Political Reform - Encouraging public participation

Internal pressure from the population is needed to drive a campaign for democracy in the Middle East, but it will also require external pressure from Western governments to succeed. Published in MEED, 31 December 2010

The posters in central Alexandria in late 2010 told a clear story. The picture was of Gamal Mubarak, son of Egypt’s current president Hosni Mubarak, and the words alongside it urged him to stand in the presidential election of 2011.

“We choose you and support you and pledge our allegiance to you for the presidency of the republic,” read the posters around El-Raml tram station and Saad Zaghloul Square.

At the time, neither Gamal nor Hosni had said whether they would stand in the 2011 election but, if the younger Mubarak does put himself forward, it will only be because his father is too ill or too old to run. The posters are part of a carefully orchestrated campaign to build up Gamal’s public profile and ease the path for such a succession.

Blocking opposition in the Middle East

They are also part of a clear trend in the region for elections to be run for the benefit of those already in power. In Egypt’s parliamentary elections in November, the main opposition groups were all but wiped out in the first round of voting and boycotted the second round after complaining of widespread electoral fraud.

A month earlier, Bahrain conducted a similar exercise during its parliamentary election, with numerous political opponents arrested in the run-up to the October polling day.

“It’s pretty clear things are moving in the wrong direction,” says Stephen McInerney, executive director of the Washington-based Project on Middle East Democracy. “Around 2004-05 you had a moment of opening when there was a lot of excitement about political reform. Unfortunately, that didn’t last very long. Since early 2006, that trend has reversed itself and quite a few countries have taken steps back.

“Governments in the region often follow each other’s lead. If some countries are able to peel back political reforms and increase their hold on the country and there’s no consequences for them, then other authoritarian governments will follow.”

Such a climate encourages political longevity. The 20 heads of state or government in the region will have been in power for an average of 14 years and 9 months by the end of 2010. Mubarak, himself, has been in power for 29 years, but three others have held on to power for even longer and few appear willing to cede any time soon.

“You see cycles of liberalisation and then retrenchment,” says an independent political analyst and democracy advocate. “Today it’s pretty clear we’re in a period of retrenchment and, if we weren’t sure before, then Egypt’s election made it clear. The only question is how long that lasts.”

However, there are a series of factors which could help give liberalisation fresh momentum, ranging across the technological, demographic, social and political spheres.

Information age taking over the Middle East

The potential for technology to undermine the political elite was highlighted with the release by the Wikileaks website of more than 250,000 US diplomatic cables in November 2010. Among other things, the documents revealed how Arab leaders had privately urged the US to launch military strikes against Iran to prevent it acquiring nuclear weapons – something they were not willing to say in public. The leaks also highlighted how hard it now is for governments to control the messages their citizens hear.

The ability to control information had been getting harder with the growth of satellite television, but the internet has accentuated the problem. Governments have, with varying degrees of success, tried to restrict access, by arresting prominent bloggers and blocking websites. Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based pressure group, names Egypt, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia as among the 12 most repressive governments in the world, when it comes to online access.

“Most governments regard online media and bloggers as a danger,” says Nabila Hamza, president, Foundation for the Future, an Amman-based organisation which supports democracy groups around the region. “In a very restricted environment, satellite television and the internet are giving dissident groups the opportunity to talk with the whole community and to share their concerns. Governments will not be able to stop the trend.”

Those most adept at using new media tend to be the young, who make up a significant proportion of the population in many of the most authoritarian states. However, it is not clear what impact this mix of technology and demographics will have on politics.

“The jury is still out,” says the independent analyst. “A lot of people have been looking for the impact of the youth population and they haven’t found too much. Part of that is because the younger, more educated cohort is the most socialised into the new authoritarian states, where there really aren’t any politics, but things seem to work ok. It’s a learned helplessness, they have been socialised into this apolitical state.”

Political participation the way forward in the Middle East

Where political involvement does emerge, it is as likely to be through civil society groups as traditional political parties, although the freedoms that either has, in the most part, tend to be carefully circumscribed.

“In general, civil society is given a little more political space to operate than the political parties,” says McInerney. “You need civil society to encourage debate, discussion and participation by the population. There’s a very important role they can play in fostering an environment where people are more interested in being part of the democratic process.

“But in talking about a real transition toward democracy, eventually you have to have freedom for both kinds of groups to reach out to the population and build up support. There is a real potential for that in many countries, but for the most part, both groups are too constrained due to restrictions from the regime.”

Across the region, few countries have a genuine multi-party political system and, even where it does exist, there are often other factors which limit how well it can function, such as the continuing violence in Iraq, the dominant position of the king in Morocco, and a system in Lebanon, in which high-ranking jobs are specifically reserved for certain groups in society.

For more political systems to open up, Western governments will need to renew their interest in pushing their regional allies to reform.

“You have to have internal pressure from the population to bring about political reform,” says McInerney. “You have that in a lot of the countries now, but what’s missing is the external pressure. You really need to have both. The strongest allies of most of the authoritarian regimes in the region are Western democratic states. The diplomatic, financial and military support that these regimes get from the West strengthens them internally and, if this is not at least balanced by some kind of pressure to reform, then reform is less likely than it would be in the absence of any Western influence.”

“Real reform has to come from inside,” agrees Hamza. “The West cannot impose change from the outside, the political reform has to be home-grown, but the diplomatic pressure can help.”

The most important Western government that can bring its influence to bear remains the US, although the failure of President George W Bush’s efforts mid-way through the decade have been followed by a period of disengagement with the debate. However, with Republicans now in control of the US House of Representatives, as a result of the November elections, President Obama will find it increasingly hard to get legislation through Congress and may start to pay greater attention to foreign policy issues.

Female empowerment growing in the Gulf

Despite the slowdown or reversal of most reforms in recent years, one significant change has been picking up pace. In 2006, Bahrain elected its first female MP and four women were elected to the Kuwaiti parliament in May 2009. Even more have won seats in other parliaments, such as Morocco and Jordan, over the past decade.

“Women’s empowerment is vital, it is one of the main issues that has to be addressed,” says Hamza. “The election of Kuwaiti and Bahraini women to parliament will have a big impact, not just in the GCC countries, but also in the whole of the Middle East. I consider it a historic moment in the GCC countries.”

Despite such gains, however, the dominant trend is for established elites to hold on to power ever more closely. The muted criticism from the West of the flawed elections in Egypt and Bahrain, means that most regimes will assume there will be no negative consequences on the international stage if they continue to suppress their opponents.

“I am not optimistic,” says Hamza. “I think the situation is stagnating. I am not thinking of big change in the next two or three years. Democracy is a long process. We need a sustained process that will take decades.”