• Reports
  • May 14, 2006
  • 30 minutes read

Signs of Freedom, Brave Arab democrats battling authoritarian regimes are the real heroes

The Bush Administration provides moral support, but brave Arab democrats battling authoritarian regimes are the real heroes

Hisham Bastawisi is no revolutionary. An Egyptian appeals-court judge, his conservative leanings are evident in his dark suits, round spectacles and polished shoes. During most of his years on the Court of Cassation, he avoided rocking the boat. Yet by leveling charges of fraud in parliamentary elections late last year, Bastawisi has suddenly shot to local fame as an outspoken critic of President Hosni Mubarak’s authoritarian rule. Along with Mahmoud Mekki and other senior judicial colleagues, Bastawisi is leading a so-called Revolt of the Judges, which Mubarak’s regime fears may galvanize other groups demanding reform.

After alleging election irregularities, which included police assaults on opposition voters and complicity of pro-regime judicial poll monitors in ballot rigging, Bastawisi criticized the government’s failure to investigate fully. He also revived longstanding calls to give the judiciary true independence from Mubarak’s military-backed government. For defaming fellow jurists and mouthing off to the media, authorities hauled Bastawisi and Mekki before a disciplinary panel that could strip them of their robes. But they refuses to be silenced. “The regime doesn’t want any reform,” Bastawisi, 55, the son of a lawyer and father of two law students, told Time last week. “They don’t want us to say the truth. But people have begun to desire reform and are ready to sacrifice for it. The number of these people is increasing.”

These days, it’s common to be pessimistic about the future of democracy in the Middle East. The showdown between Mubarak and the judges offers a good illustration of the problem, with unfortunate timing: this week, in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt plays host to a gathering of global and regional leaders attending a World Economic Forum meeting, which will focus on how reform in the Middle East can meet the demands of the Arab baby-boom generation. A year ago, the Bush Administration and many pundits were hailing an Arab Spring, a season of elections and people-power protests that heralded a democratic wave across the Middle East. Almost everywhere, it seems, steps forward have been followed by reversals. The hopes raised by the December parliamentary elections in Iraq gave way two months later to a spasm of Sunni-Shi’ite warfare. Jordanians are becoming ever more impatient for King Abdullah II to deliver on his grand promises of political reform. Saudis enthusiastically went to the polls for the first time in decades in 2005, but the municipal councils they elected have still not been set up. In Egypt, where expectations were among the highest, the showdown with the judges reveals how Mubarak’s regime is digging in. A flawed election in December once again handed his ruling National Democratic Party overwhelming control of parliament. In pouncing on the judges for crying foul, the regime is warning that change in Egypt will come extremely slowly, if at all.

Yet the Revolt of the Judges also shows why there is cause for hope: in Egypt and across the region, Bastawisi and other freedom seekers are coming forward with unprecedented determination to demand change. It is not a revolution. It does not have a Václav Havel or a Nelson Mandela. There is little prospect of quick, dramatic results. But from Morocco to Bahrain, all sorts of extraordinary Arabs — journalists, rights campaigners, women’s activists, election watchdogs, opposition politicians, students, street protesters and refuseniks like Bastawisi — have opened up democratic space to an extent that was only dreamed of a few years ago. Armed with growing numbers of new advocacy organizations, pressure groups, media outlets and Internet sites, Arab democrats are demanding everything from proper elections, a free press and human-rights monitoring to gender equality. They are claiming some victories that add up to notable if still largely symbolic progress, and helping to erect a civil society that is clamoring for a peaceful end to authoritarianism.

Egyptian activists, for example, are struggling to create new political parties, which are needed to offer voters a 21st century alternative to the ruling oligarchs, Arab nationalists and Islamic fundamentalists who have dominated politics since the 1952 revolution. Young Lebanese are forming groups to demand an end to the sectarian system that divvies up power among feudal bosses. In ultraconservative Saudi Arabia, where the ruling al Saud family and Wahhabi religious establishment have tightly controlled affairs for nearly 75 years, groups of petitioners and individual writers are making a case for a liberal opening-up of society.

