In the Mideast, Democratic Momentum (Jackson Diehl, December 19, 2005, Washington Post)
The most obvious element of the liberalizing drift has been the elections of 2005: in the Palestinian Authority, in Lebanon, in Egypt, even in Saudi Arabia. Flawed as many of the polls were, they produced some stunning results, from the formation of a government in Lebanon committed to independence from Syria, to the quintupling of seats held by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt’s parliament, to the electoral victory of two women in the Saudi city of Jiddah. Last week the Palestinian Islamic movement Hamas presented its list of 62 candidates for scheduled legislative elections next month, including 10 women. The corrupt old guard of the ruling Fatah party meanwhile has been challenged by several new lists of secular reformers; elections may bring, at last, rejuvenation of the corrupt power structure created by Yasser Arafat.
Another revealing index is the number of the Arab world’s authoritarian rulers who have felt obliged to spell out plans for a democratic transition. In the past two months Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Jordan’s King Abdullah have unveiled platforms to introduce a free press, an independent judiciary and liberalized election laws during the next several years. By some accounts, Saudi Arabia’s then-Crown Prince Abdullah privately promised Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in June that democracy would reach his country in a decade. Whether or not they meant it, the autocrats’ promises raised expectations in their countries, and gave their growing domestic reform movements a standard to hold them to.
For the first time, too, the Arab world is getting a peek at what political accountability looks like. Four senior Lebanese generals are in prison for their role in the car-bomb assassination last February of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, and Syrian President Bashar Assad is under growing pressure from a U.N. investigation; never before have the region’s thugs been collared for their political killing. In Morocco, an official truth commission has spent the past 12 months listening, in public, to the accounts of citizens who were tortured or persecuted by the government; reparations are being paid to thousands.
Most intriguing of all has been the shift by Islamic movements during 2005 from terrorism to democratic participation. Despite some lapses, both Hamas and Lebanon’s Hezbollah have mostly refrained from violence this year while focusing on elections. While neither has disarmed, both are under pressure from public opinion in their own countries to do so. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which swore off violence decades ago, has embraced the agenda of parliamentary democracy and free press put forward by the secular opposition coalition that appeared in Cairo this year. The most commonly cited obstacle to Arab democratization — Islamic fundamentalism — looks far less formidable than it did a year ago.
MIDDLE EAST PROGRESS AMID GLOBAL GAINS IN FREEDOM: Arab Middle East Shows Improvement, Despite Continued Repression
(Freedom House, December 19, 2005)
The people of the Arab Middle East experienced a modest but potentially significant increase in political rights and civil liberties in 2005, Freedom House announced in a major survey of global freedom released today.
The global survey, “Freedom in the World,” shows that although the Middle East continues to lag behind other regions, a measurable improvement can be seen in freedom in several key Arab countries, as well as the Palestinian Authority. In another key finding, the number of countries rated by Freedom House as Not Free declined from 49 in 2004 to 45 for the year 2005, the lowest number of Not Free societies identified by the survey in over a decade. In noteworthy country developments, Ukraine and Indonesia saw their status improve from Partly Free to Free; Afghanistan moved from Not Free to Partly Free; and the Philippines saw its status decline from Free to Partly Free.
According to Thomas O. Melia, acting executive director of Freedom House, “The modest but heartening advances in the Arab Middle East result from activism by citizen groups and reforms by governments in about equal measures. This emerging trend reminds us that men and women in this region share the universal desire to live in free societies.”
“As we welcome the stirrings of change in the Middle East,” said Mr. Melia, “it is equally important that we focus on the follow-through in other regions and appreciate the importance of the continuing consolidation of democracy in Indonesia, Ukraine, and other nations.”
Complete survey results, including a package of charts and graphs, and an explanatory essay are available online.
Iraq: Many Communities, One Democracy (Khaled Fouad Allam)
We are beginning, paradoxically, to grow accustomed to a certain “normalization” of the electoral process in Iraq. The December 15 elections consecrated a point of arrival for the democratization of Iraqi society.
The statistical data are clear: the first of these is the 70 percent participation in the voting. Then there is the stark reduction of the terrorist threat during the voting process, and – contrary to what one might have expected – an enormous turnout at the ballot boxes in the zone of Fallujah, symbol of the Sunni triangle. Even Iran’s Arabic television news outlet, al-Alam, which has a large audience among the Shiite Iraqis, emphasized the vast participation of all the components of Iraqi society. The definitive results on the composition of the new Iraqi parliament, whose members will remain in office for four years, will be made known in around two weeks.
All this is undoubtedly a success, both for the Iraqi people and for the United States, in the face of those who disputed, and still dispute, the exporting of democracy, a question that is feeding a philosophical debate that will mark all the geopolitical transformations of the twenty-first century.
In any case, the widespread participation in the electoral consultation and the success of the electoral process in spite of the dramatic lack of security in the country require a more profound interpretation.
What is the mechanism by which, in wartime, a people feels called so urgently to the polls? In reality, we have undervalued the fact that, even though the tanks entered into Iraq, the premise of this was a precise American plan for the reformulation of the Iraqi nation, which most Europeans probably did not realize.