Demanding Arab democracy

Demanding Arab democracy

The demand for democracy in the greater Middle East may currently be weak. But, notes analyst Mark Katz, “If and when the demand for democratization does grow in the Middle East, American support will also be crucial for transforming it into actual democracy.”

Activists voiced local demands for democracy at last week’s fifth Forum for the Future in Abu Dhabi, co-chaired by the United Arab Emirates and Japan. Participants affirmed their commitment to develop the Forum’s mechanisms and to support Democracy Assistance Dialogue efforts for the promotion of government-civil society dialogue and cooperation.

The event also prompted debate about the initiative’s achievements and the role of external agencies.  Though much diluted from the original plans for a Greater Middle East Initiative, the forum has nevertheless provided platforms for a vibrant dialogue between governments and civil societies, argues Turkish commentator Sylvia Tiryaki.

Tunisian democracy activist Slaheddine Jourchi is less impressed. “Arab governments believe that their non-governmental organizations are influenced by the West, while the NGOs believe that the West is too accommodating toward their governments,” said Jourchi.

The forum is not the only recent pro-democracy development. A “Foundation for the Future,” set up in March to assist Arab civil society, has raised US$25 million. The foundation has begun making grants , mostly to relatively ‘safe’ civil society projects, some of which appear to be GONGOs or at least programs unlikely to offend local regimes. Most of the donors are G8 states, plus the EU and Jordan.

In a sign of the Kremlin’s growing assertiveness in the region, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister used the occasion of the forum to insist that political reforms not be imposed on countries. “Each state should implement democratic principles in its own way and no pressure should be put on them.”