• Reports
  • June 30, 2006
  • 20 minutes read

Not yet, thanks

Recent hopes for the steady advance of democracy are being widely stifled

TWO years ago, Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s president, told fellow Arab leaders to reform, or risk being swept away in a global tide of democratisation. “Trim your hair now,” he warned them, “or someone will shave it for you.” Turning words into deeds, Mr Saleh, who has ruled since 1978, promised to retire at the end of his current term. Last week he changed his mind. Bowing to what he called “the people’s pressure”, orchestrated in nationwide mass rallies, he declared his candidacy for elections in September that are likely to prolong his tenure until the end of 2013.

Mr Saleh has a better flair for theatrics than most of the region’s other rulers-for-life, but their survival instincts are just as keen. A few years back, and especially in the wake of America’s invasion of Iraq, many of them also found it politic to sound responsive to mounting pressure for reform. It was partly internal, inspired by factors such as demography, the fading potency of long-ruling ideologies and the impact of harder-to-control new media such as satellite television. External forces helped, too, most notably the Bush administration’s loud championing, echoed by other Western governments, of political freedom as the ultimate foil for extremism.

Responses across the region varied. The leaders of Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt all went to the bother of getting themselves re-elected in contested votes, and Saudi Arabia ran its first ever municipal polls. The legal status of women improved nearly everywhere: Qatar and Kuwait joined most Arab countries by inviting them to vote and run for office. Press freedoms widened notably in some countries, while others, such as Bahrain and Morocco, empowered judicial bodies to look into past human-rights abuses. With Iraqis and Palestinians voting enthusiastically before the world’s cameras, even laggards such as Oman and Syria felt obliged to embrace the rhetoric, if not the practice, of political reform.

But now the tide appears to have turned. Syria’s leader, Bashar Assad, no longer bothers with any talk of reform; his police have lately arrested dozens of dissidents. Since last year’s parliamentary and presidential elections, Egypt’s government has backtracked too. Among other measures, it has cancelled some municipal polls, imprisoned the runner-up to President Hosni Mubarak in last year’s vote, arrested 600-odd members of the main opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, sent police goons to beat up peaceful protesters, passed laws enshrining executive authority over the judiciary and banned two Washington-based institutes that promote democracy from working in the country. The kingdom of Bahrain, once touted as a model reformer, also recently expelled the representative of one of these, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs.

Police in Jordan, another relatively open country, last month summarily jailed four MPs. They had given condolences to the family of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the slain leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, a provocative but hardly criminal act. Morocco, also a star reformer, has lately slapped heavy fines on critical journals. Stiffened rules in Algeria, too, are restricting press freedom. Its president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, fired his prime minister in May in what was seen as a move to bolster support for changes to the constitution that would let him run for a third five-year term. Though polls were held in Saudi Arabia last year to elect town councils, these have yet to meet. Hints by senior princes at further reform have yet to be translated into action.

Kuwait, where an exuberant general election is under way, seems an exception. Yet the polls were called only after the country’s emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, dissolved his legislature in a fit of pique after it threatened to alter districting rules that have long favoured government-backed candidates. With its similar tradition of democracy and openness, Lebanon is another apparent exception. Yet while last year’s so-called “cedar revolution” shook up politics, and shook off much of neighbouring Syria’s influence, it has not reduced the crippling dominance of sectarian and clan leaders.

Several factors explain the waning of reform momentum. One is the high price of oil. Exporters, from Algeria and Libya to the monarchies of the Persian Gulf, find themselves so flush with cash that they can again buy off dissent. But a bigger factor is the advance of Islamist opposition groups. In the past year, religious parties have crushed secular rivals in Iraq, Hamas has captured the shaky government of Palestine, Islamists have performed strongly in Saudi Arabia’s polls, and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has won an unprecedented fifth of parliament’s seats. More stunning yet, though without any recourse so far to the ballot box, the nascent Islamist movement in Somalia (a non-Arab member of the Arab League) appears close to uniting much of that chaotic country.

The Islamist surge has frightened not only the region’s governments, but also foreign promoters of democracy. In particular, the quandary posed by Hamas has chilled American enthusiasm for change. Amr Hamzawy, who assesses Arab political reform at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington, DC, describes with dismay how Western officials and academics at a recent conference appeared to “wash their hands of supporting democracy in the Arab world”. During debates in America’s Congress over proposals to slash aid to Egypt as a penalty for failing to reform, numerous speakers cited the danger of empowering Islamists and undermining a government which, though distasteful, has served American interests.

Similar signs of a return to realpolitik have been noted with relief by Arab governments. Concerns over Iran’s nuclear plans have restrained Western criticism of democracy-shy but pro-Western neighbours like Azerbaijan and the countries of Central Asia. America restored ties with Libya, rewarding its government for scrapping weapons programmes while for the most part overlooking its appalling treatment of its own people. Even Syria, forced out of Lebanon and diplomatically isolated, has escaped severe punishment for defying a long list of Western demands.

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Wikipedia has a profile of Bashar Assad. The National Democratic Institute gives background information on Bahrain (site in Arabic). The Council on Foreign Relations has information on Hamas. See also Mr Saleh, Mr Mubarak, Mr Bouteflika (site in French), Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, the Arab League (site in Arabic), Mr Hamzawy and the office of Jordan’s prime minister.

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