As death and chaos reigned from Nigeria to Pakistan last month, Egypt's Muslims surprisingly did not join in attacking foreign embassies over the infamous prophet Muhammad cartoons that had been printed in hundreds of newspapers worldwide. Some speculate that the country's fifth soccer win at the African Cup of Nations served as a happy distraction, while others say Egyptians were still mourning the 1,000 dead in the Red Sea ferry disaster. Few, however, can deny the role played by government agents, who pulled foreign newspapers from newsstands across Cairo. "They can't control what is printed in the foreign newspapers like they can in the local papers," explains John Hanna, a middle-aged Coptic newspaper vendor who works in the affluent Cairo suburb of Zamalek. "So they try to limit the number of people who have access to them." Another vendor, who asked to remain anonymous, is far more critical of the government. "They are still playing games with us," he grumbles, noting the money he lost on the confiscated papers. "After all these months talking about reform and democracy, it's clear that the government wants to keep us running around in circles." The events in Egypt highlight just how far the Bush Administration's dream of democracy sweeping the Middle East really is - for, as long as Arab liberals are too weak and too disorganized to win an election, the alternatives remain either continued secular repression or an ascendant Islamist movement. The democracy deficit The Arab world has made modest gains in terms of political and civil rights of late, according to a 2005 Freedom House report, but there clearly remains a "democratic deficit." Of all 22 Arab countries, only Lebanon and the quasi-independent Palestinian Authority (PA) have something approaching democratic institutions. And those examples are anomalies for the region. What fragile democracy Lebanon does enjoy is a result of the fact that it never went the route of Iraq, Syria and Egypt with their pan-Arab socialist enterprises because the country was too divided along sectarian lines - Druse, Christian (predominantly Maronite), Sunni, and Shi'ite. By contrast, the Palestinians, who were once enamored of Arab strongmen, eventually took inspiration from Israeli democracy. Both polities lack the true rule of law, having failed to rein in free-wheeling, anti-Israel militias. "The Palestinian domestic scene is one of militarized anarchy," says Amr Hamzawy, a senior associate at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, "and there are no neutral, stable institutions in Lebanon." Some Arab countries are stable, but the tradeoff is that they are less democratic. Both kings of Jordan and Morocco, for instance, have experimented a little with liberalism - without giving up claim to the throne. "Since the 1990s, there have been parliamentary and ministerial elections with improving degrees of transparency in Morocco," Hamzawy notes. Still, despite having a vibrant civil society with many non-governmental organizations, some topics are best not discussed in the North African country. For example, one cannot challenge the legitimacy of royal rule; talk about the human rights violations during the last decade, or consider the separatist movement in the disputed Western Sahara. As for Jordan, it temporarily closed off the Amman bureau of the al-Jazeera satellite station (see box) when, in 2002, a TV guest mocked the king's Arabic. The kingdom has also perfected the art of stymieing demonstrations with rolls of red tape. The anatomy of authority All in all, the Middle East is a depressing picture for democrats. How is it that, in the 21st century, the people of the region remain under the boots of kings, presidents-for-life, mullahs and military men? There is no simple answer, say scholars. Barry Rubin, author The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East, notes that some Arab countries just followed the model used elsewhere in the Third World following decolonization. "The development plan was to make the country like the army," he says, "to change it from the top down, to get rid of factionalism." These uniformed revolutionaries, like the Free Officers of Egypt, succeeded in taking power because they had guns and a popular appeal. They held on to office for as long as they did because conflicts in the region and the threat of Islamists at home put a premium on dictators, states Rex Brynen, a Middle East expert at McGill University. By contrast, traditional monarchies - such as the Persian Gulf states, whose rule was secured by a conservative Muslim culture and gushing oil profits - did not need populist slogans. Saudi Arabia, says Hamzawy, actually turned the rallying cry of the American Revolution on its head, offering its people this social compact: "No taxation, no representation." Finally, those