Analysts and activists in the Middle East say the year 2007 in some Arab countries was marked by backtracking from the tentative moves toward more democratization and openness that had been seen in 2005 and early 2006. Although opinions differ, some analysts attributed some of those earlier changes to increased U.S. pressure for reform, but most now agree that whatever pressure was being exerted has eased. VOA Correspondent Challiss McDonough has more from our Middle East bureau in Cairo.
One Cairo-based political analyst who did not want to be identified called 2007 one of the worst periods for political liberties in Egypt in years, if not decades.
Police arrested hundreds of opposition activists, both secular ones and members of the banned, but usually tolerated Muslim Brotherhood. Brotherhood members were tried in military courts. Journalists and editors from the opposition press have been sentenced to prison.
In March, the government adopted a controversial set of constitutional amendments. Critics said the referendum was held too quickly, without enough time for the public to learn about or debate the amendments. They also said many of the constitutional changes were fundamentally undemocratic, concentrating power in the hands of the president, weakening protections for human rights and restricting the political participation of the Muslim Brotherhood even further.
And the backtracking was not limited to Egypt. Josh Stacher is a post-doctoral fellow in Middle Eastern studies at Syracuse University.
"Well I think across the region, if we look at electoral politics, what we saw was a further adjustment by Arab regimes, in particularly the cases of Morocco and Jordan, where they've even tightened the controls on the potential Islamist gains in elections," he said.
Both countries held elections in 2007 where Islamist political parties lost ground amid allegations that the electoral process was manipulated against them. In December, Human Rights Watch accused Jordan of presenting itself to the West as a country of political reform, but in reality, the group said, changes made since 2006 have further restricted freedom of assembly and association, and made it harder for NGOs and political parties to function.
In June of 2005, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a much-touted foreign policy speech at the American University in Cairo. She said for 60 years, the United States had "pursued stability at the expense of democracy" in the Middle East, but had "achieved neither." From then on, she vowed, the U.S. would be "taking a different course," supporting the democratic aspirations of all people.
But when Rice visited the region during 2007, her emphasis had shifted away from Middle East democracy and toward other issues including the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, efforts to stabilize Iraq, and pressuring Iran over its nuclear program. Although there has been no official change in U.S. policy the deteriorating human rights situation in the region, and in other countries such as Pakistan, were perceived as prompting only mild protests from the United States.
Mohamad Bazzi is a visiting fellow on Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
"So these actions by the U.S. really sent another message to the Arab world and the wider muslim world, that the U.S. is not going to live up to its promise to support democracy over repressive regimes, because in the end it still values keeping political stability in places like Pakistan and Egypt and Jordan and other parts of the world, it values keeping that political stability over the price of promoting democracy," he explained.
Many analysts interpret the crackdowns on Islamist parties around the region as a response to the electoral success of Hamas in the Palestinian elections of 2006, and the earlier gains by Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood in 2005. Since then, governments have felt freer to restrain Islamist political movements as U.S. pressure for its regional allies to democratize has lessened.
Nadim Houry is a Human Rights Watch researcher based in Beirut.
"The problem is that it's a very short-sighted policy," she said. "You're buying short-term stability over long-term stability. Ultimately, be it in Pakistan, be it in the Middle East, the only guarantor of stability is going to be to build stable democracies. You can't sort of change the rules of the game every time you don't like the outcome."
Josh Stacher believes the U.S. pressure for reform in the Arab world is genuine, but poorly thought out and too general.
"So whenever the pressure comes in such a general way, what this does is it enables sitting autocrats, sitting incumbents, to manipulate the legal framework and further legalize arbitrary use of power, arbitrary use of force, and that's what we're seeing in Egypt and in a lot of these other countries," he added.
But while political freedoms were contracting across the region, another phenomenon was emerging in Egypt. A wave of labor strikes started in late 2006, and gathered steam throughout 2007.
Hundreds of thousands of workers at factories around the country took to the streets, mostly demanding pay increases and improved working conditions.
In strike after strike, the government quickly moved to meet the workers' demands. Analysts and labor activists believed the ruling party wanted to prevent the strikes from taking on a more political tone, and turning into a widespread grassroots political movement.
Professor Joel Beinin, who teaches at both the American University of Cairo and Stanford University, specializes in the history of labor movements. He says most people, when measuring whether Egypt is democratizing or not, are looking at the wrong things.
"There is nothing whatsoever in the formal political arena, or even in the arena of the NGOs, which would support the notion that this is a society which is becoming more democratic in any meaningful way whatsoever," he noted. "In fact, the opposite. It's becoming more repressive as we speak."
But, he says, if one adopts the view that democracy comes from the people, and that rights are won and not given, then the massive labor strikes are a sign of real potential for democratic change.
"That's huge! There hasn't been anything like this in Egypt since before 1952," he added. "So it's the future of that movement which is the possibility of democracy in Egypt."
The year also saw unprecedented labor actions among immigrant workers in the Gulf states. Although none of these movements have yet yielded anything like political change, their very existence is perhaps a sign of changes yet to come.