In Bahrain, the Shi’ite Muslims who make up the majority are using political associations to press the Sunni monarchy for sweeping constitutional change. The Kuwaiti Women’s Cultural and Social Society led a campaign for women’s voting rights in their country that included a protest in which hundreds of women showed up to register; last May, the parliament finally passed laws establishing women’s suffrage. Together, the efforts are championing values — free expression, justice and respect for human rights — that are democracy’s essential building blocks. “Without instilling liberal values,” says Hala Mustafa, editor of the journal al Dimuqratiya (Democracy) in Cairo, “votes will not alone bring about positive change.”

Democratic transformation is an epic undertaking in the Arab world, thanks to more than a half-century of authoritarianism that has left deeply entrenched regimes determined to keep power at any cost. The autocrats have obliterated old political rivals and prevented new parties from emerging. As a result, Islamic groups, which can organize in the relative safety of the mosque, have been left to monopolize the field of political opposition. In addition to the Muslim Brotherhood’s gains in last year’s Egyptian elections, Hamas scored an outright victory in the election to form a new Palestinian Authority government. Such outcomes are fueling fears that when fundamentalist parties win elections, they will replace autocracies with theocracies — hardly the goal of democratic reformers. The question of Islam’s role in Arab politics is but one cultural factor that will continue to bedevil democratization in the Middle East; Arab societies are rife with tribal allegiances, sectarian loyalties and patriarchal mind-sets.

In the quest for historical change, Bush Administration policies are proving crucial to the transformation. Many Arabs, though sometimes grudgingly, now acknowledge that by ousting an Arab tyrant like Saddam Hussein and demanding that old allies like Mubarak acquiesce in change, the U.S. has made a crack in the edifice of authoritarianism that is giving reformers a historic opening. “You can’t impose democracy,” says Hisham Kassem, chief of the independent Egyptian daily newspaper Al-Masry al-Youm. “The reform process has to be homegrown. But the U.S. is providing air cover for reformers, protecting them from regimes.”

Egypt is a case study in how that is working. Reformers got a boost last June when U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice chose Cairo as the venue for a landmark speech in favor of democracy. In her address, Rice admitted that the U.S.’s alliances with Arab dictators had not enhanced global stability, and that henceforth Washington would “support the democratic aspirations of people.” Six months prior to Rice’s appearance, however, various groups, including many involved in street demonstrations against the U.S.-led war in Iraq, had already come together and formed the Kifaya (Enough) movement demanding democratic elections. Soon, Mubarak stunned the country by announcing that he would allow the first competitive presidential election in Egyptian history. He proceeded to use the state apparatus to crush his nine rivals, but not before being compelled to run a campaign promising reforms and endure stinging criticism about corruption and ineptitude from opposition candidates and commentators. In the parliamentary balloting that followed, Mubarak tolerated a move by the Muslim Brotherhood to field a slate of 150 candidates, and proved unable to prevent 88 of them from winning seats. The minority Brotherhood bloc cannot pass or stop legislation, but it is the liveliest parliamentary opposition in memory, calling officials to account for mishandling the bird-flu outbreak and a recent Red Sea shipping tragedy.

Mubarak, sadly, has responded to the growing pressure by pulling back on his campaign promises and cracking down. Last week, Egyptian police clubbed protesters and journalists and arrested hundreds during a demonstration in support of the judges, following the recent detention of scores of activists, including an irreverent local blogger. Before that, Ayman Nour, who ran for President against Mubarak, landed in prison on a five-year sentence (see box). A State Security Court convicted him of forging signatures in registering his new al-Ghad (Tomorrow) party. Last month, Mubarak pushed through an extension of the 25-year-old Emergency Law that restricts civil liberties and provides broad powers of detention. He also postponed municipal elections scheduled this year.

For the first time, however, the regime is paying a political price for blocking domestic reform. Partly to protest Nour’s treatment, the U.S. froze talks on a coveted Free Trade Agreement with Egypt. The U.S. Congress is also taking a closer look at $1.8 billion in annual aid to the country. Mubarak is feeling some heat within his own party. In March, political scientist Osama Gazali Harb, who had been recruited to bring new reform ideas by Mubarak’s son, Gamal, became disillusioned with the backtracking. So he quit the governing party and told the Egyptian press why, hence making a mockery of Mubarak’s promises of change from within. “The genie is out of the bottle,” says veteran civil-society activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim. “There is no way the regime can go back to one-man rule as it was. The fear barrier has been broken.”

