“Only three years ago, I was in a dark, damp cell in a prison,” Egyptian sociologist and democracy activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim told a Brown audience of 300 or so mostly gray-haired and quite comfortable-looking men and women, Sunday, April 3, the afternoon students returned from Spring Break. “Today,” Ibrahim said, “things look different.”

Sentenced to seven years’ hard labor for opposing President Hosni Mubarak’s regime, Ibrahim was freed after a year and a half by Egypt’s highest criminal court. He now works to promote democracy through the Woodrow Wilson International Studies Center and was on campus to deliver the keynote address at this spring’s Providence Journal/Brown University Public Affairs Conference, which examined the prospects for democracy in the Arab nations of the Middle East.

Lately the region has experienced a wave of apparently democratic reforms: Elections have been held in Afghanistan, Palestine, and Iraq. A popular uprising in Lebanon forced the withdrawal of Syrian forces. The upcoming election in Saudi Arabia, Ibrahim said, represents “a giant step, even if incomplete.” And in Egypt, Mubarak’s attempts to install his son as his successor have inspired the popular slogan Kefia (“enough”). Mubarak finally agreed to allow another candidate to run against him (anyone but Ibrahim).

Democracy is not new to the region, Ibrahim emphasized: Egypt adopted its first constitution in 1866. “We only lost our liberal and democratic age in the 1950s—specifically with the establishment of Israel,” he said, noting that some Arab rulers have used Israel as an excuse to cement their own power.

For democracies to succeed in the Middle East, Ibrahim said, they must bring Islamicists into the political process, as a matter of both principle and pragmatism: “You cannot wish them away.”

Ibrahim urged Americans to press Washington to apply “very gentle pressure” on dictators like Mubarak. “Use your own liberty to help us gain ours,” he said.

“Are we witnessing a spring of freedom or another desert mirage?” Ibrahim asked. “It is definitely not a mirage.… But is it a full-blown spring? I don’t know.” That question dominated a sometimes blistering panel discussion the following night. On the optimistic side were John Muravchik of the American Enterprise Institute and Nora Boustany, a Middle East correspondent for the Washington Post. “We’re probably at the dawn of a very big change,” Muravchik predicted. “The region is convulsed in a kind of democratic ferment.”

Less sanguine was Salameh Nematt, Washington, D.C., bureau chief of the international Arab daily paper Al-Hayat. “I have no illusion that the United States went to Iraq to promote democracy,” he said. “It went there to eradicate weapons of mass destruction, and the weapon of mass destruction was Saddam Hussein himself.”

“Will the United States pursue this [pro-democracy] project … when oil prices go through the roof?” he asked grimly, drawing a loud burst of applause. If forced out of power, dictators will be killed by the people whose countries they have looted for generations. “You expect them to [sit back and welcome] George Bush’s wish for democracy?”