not blessed with oil found backing from the anti-communist West. Supporting anti-democratic regimes marked a necessary compromise of principles for the West, says Rubin, rejecting now-trendy critiques of Cold War alliances. "What was the alternative?" he asks rhetorically. "In Latin America, you could've supported democratic movements, but in the Middle East, all you had was the existing system or radical, anti-American nationalism." Taking democracy seriously Despite skepticism from left-wing corners, the Bush Administration has taken an active interest in seeing democracy blossom in the Middle East. In 2002, the State Department set up the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) to finance reforms in the region, spending $300 million on projects like live satellite broadcasts of Arab parliamentary sessions. That same year, Washington used its economic muscle to convince Egypt to free liberal activist Saad Edin Ibrahim after he had been sentenced by a State Security Court to seven years in prison. Then, in June 2004, the Americans - to the chagrin of Arab leaders, who were not consulted - introduced their Greater Middle East Initiative at summits with the G8, European Union and NATO. Is it working? In Iraq, the American experiment in popular representation has paved the way for suicide bombers and sectarian death squads, causing many Arabs to worry for the stability of their countries. Despite these concerns, though, "virtually every opinion poll we've seen in the region shows that most Arabs have favorable views of democracy as a political system," says Brynen. Pierre Akel, a Lebanese writer who hosts the Paris-based Web site Middle East Transparent, sees signs of a burgeoning liberal movement in the Middle East. He cites the reformist Kefaya movement in Egypt, the Jamal Atassi Forum for National Dialogue in Syria as well as liberals in Bahrain and Berber intellectuals in Morocco. "Ninety-five percent of those who write for Middle East Transparent are from Arab countries," he says. "Syrian writers are now using their real names, phone numbers and addresses. They are signing petitions asking Bashar Assad to release [jailed Atassi Forum leader] Suhair Atassi." If only this liberal sentiment could take on a concrete form. Islamists or us It would be very convenient if the political group best poised to win a free election in the Arab world would be the liberals, but that is not the case. Since the 1970s, it has been the Islamist movement that has been gathering steam, operating under the noses of Arab governments through mosques, charities and schools. Helped along by a judicious use of social services and readily understandable cultural symbols, the Islamists have the power to mobilize voters beyond the narrow ranks of the faithful. "They even share the same argument of the pan-Arab nationalists, that America and Israel are the enemy," says Rubin. Liberals, who either have had their parties banned or have retired into self-imposed exile, cannot compete. Their arguments are nuanced, and they have less money to dole out. As one analyst points out, "There is a large Shi'ite constituency in Lebanon that independent of Amal and Hizbullah, but it doesn't have the money or social services to mobilize people." In addition, many secular elites have already been co-opted by the government. "They act as salespeople of the regimes," says Daoud Kuttab, director of the Institute of Modern Media at Al-Quds University in Ramallah. "When it comes to reform, some of these liberals say, 'Let's first solve the Palestinian issue.' For me, that's a sell-out." The relative strength of the Islamist opposition puts secular regimes in a good position vis- -vis the United States regarding their rejection of democratic reforms. They can simply say, "You are already in a war against al-Qaida. Do you really want to hand another victory to Islamic radicals?" Biting the bullet Ultimately, for the Middle East to break the cycle of autocrats, Islamists will have to be given a chance at the ballot. "While they might have policies with which many of us disagree," says Brynen, "the appeal of Islamist politics will only begin to fade when such movements have had a chance to govern well - and have failed to do so." At least, that is the hope. For this rather risky reform to work, so-called moderate Islamists would have to be engaged, and constitutional procedures would have to be developed to ensure that the Islamists give up power once their mandate ends. If that could be accomplished, then many Arab liberals would prefer free elections to the status quo. "I had to choose between a secular authoritarian government and a moderate Islamist group that came to power by election," says Kuttab, "I would seriously consider the second choice - and I am a Christian!" With reporting from Cairo by Vivian Salama.