Two years ago today, American troops and their coalition partners invaded Iraq. Saddam Hussein, President Bush argued, was on the verge of acquiring nuclear weapons to augment his arsenal of chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction. Before the menace grew any stronger, Saddam had to be toppled.

But once American forces had destroyed Saddam's government -- and no weapons of mass destruction were found -- the goal changed. As with all American military interventions, the mission had to be redirected to the cause of building a new democracy; that's what American presidents always promise. However, Bush and his administration outlined an even grander agenda, claiming that creating a new government in Iraq would lead to political liberalization throughout the Middle East.

Two years later, a series of positive political developments in the region do seem to suggest that Bush and his backers were right. Mahmoud Abbas became Palestinian president in a free and competitive election. In Iraq, 8 million voters defied threats from terrorists in order to elect an assembly that will now select a government and write a constitution. In Saudi Arabia, the ruling family has allowed for partially democratic elections to local councils for the first time since the 1960s.

In Lebanon, thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of Beirut to demand the withdrawal of Syrian troops after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. In Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak caved in to internal and international pressure and agreed to amend the constitution, allowing more than one candidate to run in the presidential election next fall.

The flurry of good news has led at least some administration backers to declare victory -- and vindication. Some of their former critics also now concede that Bush may have had a point. In a recent Los Angeles Times opinion article, Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt -- who has been a vociferous opponent of the Iraq war -- was quoted as saying: ``It's strange for me to say it, but this process of change has started because of the American invasion of Iraq.''

But even if Bush did help the process start rolling, the essential ingredient in each of these instances of pluralistic change is not what occurred in the White House. It is, instead, what occurred on the streets of Ramallah, Cairo and Beirut.

The so-called Arab street is pushing the process, not the Bush administration or enlightened officials in the region's authoritarian governments. In Lebanon, for instance, the United States demanded that Damascus remove its troops only after Lebanese protesters had braved a possible Syrian crackdown to take to the streets.

There and elsewhere, frustrated Arab populations are pushing the transformation process and seem more willing than ever to contest authoritarian power. They still detest the American military intervention in Iraq but are inspired by brave Iraqi voters, whose purple fingers were broadcast throughout the region not only on CNN and U.S.-owned media outlets but also on Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya. Arabs are inspiring other Arabs.

Other outside forces

External forces have helped to create the permissive conditions for change. Whether you agree or disagree with the war in Iraq, and whether the loss of life is justified by the political gains being made, it's true that Iraqis could not have voted had Saddam remained in power.

Moreover, Bush's words about liberty have emboldened some in the region who are now pushing for democratic change, calculating that costs of protesting are lower now that their enemies in the state are worried about what the West thinks. Mubarak, for instance, may be worried about maintaining cordial relations with the United States, as well as maintaining the substantial aid Egypt gets from this country.

But the United States isn't the only outside force that played a part. Many Lebanese, for instance, said they drew the inspiration for their demonstrations from cable TV images of Ukrainians taking control of their country. In Beirut, protesters did not build a replica of the Statue of Liberty like the Chinese students did in 1989 in Tiananmen Square; instead, they labeled their street protest a ``revolution,'' complete with its own color, like their Ukrainian counterparts and their ``orange revolution.''

Whatever the sources of external inspiration, however, the actions on the ground are being taken by Arabs themselves.

It is too early to judge the lasting consequences of these developments for democratic change in the region. Permanent peace between Palestinians and Israelis remains a distant goal; an escalation of violence could easily undermine the Palestinians' new, unconsolidated and fragile democracy and unleash a new wave of radicalization among Islamist factions.

Iraqi insurgents still attack coalition forces daily and terrorists continue to slaughter innocents, a very unpropitious environment to construct modern institutions and establish liberal traditions in a country that last practiced political pluralism in the 1930s and '40s.

Political reforms in Saudi Arabia and Egypt are incremental and unlikely to oust the autocrats in either country for the foreseeable future. And in Lebanon, the pro-Syrian prime minister who resigned in response to the protests has since been voted back into office by the parliament.

Emerging dynamism

Still, what is impressive about the region right now is its dynamism. For decades, the region seemed stable, and stagnant. Today, the opposite is true.

Buoyed by an electoral mandate, Abbas is tackling with sincerity the hardest problems of internal reform within the Palestinian Authority that Yasser Arafat avoided. The new Cabinet, confirmed by the parliament last month, is dominated by technocrats and members of the younger guard of the Palestine Liberation Organization. The influence of the corrupt old ruling elite, which Arafat installed, is contained.

