Most Arab Leaders Survive to See Another Summit

When Arab leaders gather in the Sudanese capital Khartoum on Tuesday for their yearly summit, the ballot box will have made fewer changes in their ranks than the grim reaper or military coups.

Two years ago in Tunis the Arab heads of state, most of them the same men now gathering in Khartoum, promised to promote democracy, expand popular participation in politics and reinforce women‘s rights and civil society.

But in practice elections have led to changes at or near the top mainly where the authorities have not been in full control — in Iraq and the Palestinian territories.

Iraqis are still trying to form a new government based on voting last December while in the Palestinian territories the militant Islamist group Hamas won control of parliament in a shock result which showed the popularity of political Islam.

In the other 19 members of the Arab League, power has stayed in the same hands or within the same hereditary ruling family.

Even in Lebanon, which has gone through political turmoil since the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri in February 2005, two of the three big posts — the presidency and the speakership of parliament — have not changed hands.

The doyen of Arab rulers, Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, has been in power since he overthrew the monarchy 36 years ago. Four other presidents have been in office since the 1980s.

In Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, aged monarchs died in the past year and close relatives succeeded them. In Mauritania, an army colonel led a bloodless coup in August against President Maaouya Ould Sid‘Ahmed Taya, who had ruled since 1984.

The Tunis summit made its promises toward the peak of the U.S. campaign for democracy and political reform in the Arab world, launched in earnest after Washington‘s other reasons for invading Iraq in 2003 became difficult to sustain.

Arab League spokesman Alaa Rushdi said political change in the Arab world is a reality even if the pace is modest.

“Democracy in the Middle East is slow, some say very slow. But the wheel has begun to turn,” he added, citing the Palestinian elections, changes in Egypt and the role of the Kuwaiti parliament in a succession dispute this year.

But Nader Fergany, a sociologist who has written major U.N. reports on the region, said he could not see the change.

“It‘s more like a standstill,” he told Reuters. “There is hardly any change, even cosmetic. It‘s more of the same.”

Analysts say the U.S. reform campaign, which briefly made Arab governments try at least to give an impression of change, has since lost much of its momentum and authoritarian Arab rulers no longer feel so threatened.

“The balance of their (Washington‘s) interests has shifted in a different direction. Now it wavers between supporting the present undemocratic regimes on the one hand and shy attempts to help reform on the other,” said Fergany.

In Egypt, for example, which had its first multi-candidate presidential elections last September, the government has continued to detain members of the opposition Muslim Brotherhood without trial or charges.

The politician who came a distant second to President Hosni Mubarak , Ayman Nour of the liberal Ghad (Tomorrow) party, is serving a five-year prison sentence on what he says are fabricated forgery charges.

The opposition expects the ruling National Democratic Party to try to install Mubarak‘s son Gamal as successor within a few years, creating a political dynasty similar to Syria ‘s.

Lebanon had parliamentary elections in May and June but at least in Beirut and the south powerful politicians struck alliances based more on sectarian allegiance than on any coherent reformist agenda.

Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, an ally of former power broker Syria, remains in office, though under increasingly pressure to step down. He said this month he would not resign.

Lebanese leaders, many of them scions of the families which have run regional fiefdoms for decades, are holding a “national dialogue” to end a paralyzing political crisis, but they have been unable to agree on the fate of Lahoud.

The position of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, part of a political dynasty now in power for 36 years, did look shaky last year after U.N. investigators linked Syrian security in the assassination of Lebanon‘s Hariri.

But Assad has since consolidated his grip on security forces and delayed political reforms in anticipation of a long standoff with the United States, diplomats and Baath Party sources say.

“The United States has no appetite for military action against Syria. There is no chance of popular revolt and a coup is unlikely, although the Syrians are not off the hook completely over the Hariri killing,” one diplomat said.