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Democracy in the Arab world: an assessment
Democracy in the Arab world: an assessment Rami G. Khouri Much as it has been for the past century, the Arab world remains caught, and nearly politically immobilized, between three forces that define and confound it: the self-interested interventions of foreign powers, the self-preservation instincts of its small ruling elites, and the frustrated self-expression yearnings of its ow
Saturday, November 5,2005 00:00
by Rami G. Khouri

Democracy in the Arab world: an assessment
 Rami G. Khouri
Much as it has been for the past century, the Arab world remains caught, and nearly politically immobilized, between three forces that define and confound it: the self-interested interventions of foreign powers, the self-preservation instincts of its small ruling elites, and the frustrated self-expression yearnings of its own citizens. In the past few years, though, due to the convergence of domestic and global factors, all three parties have started to speak of democratic reforms as the answer to the aspirations of all three groups.

While no Arab state has made any seriously credible move toward true democratic governance, all Arab states have been speaking the rhetoric of democracy and applying limited forms of citizen enfranchisement, in the spheres of the press, political parties, civil society, and elections. The mechanics and rhetoric of democracy are more prevalent in Arab lands, but its substance remains elusive. A decade after most other autocracies and dictatorships on earth moved toward democratic rule, the Arab world remains apart. It is the only region of the world that is plagued by the stultifying combination of persistent occupations and interventions by foreign armies and power that is heavily centralized in the hands of small, unelected, unaccountable elites, often based on families, tribes, or ethnic groups.

The recent rhetoric of democratic reform, however, probably marks the beginning of the Arab world’s slow transition out of the legacy of political autocracy and dominant state security rule that has defined it for the past half a century or so. Four main reasons explain this important new development.

First, all other mass ideologies or governance systems (including socialism, Arab nationalism, Islamism, Baathism, monarchism, and narrow state-centered chauvinism) attempted in that period have not responded to the full material and political rights of the Arab people or their basic security and development. Second, foreign pressures and inducements for political and economic reforms, especially since 9/11, have started to converge with indigenous Arab democracy activists who had long been marginalized or co-opted by their states.

Third, the single most credible and powerful populist force in the Arab world--political Islamism, represented by diverse groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and Hizbullah--has recently recognized that democratic elections offer the most legitimate and efficient route to gaining power; this is evidenced by recent local and parliamentary election results in several Arab countries, and also by the important example of Turkey’s ruling party with its Islamist foundations. Fourth, Arab governments and private sectors now recognize that they must promote democratic good governance, liberal economies, and the rule of law if they wish to attract the foreign and domestic private investments that are their only hope of creating jobs and wealth, and alleviating the destabilizing trends of high poverty and unemployment rates and low competitiveness in the global economy.

The convergence of these four powerful forces has made the rhetoric of democratic reform the only game in town for most Arab countries. Implementation has been slow and erratic, and there are huge question marks about the sincerity of reform-speaking leaders such as Hosni Mubarak in Egypt or Zein Al Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia. Other countries like Syria, Libya, and Sudan continue to practice governance that keeps all power in the hands of the centralized security state. Small and large monarchies like Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, and Bahrain have made some real steps forward toward greater citizen equality and political participation, including for women, but remain distant from the democratic principles of governance by majority rule, legitimate rather than gerrymandered representation, and the consent of the governed.

Nevertheless, the region as a whole shows signs of acknowledging the inevitability of adopting democratic norms, including parliamentary elections of varying credibility in the past decade in Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain, Palestine, Yemen, Morocco and a few other countries (the Iraqi elections were a consequence of American-led regime change, so their true historical meaning cannot be assessed yet while the political system remains under the aegis and protection of the US army); the first ever multi-candidate Egyptian presidential election, but with built-in controls to ensure the victory of the incumbent; Islamist parties participating formally or in disguise in all countries where elections have been held; greater freedoms allowing opposition groups to form political parties and publish newspapers; a much wider, richer political debate on regional television and radio stations; and novel municipal elections in Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

The mechanics of democratic practices are increasingly common throughout the Arab world, but the substance of power remains firmly in the hands of small ruling elites. Of the three keys to power that controls entire societies--guns, money, and knowledge--the state’s ruling elites still dominate the security-military systems and the national budgets that in turn define economic interests and distribution of wealth. Only the control of information through the mass media has been largely pried out of the hands of the state, due to the impact of regional satellite television, FM radio services, region-wide newspapers, and the internet.

The real test of democratic rule will be when legitimately representative civilian bodies oversee and hold accountable those in the government who decide on national budget expenditures and security-military policies. That has not happened in any Arab country, but serious agitation in that direction is now evident in several countries, including most notably in Lebanon, Egypt, Palestine, Bahrain, and Morocco.

A balance sheet of democracy in the Arab world would show that serious talk and some activism toward that end are now common throughout much of the region, but breakthroughs to success have yet to be achieved. When one Arab country does succeed in achieving democratic governance (probably with a strong Islamist tinge to it, like Turkey or Iraq), the impact throughout the region is likely to be electric, with other countries moving more quickly toward the same goal.- Published  (c) bitterlemons-international.org
Rami G. Khouri is editor-at-large of The Daily Star.

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