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A change of Arab hearts and minds

Amid gloom, a scholar glimpses signs of democratic awakening

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Fawaz Gerges, a professor of Middle East and international affairs at Sarah Lawrence College, has traveled the Arab world during the past five years, researching social and political movements. Behind what is seen from the West as a violent caldron of anti-American Islamism, Dr. Gerges sees signs of a nascent era of civic opening in the Middle East. If cultivated wisely by the US, he says, this movement could actually become something genuinely democratic. Monitor editors interviewed Gerges last week - excerpts follow:

GERGES: In the same manner that the socialist Arab paradigm was discredited in the late 1960s, I think the Islamist paradigm - using religion in order to justify violence and to capture the state - was also discredited in the late 1990s.

We're in the throes of the beginning of a new wave - the freedom generation - in which civil society is asserting itself. Its vanguard is the generation under 30 years old, which represents more than 60 percent of Muslim population.

The rhetoric we're hearing from this generation is very reassuring. In my interviews with young people, they say they're fed up with the autocratic political order, and they're demanding a voice in shaping their countries' future. They're rebelling not just against the political authoritarian order, but also against patriarchy, the social structure, family relations. While their fathers and elders accepted the social contract of the ruling Army officers in the 1950s, young people today would like a new social contract based on representation. They want to be heard, to be in charge of their destiny. If there's one word I often hear, it's inclusion. They'd like a new transparent system - though not fully secular, a system that takes into account the basic strengths of freedom.

The gap in the Arab world has never been wider between those who govern and the ones who are governed.

Do you include Iran in this wave?

Iran really has led the Muslim world in this respect. [Reformist President] Khatami was elected with the support of almost 70 percent of young Iranians. And we're witnessing the beginning of similar signs throughout Arab lands.

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