So far, Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, is tentatively backing Abbas by respecting the cease-fire with Israel. Integrating Hamas in legal politics will not only promote pragmatic voices in the movement and marginalize the terrorists, it also most significantly could gradually secure badly needed public support for a peaceful settlement of the conflict with Israel.

The outcome of the Iraqi elections -- with none of the country's three major factions getting enough votes to rule alone -- is forcing all major political parties to conduct serious coalition negotiations. To secure a degree of national consensus, the dominant Shiite group, backed by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, ultimately will have to make concessions to satisfy Kurdish autonomy aspirations and allow for more Sunni and secular representation. The threat of a second Shiite-led theocratic state in the Persian Gulf region is withering away.

Iraqis still face huge challenges in security and reconciliation. Peacefully managing the ethnic-religious diversity in Iraq and reaching a national consensus on how to run the country will take time. But there is no better way to go about that than to establish democratic institutions and open up the public space for whatever contradictory claims might exist.

Slowly thawing

The holding of municipal elections in Saudi Arabia, in spite of its shortcomings, is at least an opening in an authoritarian political system and a step toward greater citizen participation. Moreover, while tribal loyalties and religious inclinations appear to have greatly affected voters, and in some sense represent an element of backwardness in the Saudi political system, such differences might also prove an important source of pluralism.

Throughout the 20th century, Arab nation-states attempted to modernize by refusing to recognize their diversity. The resurfacing of primordial ties as a political reality in Saudi Arabia, as in today's Iraq, may ultimately push forward the reform process. Only a democratizing, consensus-oriented polity can accommodate diversity peacefully.

By the same token, Mubarak's decision to ask the Egyptian parliament to amend Article 76 of the constitution to allow for pluralist presidential elections in September represents a slight opening for pluralist politics.

Clearly, Mubarak's move does not radically alter political realities on the Nile, given that emergency laws are still in place and many prominent political prisoners have not yet been released. However, for the first time in contemporary Egyptian history, the ruler of the country is making concessions in the face of mounting internal calls for democratization.

Demonstrators in Cairo, rallying recently for reforms, now know that it is worthwhile to contest the power of the state, and that public pressure can be effective in forcing change. Although results of the election probably will favor Mubarak, it would be extremely misleading to interpret the constitutional amendment as a mere cosmetic strategy designed to preserve authoritarian power in the face of a hostile international environment.

That Egyptian citizens will be able to choose among presidential candidates ends for good the autocratic legacy of ``one nation, one unquestioned leader.''

In Lebanon, finally, a vibrant civil society is breaking with decades of fear generated by the repressive Syrian ``Big Brother'' and its exploitation of Lebanon's sectarian divides.

The recent, peaceful uprising in Beirut and other urban centers demonstrates the rediscovery of Lebanese citizenship and the confident hopes of the population for a democratic future without the Syrian-controlled surveillance apparatus. There are signs that this future is within reach; the Baath regime in Damascus is extremely isolated, and there is no way out of this trap for the Baathists but to make the substantial concession of withdrawing their soldiers and intelligence officers.

Equally encouraging is that Hezbollah is not acting against the public will. In fact the message of Hezbollah's recent proclaimed pro-Syrian demonstration is much less about Syria than about documenting its domestic power vis-a-vis other Lebanese forces.

Don't take credit

What can the United States do to support the Arab people in moving even further toward democracy?

In spite of its rhetorical commitment to the objective of democracy, the Bush administration still remains ambivalent about a strategy of promoting democracy in the Middle East. In Lebanon it probably aided the popular uprising by putting more pressure on the Baath regime in Damascus. In Egypt and Saudi Arabia, however, Bush has hesitated to press autocratic leaders on political reforms, partly because of the strategic significance of the two countries and partly because viable opposition alternatives are unclear (as in Egypt) or frightening (as with Saudi Arabia's militant Islamists).

Rather than taking credit for the democratic changes under way in the Arab world, Bush and his supporters would do well to devote greater attention to developing a comprehensive and sophisticated strategy for supporting newly invigorated Arab democrats -- standing behind them, rather than in front of them, in the long battle to come for true democracy in the region.

AMR HAMZAWY is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. MICHAEL McFAUL, also an associate at Carnegie, is a Hoover Institution fellow and a professor at Stanford University. They wrote this article for Perspective.