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Arab democratisation at the crossroads

In the last days of 2005, leading thinkers and scholars from around the world share their fears, hopes and expectations of 2006. As Isabel Hilton asks: What does 2006 have in store? (Part one)
Saad Eddin Ibrahim
22 December 2005

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.

Stop the secrecy: Publish the NHS COVID data deals


To: Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care

We’re calling on you to immediately release details of the secret NHS data deals struck with private companies, to deliver the NHS COVID-19 datastore.

We, the public, deserve to know exactly how our personal information has been traded in this ‘unprecedented’ deal with US tech giants like Google, and firms linked to Donald Trump (Palantir) and Vote Leave (Faculty AI).

The COVID-19 datastore will hold private, personal information about every single one of us who relies on the NHS. We don’t want our personal data falling into the wrong hands.

And we don’t want private companies – many with poor reputations for protecting privacy – using it for their own commercial purposes, or to undermine the NHS.

The datastore could be an important tool in tackling the pandemic. But for it to be a success, the public has to be able to trust it.

Today, we urgently call on you to publish all the data-sharing agreements, data-impact assessments, and details of how the private companies stand to profit from their involvement.

The NHS is a precious public institution. Any involvement from private companies should be open to public scrutiny and debate. We need more transparency during this pandemic – not less.


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