Listen to the conversations in the cafes on the edge of the creek that runs through this Persian Gulf city, and it is hard to believe that the George W. Bush being praised by Arab diners is the same George W. Bush who has been widely excoriated in these parts ever since he took office.
Yet the balmy breeze blowing along the creek carries murmurs of approval for the devoutly Christian U.S. president, whose persistent calls for democracy in the Middle East are looking less like preaching and more like timely encouragement.
Nowadays, intellectuals, businessmen and working-class people alike can be caught lauding Bush's hard-edged posture on democracy and cheering his handling of Arab rulers who are U.S. allies. Many also admire Bush's unvarnished threats against Syria should it fail to pull its soldiers and spies out of Lebanon before the elections there next month -- a warning the United Nations reinforced last week with immediate effects. For Bush, it is not quite a lovefest but a celebration nonetheless.
"His talk about democracy is good," an Egyptian-born woman was telling companions at the Fatafeet (or "Crumbs") restaurant the other night, exuberant enough for her voice to carry to neighboring tables. "He keeps hitting this nail. That's good, by God, isn't it?" At another table, a Lebanese man was waxing enthusiastic over Bush's blunt and irreverent manner toward Arab autocrats. "It is good to light a fire under their feet," he said.
Regardless of Bush's intentions -- which many Arabs and Muslims still view with suspicion -- the U.S. president and his neoconservative crowd are helping to spawn a spirit of reform and a new vigor to confront dynastic dictatorships and other assorted ills. It's enough for someone like me, who has felt that Bush's attitude toward the Mideast has been all wrong, to wonder whether his idea of setting the Muslim house in order is right.
Ibrahim also asks a very good question, is the Middle East more like the Soviet Union of 1989 (ready to crumble) or China of 1989? (a crackdown in the wings?) All I know is I feel better with W on the watch than JFK.