the pursuit of Arab democracy the centerpiece of his Mideast policy and, indeed, of the war on jihadi terrorism. Mideast democracy, he argues, is vital "to help change the conditions that give rise to extremism and terror."
But what does Mideast democracy mean? Would it really undermine terrorists, or might it usher in anti-American governments with strong Islamist leanings?
That is what I am on my way to Egypt, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon to find out.
For the last three years the president has talked of the need for democracy in Arab countries. The theme intensified after the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
A series of events in recent months seemed to indicate such a new trend: Palestinians and Iraqis held elections; hundreds of thousands of Lebanese demonstrated successfully for Syrian troops to leave their country.
But moving scenes of Lebanese waving flags and of Iraqis waving ink-stained thumbs don't answer the questions that are galvanizing discussions in the region: How fast can various Arab states afford to change ossified systems? Are they in danger of ushering in Islamist regimes if they change too fast?
Over this debate hangs the specter of Algeria in 1991-92, when the populace was about to vote a radical Islamist party into power. The military preempted that with a coup, leading to a decade of bloodshed. One question that I want to put to Arab reformers: Is the Algerian example still relevant, or is it out of date?
The biggest beneficiaries, or likely beneficiaries, of pressures for democratic change in the region are religious groupings. In Egypt, where President Hosni Mubarak has ruled for 24 years, secular reformers are few in number. The strongest political opposition is the banned Muslim Brotherhood.
In Lebanon, a series of elections have demonstrated a strong showing by Hezbollah, an armed Islamic organization that the United States labels a terrorist group. In Syria, some would-be reformers fear that a sudden collapse of the authoritarian regime of Bashar Assad might embolden Islamist groups that were crushed by his father.
In the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinians have just postponed parliamentary elections because the radical Islamist group Hamas seemed poised to do so well. In Iraq, the government is dominated by Shiites from large and small religious parties, some with close Iranian connections.
And yet, many Arab political reformers who are not Islamists argue that any serious political reform must allow Islamist groups to take part.
Amr Hamzawy, an Egyptian political scientist now at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington, says, "You need them if we imagine any serious progress toward democratization." He argues that these groups are far too large to be excluded and have changed in the years since the Algerian debacle. He says the major groups are now willing to play by nonviolent, democratic rules.
What kind of checks and balances are needed to prevent an election that is a "one-man, one-vote, one-time" phenomenon? That is, would Islamists accept a loss at the ballot box after winning power? I want to know more about what Egyptian and other Arab reformers think.
I also want to ask Arab reformers what kind of external pressure helps, and what hurts. The Bush administration has yet to work out a consistent position. Laura Bush praised Mubarak's "very bold step" toward democracy on a visit to Cairo, just before Mubarak supporters beat up opposition demonstrators. President Bush then had to backtrack.
As for Iraq-style "regime change," a Syrian writer and ex-political prisoner, Yassin al-Haj Saleh, just wrote in the New York Times that ordinary Syrians fear it: They don't want to go through Iraq-style chaos.
And I want to explore further how the invasion of Iraq has affected Arab demands for political change.
The most interesting explanation that I've heard came from the well-known Egyptian political reformer Saad Eddin Ibrahim. "The Iraq war was like the French expedition (of Napoleon) into Egypt in 1798," he told me. "It was a jolt." It "cleared the way" for change, but "did not create the forces of modernization" for Egypt and other countries.
Napoleon was forced out of Egypt after three years, Ibrahim notes. But he precipitated the end of the hated Mameluke dynasty that was oppressing Egypt and set new Egyptian political forces in motion.
The situation in Iraq is similar, Ibrahim says. The invasion administered a jolt that "ushered in forces waiting in the wing to be unleashed." In the next few weeks I hope to see what those new political forces are.