Will Arab leaders risk losing power to implement reforms?

Posted in Broader Middle East | 12-Jun-04 | Author: Rhonda Roumani| Source: The Daily Star (Lebanon Edition)

AUB professor: In the absence of Sept. 11, issue of practical change would be rhetorical

BEIRUT: Softer language in the Broader Middle East and North Africa Initiative adopted at this week's G8 summit in the US prioritizes "partnerships" over dictating reforms, but the question remains whether Arab governments are serious about reform.

In the last year, three declarations on reform have emerged from the Arab world - the Sanaa declaration and the Alexandria declaration were released after conferences of Arab civil society groups in Yemen and Egypt. Last month's Arab League summit produced the Tunis Declaration.

Three questions sit at the heart of the struggle for Arab reform: Are Arab leaders willing to open up the political processes if it means losing their seat of power? Is reform viable in a region where the Palestinian-Israeli conflict continues to rage on Arab borders? Would democratizing the region unleash Islamic groups that for years have been marginalized by authoritarian governments?

US President George W. Bush's "war on terror" and the invasion of Iraq last year undoubtedly added to the urgency of reform in the Arab world. The leaking of the US's first reform initiative in February to the London-based paper Al-Hayat provoked criticism from Arab countries, who said reform could not be imposed from outside, disregarding cultural differences of the Arab world.

"Reform was a rhetorical issue until Sept. 11, 2001," said Farid al-Khazen, political science professor at the American University of Beirut, in an interview with The Daily Star. "Arab regimes are responding because they have to do something about it. In the absence of Sept. 11 the whole issue would have remained rhetorical."

In January, 820 participants from 52 countries representing civil society and political parties attended a conference in Sanaa, Yemen. The resulting "Sanaa declaration" called for periodically electing legislatures, a free media, the separation of institutional powers, women's empowerment and increased dialogue.

The conference also established an Arab Democratic Dialogue Forum aimed at "promoting dialogue between diverse actors, strengthening democracy, human rights and civil liberties, especially freedom of opinion and expression, and strengthening the partnership between public authorities and civil society."

But the Sanaa declaration, like last month's Tunis declaration, remained vague. The Tunis declaration begins with the Arab-Israeli conflict, calling for a "comprehensive and lasting settlement to the conflict, in accordance with the Arab Peace Initiative and in implementation of the "road map." It also reaffirms the need for "humanitarian principles and the values of human rights," and "the broadening of participation in political and public life."

Of the three Arab reform initiatives issued this year, the Alexandria declaration may be the most comprehensive to date, outlining detailed political, economic, cultural and social reforms needed in the region. The Alexandria conference of March 12 brought together 170 intellectuals and civil society activists for three days to discuss a non-governmental approach to reform. Former Arab ministers and officials also dominated the meeting. President Hosni Mubarak, who rejected the US reform initiative and called for a slower pace of reform that does not threaten to unleash Islamist forces, delivered the conference's opening speech.

According to Khazen, the Alexandria document is the most "elaborate" of Arab the reform initiatives that "leaves no stone unturned." The initiative tackles "any issue one can think of regarding political reform" from political freedom, constitutional reform, women's rights, human rights and democracy.

The Alexandria document takes the principles outlined in Sanaa and Tunis a step further, demanding specific political and economic reforms, such as an end to emergency laws, executive term limits and regular elections and a clear-cut separation between the legislative and executive powers.

But with few mechanisms to implement these reforms, how progress might be achieved remains uncertain.

"I think Alexandria and ... Yemen will be steps ... to engaging the community in the discussion of the issues," said Rosemary Hollis, head of the Middle East Program of the Royal Institute of International Affairs. "But it should not stop at the issuing of a statement that everybody is committed to reform. Unless it is accompanied by some real changes - it is insufficient to address the issues."

Certain groups excluded from these conferences may also play a role in just how far the Arab world will be able to move on reform. Several civil society organizations critical of their state were not invited; Islamists have also been consistently left out of the reform dialogue.

"Of course, it is good to give (Islamists) an opportunity to participate and express their point of view," said Wahid Abdel-Magid, a political analyst with the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies based in Cairo. "But the bad relations between the government and these groups make it difficult to involve them in such conferences."

The fear of unleashing "Islamist forces" in the reform process has often been used as an excuse to curtail freedoms in various Arab countries.

But according to Hollis, real reform will require a debate with those very groups.

"The sooner they get on with the debate amongst themselves (between Islamists and the rest of society) - you could have something that we saw in Iran ... an incredibly vigorous, involved, intelligent debate that included a large section of the population, about Islam and democracy," said Hollis. "What is the formula of combining Islam and democracy?"

But maybe even more pressing than the threat of Islamist groups is the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Arab countries are looking to the US to play a more even-handed role in mediating the conflict. The US took heed this week when it added the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to the new G8 initiative.

Still, some analysts worry that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict only acts as an excuse to delay action on any real reform process.

"We're making too much out of the linkage (between the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and reforms) and the linkage has become an excuse to keep the status quo," said Khazen. "Women's rights, the judiciary can be improved irrespective of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict."

What is agreed upon is that the process of reform from within will probably be gradual and incremental. According to Khazen, Jordan, Morocco and Yemen could become models on the road to regional reform.

According to Hollis, the fear of change could be used to leaders' advantage.

"They could recruit support around a national agenda for making a more cohesive, more inclusive program of reform," said Hollis. "The big unspoken theories that the current leaderships will lose their positions after embarking on reform - they could also become heroes."