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Reform Movement Said to be Gaining Momentum in the Arab World

The dramatic resignation Monday of Lebanese Prime Minister Omar Karami is being viewed as a significant victory for greater reform and democracy throughout the Middle East.

In less than two months, the world has witnessed democratic elections in the Palestinian territories and in Iraq, municipal elections in Saudi Arabia, and an announcement by the president of Egypt that more than one candidate will be allowed to seek the nation's presidency. Then, on Monday, tens of thousands of demonstrators in Lebanon forced the pro-Syrian prime minister to announce his resignation.

The demonstrations were ignited by the assassination last month of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, who resigned last October after complaining of continued political interference from Damascus.

According to the head of the political science department at Lebanese-American University in Beirut, Sami Baroudi, the resignation of Mr. Karami marked a major milestone in the history of Lebanon.

"There is a sense that there is a nation being born, a multi-concession entity,” said Mr. Baroudi. “You have young people demanding non-sectarian demands. So, there is a sense that this is really a nation that is asking to be independent, to make its choices. So, it is good."

The massive demonstrations in Lebanon are part of a series of events that Uraib el-Rantawi sees as marking a new beginning for the entire region. Mr. el-Rantawi, the head of the al-Quds Center for Political Studies in Jordan, says the reform movement in the Middle East has awakened.

"I think a new wave of democracy has emerged within the Arab countries and societies in the last few months,” he said. “We witnessed the election in Palestine. We witnessed the election in Iraq. It is encouraging for the Lebanese position and what is happening in Lebanon. I think it is a great victory for the democrats, for the reformists in the Arab countries. It will affect the whole Arab countries and societies. I cannot ignore the role of the international communities concerning this new wave of democracy and freedom in the Arab countries."

Mr. el-Rantawi says he believes the march toward democracy throughout the region is gaining strength. But, he says it will be important for the international community to continue putting pressure on the region for greater reform. He says it is equally important for Arab citizens to make their own voices heard in light of what he described as the stunning developments in Lebanon, in which the power of the people prevailed.

The head of the political science department at Cairo University is Hassan Nafae. He says it does not make any difference where the pressure for reform is coming from. What is important, he says, is that it is occurring.

"Whether it is coming from pressure from abroad or pressure coming from within, from the domestic situation, it is very much welcome,” said Mr. Nafae. “And, we hope that this is the beginning of a real and true change in the Arab world."

However, Mr. Nafae says the elections in the Palestinian territories and Iraq should not be seen as part of the Arab move toward democracy. He says those elections occurred in areas that are under the occupation of either Israeli or American troops.

Mr. Nafae also says if the international community applies too much pressure for reform, the reaction in the region will likely swing in the opposite direction, with various regimes gaining popular support by pushing more nationalistic agendas. Mr. Nafae says the international community must take notice that reform measures instigated in Lebanon are changes that are viewed as having come from within the country, rather than having been mandated by outside powers.

The same is true, he says of another important milestone in the region, the recent announcement by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak that the Egyptian constitution would be amended to allow for multiple presidential candidates.

Egypt has had one-party rule for more than half a century, in which the ruling party nominated a candidate and the public voted 'yes' or 'no' in a referendum, on that single candidate.

Countries like Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states are also likely to feel pressure to implement political reform, as a result of the political developments over the past few months. And, according to the analysts who spoke with VOA, Syria is a country becoming increasingly isolated in the Arab world and is facing the greatest amount of pressure.

As one analyst asserted, Syria cannot long afford to ignore the train of democracy that is rolling through the region.