Twenty years ago, when public support for Iraq’s war against Iran was flagging, Saddam Hussein declared a holiday and had his aides fill central Baghdad with schoolchildren, government employees and factory workers -- many of whom arrived in fleets of government flatbed trucks driven by soldiers.
The crowd was orderly and enthusiastic, and its throaty roar echoed to the banks of the Tigris River -- “Saddam! Saddam! Saddam Hussein!”
“You see,” a smiling government officer told foreign reporters invited for the rally. “This is why we don’t hold elections in Iraq. You are witnessing a referendum for the president.”
In the Arab world, where political figures at even the lowest levels are seldom freely elected, where no country has a free press and legislative bodies are largely rubber stamps for monarchs and ex-generals who run brittle governments, the scene wasn’t particularly unusual.
With the United States hoping to transform post-Hussein Iraq into a democracy that could become a beacon for the region, political reform has become a prime topic of discussion in the Arab world. Restless populations are demanding more freedom, and governments are trying to determine how to grant concessions that would quiet public discontent without threatening their grip on power.
“At no time do I ever remember a period when the demand for political reform runs deeper, through all layers of society, than it does today,” said Abdel Moneim Said, director of the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.
Some observers, Arab and Western, scoff at the notion that Iraq -- with its tribalism, religious fractures and history of instability -- can become democratic or a model for change. They say democracy has no tradition in the Arab world, implying it is somehow incompatible with Islam or Arab culture.
“I find that idea terribly insulting,” said Ali Salem, a prominent Cairo writer. “Are we to assume that Arabs are unequal, a lesser people than those everywhere who want democracy?” He points out that Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, is a democracy.
“Democracy didn’t have a chance because Arab regimes are fascist, repressive and ugly,” said Hisham Kassem, chairman of the Egyptian Human Rights Commission. “It has nothing to do with Islam. We are Arabs who happen to be Muslims.”
The frustration that grips millions of Arabs is rooted in the awareness that their political systems are stagnant and that their civil societies remain undeveloped. Power remains in the hands of governments that are not accountable to their citizens.
Economies have not been modernized to reflect the new global order and cannot provide sufficient jobs for the 70% of the population that is younger than 25. Young people feel disenfranchised, alienated from political structures where new ideas and fresh faces are treated with suspicion and nothing seems to change except that power passes from fathers to sons.
In Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak, an ex-general, has ruled for 22 years; in Libya, Moammar Kadafi, an ex-colonel, for 34. Both have politically prominent sons. Hussein, an ex-field marshal, ran Iraq for 34 years and was grooming his son Qusai, a Republican Guard commander, as his successor. Yasser Arafat, an ex-guerrilla, has been at the helm of the Palestinian movement for 44 years.
In the last four years, leadership has passed from father to son in three monarchies -- Morocco, Jordan and Bahrain -- and in Syria authorities amended the constitution, which says presidents must be at least 40, so that 34-year-old Bashar Assad, an ex-colonel, could succeed his father, Hafez, also an ex-colonel.
While demonstrators were in the streets of Cairo last month, protesting against the government and the war in Iraq, Samir Ragab, board chairman of the Egyptian Gazette, offered this in his daily column: “It is clear that President Hosni Mubarak’s wise decision and judgment are the inspiration for his keenness to safeguard the interests of more than 70 million Egyptians.”
“Everyone’s fed up,” countered a student demonstrator, Sayed Salah, 21. “The regime has no legitimacy, no credibility. Corruption is out of control. We have no democracy.”
Certainly the images of Hussein’s statues being pulled down by jubilant Iraqis will not be quickly forgotten by Arab leaders. They know he was abandoned by his people because he ruled by fear.
Indeed, in the current atmosphere, there are signs Arab leaders realize change cannot be delayed indefinitely.
Bahrain held parliamentary elections in October, and Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia outlined a vision in January to modernize the Arab world and increase political participation.
“Skeptics would say it’s too little too late, and optimists, that it’s at least a start,” a Western diplomat said. “We’ll see. But there’s no doubt Saddam Hussein’s fall made Arab leaders very sensitive to the demands for reform, and no doubt a lot of people are watching carefully to see what happens in Iraq.”