LONDON -- The election in Palestine tomorrow is a historic opportunity not only for Palestinians and for Yasser Arafat, but for the whole of the Arab world, for whom democracy is almost a forbidden fruit.
As Egypt's election in December showed, too much of the modern Arab tendency is toward dictatorship and absolutism, but the Palestinian poll, along with Algeria's recent presidential election, could signal a move at last toward open and pluralistic Arab societies.
For too long Arab intellectuals, as well as the Arab masses, have subordinated democracy to other political virtues, such as national pride, economic progress and the expansion of social services. Even opposition movements, where they exist, are themselves invariably authoritarian in party structures and discipline.
Arab governments have liberalized in recent years, but more in the economic sphere, catching the wind on privatization and price reforms. Even countries with a strong socialist tradition, like Algeria and Iraq, have not been immune to such changes.
What political liberalization there has been is confined to the growth of legal opposition groups and more freedom for the media to comment on opposition sentiments.
Morocco has had a multi-party system since the beginning of its existence as an independent state in 1956. But in no country except Sudan and Yemen has an opposition been able to depose by ballot the government in power, and in these two countries as they are today, it wouldn't be allowed to happen again. In fact, political murder remains the final recourse in many Arab countries when the authorities are convinced there is no other way to intimidate dissenters.
It is not easy to say why Arab states have not taken to democracy as material conditions have improved.
To assume it is just ''Islamic tradition'' raises the question why democracy emerged in Christian, Judaic and Hindu cultures; they, too, for their first millennium or more, had no tradition but autocracy. Besides, democracy has now made inroads all over the Muslim world -- in Turkey, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Niger, Mali, Albania, Kyrgyzstan and Bosnia.
This suggests it is only a matter of time before the forces of democracy do emerge -- when education has become more widespread and when a large, self-confident and independent-minded middle class develops.
At present, as Mustapha Al-Sayyid, professor of political science at Cairo University, argues, ''The Arab bourgeoisie has failed to play the democracy role because it depends on the state more than its counterparts elsewhere in the Third World.''
In most Arab countries the state holds a dominant position in the economy, and government expenditures make up a larger share of national income than in Third World countries of comparable income levels. The state's share is 23 percent in such countries, on average, but it is 40 percent in Tunisia and 48 percent in Egypt.
Thus the Arab bourgeoisie is extremely dependent on the state for the generation and protection of private wealth. It's all too tempting to make a Faustian bargain with the political powers, voluntarily forsaking political say for the right to make money.
Nevertheless, changes are afoot. Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost and perestroika had a profound influence, particularly in that part of the Arab world that was Soviet-oriented. Opposition leaders, if not yet incumbents, now admit that democracy has often been sacrificed to socialism or Arab unity, and that these goals have often been undermined by an elite, often corrupt, that built its own power and wealth while the masses suffered. Islamic fundamentalists, volatile though they sometimes can be, are also, particularly in Algeria and Egypt, more serious about the value of democracy.
On the eve of the Palestinian ballot there are worrying signs of press censorship and arbitrary arrests. But if tomorrow's vote begins a process of introducing democracy, it could well be the catalyst for change throughout the Arab world.
B6 Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.