The Region: The rocky road to Arab reform

The monarchies seem more capable of change than nationalist regimes.

barry rubin 88 (photo credit: )
barry rubin 88
(photo credit: )
There are some relative bright spots in the domestic politics of several Arab states. While one should not romanticize them, these developments should not be forgotten while focusing on the far more dominant trends of extremism and dictatorship. Most of the steps toward reform are in the smaller Gulf Arab states. For example, the 2007 Qatar municipal elections saw 51.1 per cent of the total eligible voters voting. Almost half of them were women. The polling went smoothly and the voting stations were policed to avoid violations of law. "Gone are the days when people voted for members of their family or tribe. Now the voters are more critical and they are looking at the qualifications of the candidate and whether they are capable of doing some good job in their constituency," said one voter. Of course, there are definite limitations and flaws in these developments. Hereditary rule remains and families still dominate the system - though these elements are perhaps the only hope for stability and the sole alternative to radical Islamists, who would lead these states into massive violence and repression. Generally, with the notable exception of Saudi Arabia, a greater dynamism at the bottom and flexibility at the top seems evident in the "reactionary" monarchies of the Gulf and in Morocco or Jordan compared to the "progressive" Arab nationalist regimes which increasingly seem like the Soviet Union in its most dinosaur-like period. IN BAHRAIN, there were relatively fair, multi-party elections in October 2002 despite a history of unrest from the majority Shi'ite Muslims against the minority Sunni-controlled government. The opposition was legalized and security forces curbed. Kuwait also had periodic free and fair elections, with Islamists doing well but not gaining control of parliament. The way things could be was illustrated by an event there in January 2004. Bahrain's elected parliament held a special televised session to denounce alleged government corruption in managing the country's pension funds. Members, including Islamists, demanded that accused cabinet members resign for making bad investments which benefited themselves, change the system, and return the lost money. One liberal member declared that the special session showed the people that parliament was not a "rubber stamp" for the regime. The government denied the accusations and presented its defense to the legislators. But a high official proclaimed himself "happy" to be part of "this historic day" on which Bahrain's democracy showed itself so well. "The government supports the parliament's eagerness to exercise its monitoring role," he added. "I am really proud of the work done by the special committee." In turn, parliamentarians praised the ruler's democratic reforms and the government for its cooperation. STILL, EVEN in Bahrain there are many questions about both government manipulation and the problems of Islamist gains. Ghada Jamsheer, president of the Committee of Women's Petition there, stated, for example, "There is a lot of talk about progress and achievements in regard to women's rights... [But] on the other hand, the injustice and suffering continue." She noted that while women could run for election and vote, those women who became parliamentarians in the 40-member legislative body did not necessarily constitute a display of electoral power. In one case, a woman won because the government put her in a district with few people and no competing candidate; the other 10 women were appointed because they supported the regime. Still, these examples might be held in the government's favor since it did not have to give 25 percent representation to women. Jamsheer also charged that the government has basically made a deal with the Islamists to give them a share of power and veto things they don't like in exchange for cooperation. Clearly, there are strict limits on democracy. After he criticized Bahrain's prime minister in a public lecture in October 2004, human rights activist Almazal Abd al-Hadi al-Khawaja was arrested, tried and sentenced to one year in prison for "inciting hatred of the regime by publicly calling it corrupt." His Bahrain Center for Human Rights was disbanded. Within hours of the sentencing, however, he was pardoned by the country's monarch. Khawaja then stated he would continue his efforts on behalf of human rights. An undertone to the affair was that Khawaja, who had recently returned to the country after 22 years of living in Europe, was a member of the Shi'ite Muslim majority in a country ruled by a Sunni Muslim dynasty. Thus, either repressing him or allowing democracy became immediately entangled in potentially explosive sectarian issues. BUT THESE are exceptions, and limited ones at that. In contrast, consider Jordan, rightly seen as one of the most moderately ruled Arab states. In an article for a Western newspaper, Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher explained that the Arab world must "take the initiative" in becoming more democratic. This cannot happen overnight, of course, and forcing the pace could lead to radicalization. US pressure to do so is "alienating Arabs and jeopardizing the efforts of genuine reformers, who now cannot advocate democracy without being accused of doing America's bidding," Muasher wrote. But the Arab world is ready to manage this transition itself. How do we know? Because, he explained, Jordan's king and queen endorsed the UN Arab Human Development Report! The writer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center at IDC Herzliya and editor of the journals Middle East Review of International Affairs and Turkish Studies. His latest book is The Truth About Syria.