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Last Updated: Monday, 2 January 2006, 00:18 GMT
Middle East on the road to change

By Jeremy Bowen
BBC Middle East editor

Sometimes it is hard not to be depressed by what happens in the Middle East.

Finger being dipped in ink
There have been landmark elections in Iraq and Egypt

Oppression and violence and the doings of despotic regimes can seem to drown everything else out.

Of course all of that went on happening in the Middle East during the last year, and the old stories aren't about to go away in 2006.

But something else is happening that cannot be ignored; there are signs of change.

They go back, in one way or another, to the American invasion of Iraq in 2003.

It was a turning point for the Middle East that ranks with the other big years of the last century: 1917, when the Ottoman Empire collapsed and Britain and France carved the region up into its modern states; 1948, when Israel became independent; 1967, when war created the current shape of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The consequences of 2003 are still being felt, and will reverberate for at least a generation.

The United States has been the biggest foreign player in the Middle East for 50 years.

But President George W Bush has created for himself and his country a much more intimate connection by going to war and occupying Iraq.

His administration justifies the enormous human, financial and diplomatic cost of the war by saying that it is spreading democracy to people who deserve it yet have been denied it.

Violence fears

Thanks to the Americans, Iraq had elections in December 2005.

The violence will continue, and across the Middle East governments are worried that it will spread their way... In Jordan, it already has

Voting in itself is not a magic formula to make people's lives better.

Just because they cast their ballots the violence won't stop and the electricity won't run all day.

But voting is the way to create a fairer system, so something better might have started.

Under American protection, Iraq's newly elected politicians now have to show they can build a democracy.

First though they will have to defuse a row that is already brewing about fraud in December's elections - and then form a government, which could take months.

The violence will continue, and across the Middle East governments are worried that it will spread their way.

In Jordan, it already has.

Versions of democracy

Critics - enemies - of Washington are still very easy to find in the Middle East.

But the irony is that the US intervention in the region, and the way that it is pushing its democracy agenda, has created a political space that dissenters can occupy.

Egypt is a good example. It also had elections in 2005.

Its version of democracy has at least as many flaws as the Iraqi version.

Thugs from the governing party closed down polling stations in some places to stop the opposition voting.

Soldier making v-sign
Democratic elections may not preface peace in the region

But Egypt, the most populous Arab country, is moving down the road of change, and it will be hard, though not impossible, to turn it back.

All this does not mean that the dreams that the Bush administration has for the region are coming true.

In fact there are signs that it is giving life to a few of its own nightmares.

In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood scored a notable success. If Egypt has a democratic future, it could be Islamist.

The Americans are discovering that the problem with democracy is that it can produce results that you don't like.

That's just the way it is.

American influence

As these lines are written, a few days before Christmas, it looks as if Iraqis have voted on sectarian lines in their elections.

Washington's diplomatic and political energies in the Middle East are so focussed on Iraq that not much is left over for the Israelis and Palestinians

Some of Iran's allies in Shia political movements in Iraq will end up in power thanks to elections sponsored by the Bush administration.

And let's not forget that the US also did Iran the favour of removing Saddam Hussein, its most intractable local enemy.

In January the Palestinians are due to have their first parliamentary elections in 10 years - though there are persistent rumours, denied by their president, that they will be cancelled.

If they go ahead, a new generation of Palestinians will move towards power - including members of Hamas, the Islamist group that will win votes because it believes in fighting Israel, because it is not seen as corrupt and because its social welfare network helps some of the poorest Palestinians.

Ariel Sharon, Israel's prime minister, wanted instinctively to stop Hamas candidates standing.

The Americans told him that he should not interfere in the election.

But senior American officials have made it very plain that any new Hamas MPs will not be recognised as legitimate democratic representatives if they plan to support violence at the same time.

Uncertain future

The question is how much Hamas, if it has its own people behind it, will care.

Washington's diplomatic and political energies in the Middle East are so focused on Iraq that not much is left over for the Israelis and Palestinians.

That will mean that Ariel Sharon's broad vision of the future shape of Israel and the future state of Palestine is likely to get the approval of the Oval Office, as long as he can show that he has kept it within the parameters of the "roadmap", the closest thing that they have these days to a peace plan.

That is assuming that he forms the next Israeli government after the elections in March - and that he does not have any more health scares.

Longer term, beyond 2006, Mr Sharon's plans will only work if he can sell them to the Palestinians as well.

Anything that is seen by Palestinians as a capitulation will not create peace.



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