Wednesday, May 21, 2008

What Arab countries think of democracy

by Clara Marina O'Donnell

Earlier this month, the Arab Reform Initiative (ARI) presented its first report on the state of democratic reform in the Arab world. ARI is a consortium of a dozen leading Arab research institutes which try to promote peaceful democratic reform across the Middle East (CER and a few other non-Arab think-tanks are associated with the initiative).

The report is a groundbreaking venture. It is the first collective and coordinated effort by Arab research institutes to evaluate the state of their political systems. By highlighting the progress towards democracy, or more to the point, the lack thereof, ARI hopes to pressure Arab governments into further reforms.

Launched at a conference in Alexandria, the report looks at eight Arab countries – Jordan, ‘Palestine’, Lebanon, Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Yemen from July 2006 to June 2007. The report’s ‘democracy index’ measures progress towards democracy on the basis of four criteria: strong public institutions, respect for rights and freedoms, the rule of law, and equity and social justice. The results will open a few eyes. Jordan ranked first, ahead of Morocco. And Palestine came third, ahead of Egypt.

Unfortunately, the rankings don’t give us the full picture on the ground. Most such indices are somewhat arbitrary but this one will be particularly controversial. The choice of criteria and how they are assessed explain the surprising results. For example military conflict is not taken into account, which partly explains Palestine’s good marks. Wage equality is used as an indicator for democratic progress, allowing poverty-ridden Yemen to score top marks in that category and increase its overall performance. For future ARI reports to make real difference, the authors will need to refine the methodology (something they recognise).

The Alexandria conference was remarkable as much for the conversations that took place as for the long-awaited report. Rami Khouri from the American University of Beirut argued that the push towards democratic reform has slowed down, and in some places collapsed, over the last few years because of wars and foreign influence (in particular the US ‘war on terror’); ideological conflicts; and the resistance of the ruling regimes. Democratic rights have become less important compared to security and stability. This is particularly the case for countries in conflict such as Lebanon, Iraq and Palestine. But the current situation is also being exploited by some governments, such as in Syria and Jordan, where authorities justify postponing reforms by the need to maintain stability.

Khouri also argued that the arrival in politics of Islamic parties, the strongest opposition movements in most Arab countries, has been a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it has increased the amount of people calling for democracy. But at the same time it has reduced the desire for reform from the governing elites and western powers, who do not want to see Islamists in government.

Professor Mustapha Kamel Al Sayyid from Egypt lamented the lack of links between Arab movements for democratic reform and European and American civil society. Most Arab groups are averse to Western assistance because they perceive it as neo-colonial. But Kamel argued that European civil society groups had been a valuable source of support during the transitions to democracy in Latin America and that Arab movements were losing out.

While taking into acount the many obstacles, the conference and the report concluded that the Arab region ‘showed an initial disposition towards democratic transformation, albeit a still embryonic one’.

But even the conference itself was full of reminders of how difficult the current situation is. One ARI member has been inactive for a year because it is being hassled by its government. And the Lebanese participants could not get home as Hezbollah had cut off access to Beirut airport.

Clara Marina O'Donnell is a research fellow at the Centre for European Refom.

1 comment:

cornubian said...

Our 'democracies' leave a bit to be desired sometimes.

How to make a county disappear:

Well I don’t have the exact formula but if you study this website from the Duchy of Cornwall Human Rights Association you’ll be able to see exactly the constitutional loops the establishment and Duchy authority have jumped through to turn Cornwall, an extraterritorial crown possession legally separate from England, into a supposed English county.

This site explains how a British territorial possession became someone’s private estate.

It makes great and fairly easy reading and should be studied by all those interested in the UK constitution. For more details of the Duchy scam you can listen to the person behind the Duchy of Cornwall Human Rights Association, John Angarrack, in interview on BBC radio Cornwall talking about his new book here: