Arabs’ democracy dialogue: an assessment

David Govrin
16 November 2005

The last two years have seen three major United States initiatives proposing a democratic transformation of the middle east. The Middle East Partnership Initiative (Mepi) of December 2002 that envisaged reforms across the region was followed by the Broader Middle East and North Africa (BMENA) initiative of June 2004 designed to promote democracy in the middle east in partnership with the G8. These have now been supplemented by the Foundation for the Future project announced in November 2005.

Also in openDemocracy on democracy in the Arab world:

Karim Souaid, “America’s middle east lesson” (November 2004)

Fred Halliday, “Democratic reform in the Arab world: images and realities” (June 2005)

Patrick Seale, “What hope for Arab democracy?” (June 2005)

Rami Khouri, “How to beat terrorism: lessons of an Arab journey” (July 2005)

Tarek Osman, “Egypt’s crawl from autocracy” (August 2005)

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The difficult conclusion of the Bahrain conference that heralded the new forum is an indication of the gap between democratic aspiration and achievement. But the flurry of initiatives has helped provoke an intense debate among Arab intellectuals, observers and journalists about the degree to which democracy is needed in the Arab world, and the likely effects of democratic change. This article examines some of the main characteristics of the intellectual discourse on democracy during this period as it has appeared in the Arab press.

The central pillar of this debate is the urgent need for comprehensive reforms in the political, economic and social areas in light of the gloomy situation of the Arab nation as reflected for example in the United Nation Development Programme (UNDP) reports of the last three years. Arab intellectuals indicate that there is no way of ignoring or postponing the issue of reform. The main questions raised in this discourse – whose major platform is the relatively free Arab press published in London and in the Gulf states – are threefold:

  • should the changes come from within or as a result of external pressure?
  • where should they start?
  • will they affect the whole population or only the elite of the society?

Five elements of change

The current intellectual discourse in the Arab world has five distinctive characteristics.

First, it reflects a genuine and deep conviction of the need for substantial change in the current collapsing systems. "All those who deny this urgent necessity are either ignorant, arrogant or … bury their head in the sand like an ostrich" (A'rfan Nitham al-Din, Al-Hayat [London], 10 January 2005). Advocates of reforms emphasise that fundamental political, economic and social reforms are needed and that cosmetic reforms should be rejected. As one observer writes: "The worst democracy is the one that enters through the window and not through the door…" (A'bdalla al-A'scar, Al-Riyad [Saudi Arabia], 23 March 2005.)

Second, many writers express the belief that only external intervention can bring about a real change in the middle east. However, they fear that Washington's call for democracy in the region hides deeper objectives of regime change in several Arab states. As a result, they believe that reforms should be implemented gradually, and in accordance with the unique features of each individual Arab country.

As they do not trust their governments, these intellectuals aspire to a greater public involvement in shaping their own future. They mention two main problems in this respect: the monopoly of a ruling elite that does not want to concede its privileges and power, and the lack of non-governmental forces capable of creating a momentum for change.

Third, the marginal role of the Arab-Israeli conflict in this discourse and the harsh criticism directed at the despotic (istibdad) Arab regimes is a striking indication of disillusionment. Whereas Israel was blamed in the past – almost automatically – for the lack of advance of democratisation in the region, it seems that now the heritage of the repressive Arab regimes is perceived as the real obstacle to achieve freedom. "The main responsible (factor) for bringing the question of democracy to the hardship that we know now are the repressive regimes themselves that blocked the peaceful way and the future to (Arab) societies, deprived it from all political means that would enable it to freely express its will" (Burhan Ghalyun, Al-Ityhad (UAE), 13 May 2004).

Fourth, most Arab intellectuals underline the necessity for wider participation, including that of women, in the decision-making process and in shaping representative institutions. Fahmi Huweidi, a leading Egyptian intellectual, argues that establishing political pluralism and mechanisms for participation through elections would not in itself realise democracy unless they were established on the basis of freedom. In an interesting echo of the argument of Fareed Zakaria in his book The Future of Freedom, Huweidi criticises the structural and institutional formation of democracy in parts of the global south because it does not necessarily entail participation, accountability and government change (Fahmi Huweidi, Al-Khalig [UAE], 7 March 2005). Meanwhile, as Arab governments continue to pursue journalists reporting on domestic affairs, others call for greater freedom of the press (Gawil Kambana, Al-Hayat [London], 3 May 2005.)

David Govrin has served in Israel’s ministry of foreign affairs since 1989, and now works for its policy planning bureau. The views expressed here are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of the ministry.

Fifth, several Arab intellectuals call for a recognition of the fact that democracy is not only a system of governance but a set of values; and that as a consequence, the Arab world has to develop a democratic culture (A'bdalla al-A'scar, Al-Riyad [Saudi Arabia], 23 March 2005). This implies pursuing demands not just for the separation of powers, the rule of law, human rights and freedom of speech but for the idea of accountability, transparency, and "acceptance of the other”.

An illustration of the growing demand for more transparency is an article published by Galal A’arif, the chairperson of Egyptian Journalists Union, entitled “The reform … in closed doors” (Galal A’arif, Al-Bayan [UAE], 24 April 2005.)

A’arif wonders why the discussions in the Egyptian parliament on the constitutional amendments regarding the election of the president were held behind closed doors and whether such “closed” gatherings would achieve the desired goal. He argues that all political and ideological streams should have participated in the discussion, including through television and in the newspapers. The very fact that Galal A’arif did not publish this article in Egypt itself underlines the difficulties facing democratic reformists in expressing critical views.

The relatively new terminology of democracy, accountability, transparency and civil society in the Arab world plays an important role in nurturing ideas and implanting seeds of progress. It reflects a new spirit that is directed towards increasing the people’s supervision of their government’s policy. In association with fresh voices that call for recognition of past mistakes, this coalition of intellectual and dissident voices may gradually encourage progressive, democratic reform in the political systems of the Arab world.

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