Lebanon’s independence revolution in March 2005, the work of 1 million ordinary Lebanese who took over Martyrs’ Square after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, remains the most spectacular example of homegrown change in the Arab world. The protest brought down the pro-Syrian government in Beirut, forced Syrian military forces to end nearly 30 years of control over the country, and inspired hope that Lebanon’s system of feudal power sharing would give way to full democracy.

What happened next, however, shows why fundamental change will not come overnight. Sectarian politicians who supported and then hijacked the independence revolution proceeded to make deals that divided up the results of parliamentary elections among themselves. The governing coalition of anti-Syrian factions is unraveling and has failed to achieve a key goal, the ouster of Syrian-backed Lebanese President Emile Lahoud. Hizballah, a pro-Syrian Shi’ite Muslim group, is also refusing to disarm.

But Lebanon’s democracy activists are not giving up. The independence revolution spawned advocacy groups, civil-society organizations and quixotic personal initiatives involving a new generation of activists who are determined to realize the dream of a new Lebanon. In order to keep an uncomfortable spotlight on Lahoud, law professor Chibli Mallat declared his symbolic candidacy to replace him and is running a slick, well-publicized campaign promoting the notion of a nonsectarian Lebanese President. New groups with names like Let’s Go and Toward Patriotism are mobilizing students, scrutinizing officials and demanding reform. Activists who played a key role in organizing the independence revolution have formed amam, the Arabic acronym for “civil society,” and plan to bring dozens of independent organizations under one umbrella group as a more potent lobbying force. “Much has been done and there remains much to be done,” says Asma-Maria Andraos, one of the founders. “It’s important to realize that today we can talk about issues that were taboo under Syrian rule. For us, that’s huge.”

Such has been the momentum for change that some autocrats are allowing or even pursuing reform. Possibly the single biggest development in the past decade was the creation in 1996 by Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the Emir of Qatar, of al-Jazeera — the first relatively independent television channel in Arab history. Despite its tendency toward sensationalism, al-Jazeera broke the monopoly of authoritarian regimes that used Arabic broadcasting to peddle propaganda, and quickly inspired the birth of rivals, including the respected Al Arabiya channel, headquartered in Dubai. More recently, hereditary rulers in Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and the United Arab Emirates have appointed women to Cabinet posts for the first time — important steps aimed at changing attitudes toward women in the patriarchal gulf states. In Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al Saud responded to pressure for change by sponsoring national dialogues including women and religious minorities, and put the issue of women’s driving rights on the table for discussion. In Morocco, King Mohammed VI broke ground by pushing a major women’s rights law and establishing an Equity and Reconciliation Commission to address horrendous rights violations committed during his late father’s reign.

For all these initiatives, however, it has become clear in the past year that achieving democracy in the Middle East will be a slow and perhaps tumultuous process. A number of factors guarantee that. Bush’s support for Arab democracy and reformers represents a U.S. policy shift, but the Administration’s record remains mixed. The Arab-Israeli conflict has long stunted democratic development by bolstering Arab strongmen and feeding Islamic fanatics, yet, in marked contrast to many of his predecessors, Bush has neglected Arab-Israeli peacemaking. To most Arabs, Bush’s intervention in Iraq has produced an outcome of daily violence, religious domination and sectarian fighting that they have no wish to copy. Even Arab democrats wonder whether Washington’s commitment to democracy is solid, given the continuing cooperation between the U.S. and Arab regimes on strategic issues like Iraq, Iran’s nuclear program, oil prices and the war on terrorism. Will the Bush Administration, they wonder, be silent if Mubarak’s regime crushes the Revolt of the Judges?

Yet Arab democrats are nonetheless proceeding with their vital spadework. Their task can be as dangerous as it is tedious, as they take on not only entrenched rulers but powerful forces — security apparatuses, tribal systems, religious orthodoxies — that are resistant to expanding freedoms. Instead of measuring success by how many elections Arabs can hold, it might be better to take a closer look at the work of thousands of brave reformers like Hisham Bastawisi. Collectively, they have begun to make a difference. But they still need all the air cover they can get.

With reporting by Nicholas Blanford/Beirut and Lindsay Wise/Cairo

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