Steps toward democracy in the Arab world, a crucial American goal that just months ago was cause for optimism — with elections held in Iraq, Egypt and the Palestinian areas — are slowing, blocked by legal maneuvers and official changes of heart throughout the Middle East.
Analysts and officials say the political rise of Islamists, the chaos in Iraq, the newfound Shiite power in Iraq with its implication for growing Iranian influence, and the sense among some rulers that they can wait out the end of the Bush administration have put the brakes on democratization.
"It feels like everything is going back to the bad old days, as if we never went through any changes at all," said Sulaiman al-Hattlan, editor in chief of Forbes Arabia and a prominent Saudi columnist and advocate. "Everyone is convinced now that there was no serious or genuine belief in change from the governments. It was just a reaction to pressure by the international media and the U.S."
In Egypt, the government of President Hosni Mubarak, which allowed a contested presidential election last year, has delayed municipal elections by two years after the Muslim Brotherhood made big gains in parliamentary elections late last year, despite the government's violent efforts to stop the group's supporters.
In Jordan, where King Abdullah II has made political change and democratization mandates, proponents see their hand weakened, with a document advocating change put on the back burner. Parliamentary elections in Qatar were postponed again, to 2007, while advocacy groups say that laws regulating the emergence of nongovernmental organizations have stymied their development.
In Yemen, the government has cracked down on the news media ahead of presidential elections this year, intimidating journalists who had been considered overcritical of the government.
In Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah has refused calls that the country's consultative council be elected, while the arrest last month of Muhsin al-Awaji, a government critic, raised questions about how far the country's newfound openness would go. And in Syria, promises for reforms have been followed by a harsh crackdown on the opposition.
Administration officials do not deny that there have been setbacks in the promotion of democracy in the Middle East, but say that recent negative trends do not discredit their approach.
"Democratic development isn't always linear," said a senior State Department official, insisting on anonymity in commenting for this article. "It's a process that takes time, is evolutionary and requires strong consistent support, which is what our policy is all about."
Arab nations in the Middle East are largely led by monarchies and authoritarian governments, many of which have been unable to keep up with explosive population growth and development needs.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, the Bush administration made democratization of the Middle East a strategic goal, to answer the extremism that had taken root in many parts of the region. Arab governments, prodded also by emboldened opposition movements, made some moves toward democracy. But Arab rulers now emphasize that change is a slow process, or simply focus on economic changes instead. With many economies booming, especially in the oil-rich Persian Gulf, governments are in no hurry to bring about change. At last month's meeting of Arab League leaders, there was no mention of an Arab reform program launched in Tunis in 2004.
The slowdown comes at a critical time for the Bush administration, which has been increasingly seen as weakened both at home and abroad by its occupation of Iraq. Many Arab leaders appear to be betting that the American public is losing its appetite for major interventions, giving them a freer hand.
"Iraq has allowed people to say, 'Forget the American style of reform,' " said Taher al-Adwan, editor in chief of the Amman-based newspaper Al-Arab Al-Yawm. "The Americans are not able to present anything to the reformers to encourage them."
In Egypt — one of the United States' closest allies in the Middle East, receiving about $2 billion a year in military and financial aid — President Mubarak promised during his re-election campaign last summer to further amend the Constitution and allow room for other political parties to grow. But so far there has been virtually no movement on either front.
The government continues to restrict the creation of opposition parties, and judges who questioned the integrity of the recent parliamentary elections have become the focus of criminal investigations.
In December, when an Egyptian court sentenced the political opposition leader Ayman Nour to five years in prison on charges that had been widely viewed as politically motivated, Washington responded harshly, calling for his release. But Washington expressed only mild disapproval over the February announcement of the delay of municipal elections.
The delay is widely seen as an effort to preserve the monopoly on power held by Egypt's National Democratic Party following the success of the Muslim Brotherhood at the polls. It is also considered an effort to halt the Brotherhood's promotion of an independent candidate for president in 2011.
"America had a problem with violent Islamic groups because of a lack of democracy in the region, but when people choose nonviolent Islamic groups, they don't want to deal with it," said Essam el-Erian, a senior member and spokesman for the Brotherhood. "Even if Islamic groups win elections and have poor relations with the U.S., they should at least appreciate that they will not be violent."
In Bahrain, where sectarian tensions between the majority Shiite population and the Sunni-dominated government prevail, a flurry of official maneuvers apparently intended to reduce the Shiite vote has preceded the municipal and parliamentary elections expected this year.
Bahrain, a tiny nation of 700,000, is often held up as a model of reform and democratization. Opposition figures say that elections, if they happen this year, will be a symbol of backtracking, not of a growing democracy. But government officials accuse the opposition of fanning sectarian tensions for political gain and point to the expected participation of opposition groups as a sign that conditions are improving.
"The question many people are asking is this: did reform slow down, or did it just never happen?" said Toby Craig Jones, who recently worked as a Persian Gulf analyst with the International Crisis Group, in independent research and advocacy organization. "This was never an example of real reform, it's an example of controlled reform."
Nabeel Rajab, vice president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, which was shut down by the government in 2004, said: "The Americans seem to think this is enough. They will only get involved when things get very bad. We enjoyed the honeymoon, but now it's over."
When King Abdullah of Jordan entrusted a group of 26 prominent Jordanians to map out a reform agenda for his kingdom in February 2005, the stated objective was a plan for comprehensive reform and democratization efforts. But when the group presented the 2,500-page document to the king more than nine tumultuous months later, not long after the multiple suicide bombings at Amman hotels, it made little impact.
"For some reason, it was not publicized, it was not advertised, and it's got into the hands of very few people," said Taher al-Masri, a member of the drafting committee and, for a brief time, prime minister of Jordan. "We went, we took a picture, and that was it," he said of the ceremony.
The effort toward what was called the National Agenda set off a contentious battle between Jordan's elite Western-educated reformers, who were accused of debating issues behind closed doors, and entrenched forces in the Parliament and Senate, who sought to have greater say in the program.
Advocates like Marwan Muasher and others were quickly tainted, perceived as serving an American agenda rather than seeking reform.
Jordan's elected Parliament sought to stymie any laws presented out of the effort, dismissing them as an effort aimed at appeasing the West, while the Senate, appointed by the king and comprising predominantly old-guard powers, also worked to preserve its hold.
Meanwhile, the changes in government only served to interrupt the reform dialogue. The king, who appoints the prime minister, went through three governments last year. The latest government of Prime Minister Maarouf al-Bakheet appointed shortly after the agenda was presented, has billed itself as a reform government.
Appointed shortly after the Nov. 9 multiple suicide bombings in Amman, the government was specifically charged with pursuing the National Agenda, its officials said. Some in the government accuse the National Agenda authors of sour grapes, continuing a practice of former government officials insulting current ones.
"There's no contradiction between the government plan and the National Agenda," said Sabri Rbeihat, minister of political development and parliamentary affairs. "But it's a long-term plan, while the government platform is annual."
The government has drafted numerous laws that will change various sectors of government. But for many who took part in drafting the National Agenda, the sense that it has been placed in the background suggested that the new government was pursuing its own agenda.
"For some reason, the system seems to cave in to the first signs of resistance, then it follows with policies of appeasement, and the reformers are abandoned," said Mustafa Hamarneh, a committee member and director of the Center for Strategic Studies in Jordan. "The national agenda was going to be a road map to reform in the country, but it suddenly disappeared off the radar screen. It is no longer part of the official discourse."