The year 2005 was momentous in the Arab World. Palestine and Iraq held critical elections; Egypt witnessed the announcement of an overdue initiative of constitutional reform, which in turn triggered a series of democratic openings, including the country’s first contested presidential election in September and an overheated end-of-year parliamentary election. In February a tragic event befell Lebanon: the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, which rocked the country with tremors that have been vibrating in the region and beyond.
These dramatic events have so far yielded the following consequences: Syria’s forced withdrawal of troops from Lebanon after nearly thirty years of occupation; the holding of new parliamentary elections in Lebanon; and a UN-mandated criminal investigation into Hariri’s assassination. Even Saudi Arabia, long considered a political backwater of the region, had its first – admittedly modest – municipal elections. Kuwait finally granted its women equal political rights with men: they can now vote and run for public office.
Qatar passed its first political charter on the road to a constitutional monarchy. TheUnited Arab Emirates announced similar constitutional changes toward more power sharing and accountable governance. President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen announced his intention to step down after more than a quarter century and called on his people to elect a successor from among multiple candidates. In late December 2005 two more elections were scheduled, in Palestine and Iraq, for municipal leaders and a new parliament, respectively.
Just one year earlier, not even the most pro-democracy optimist could have predicted these political developments, no matter how sorely they might have desired them. Some outside observers rushed in to proclaim an imminent “Arab spring” of freedom. Others, citing a long record of disappointments, dismissed the same events as a mirage. But, regardless of the designation, the events were real and are bound to resonate in 2006.
It is likely that in the coming year we will see the continued growth of the forces of Arab civil society, which have displayed remarkable vigour in 2005. Witness the sustained demonstrations, acts of civil disobedience, appearance of new independent media and determined local election monitoring in Egypt. Support for these trends emanates from both internal dynamics and external pressures.
Meanwhile, at home there is growing resentment of rigid autocrats (Mubarak, Ben Ali, Qaddafi, Assad, Saleh) and outright fear of fanatical theocrats (whether militants, such as those dominating headlines in Iraq and Palestine, or milder versions in Egypt and elsewhere). Ordinary citizens are searching for new political alternatives. Democrats think that they can provide the way forward, and a few, like this author, are encouraging moderate Islamists and secularists to begin speaking to each other in Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Iraq, and Palestine.
Herein lies the hope for a new social contract, one that can sustain an orderly transition to democratic governance. The worldwide community of democracies can – and should – lend them a strong, but discreet, hand in the coming year.