Despite promises otherwise, in the past four years, King ‘Abdallah has peeled the veneer of parliamentary governance off an increasingly autocratic system.
In a recent Slate article, Anne Applebaum makes the case that Egypt’s presumptive president-to-be ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi should look to India, Brazil or South Africa, rather than the United States or other industrialized states, for examples of how to “do” democracy. She rightly notes that Sisi’s argument that Egypt isn’t ready for democracy is an old standby for authoritarian regimes.
2011 has been a year of unprecedented political tumult in Morocco. As neighboring North African regimes collapsed under the weight of popular pressure, demonstrators have convened in Moroccan cities as well, naming their uprising after the day of their largest initial gathering, February 20, and calling for greater democracy.
While Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation will undoubtedly remain the iconic image of the 2011 Tunisian revolution, another set of pictures has also stuck in the minds of Tunisians. On the evening of January 14, despite an army curfew, a man staggered across Avenue Habib Bourguiba, shouting, “Ben Ali fled — the Tunisian people is free! The Tunisian people will not die! The Tunisian people is sacred!”
The Egyptian parliamentary elections that ended on December 5 defied expectations, not because the ruling National Democratic Party again dominates Parliament but because of the lengths to which it proved willing to go to engineer its monopoly. Official and unofficial ruling-party candidates garnered 93.3 percent of the seats in the national assembly, while marginal opposition parties received 3 percent and the Muslim Brothers got a lone seat to be occupied by a member who would not abide by the Brothers’ boycott of the runoff. While these results are identical to the outcome of the 1995 elections, the reaction this time has been much more severe.
Yemen's parliamentary elections, held on April 27, 2003, might have set a higher standard for contested elections in the Arab world. Instead, post-election shenanigans and gunfire that disrupted ballot counting in key districts cast doubt on the voting process and the ruling General People's Congress' landslide victory.
“It is our great and historic responsibility,” intoned Egyptian President Husni Mubarak on December 26, 2006, “to achieve the essential goal of developing our democracy and political life, while avoiding drifting into uncalculated steps that could threaten the stability of our country and the success of our democratic experience.” The occasion for this solemn pronouncement was the introduction of 34 constitutional amendments, later passed by Parliament, aiming at tightening the regime’s grip on power. To the informed ear, Mubarak’s words were the same old mantra of Arab autocrats: Arab peoples are not prepared for real political reform. It is not time.
From December 2006 through the late summer of 2007, four foreign policy commentators reached for the same 1980s movie title, Back to the Future, to describe the peregrinations of US Middle East policy in the oft-proclaimed twilight of the neo-conservative moment. There was confusion, however, as to what past was being summoned to replace the present.
“Life would get better.” Women throughout Iraq told themselves that constantly during the first, cautiously hopeful months of the US-British occupation of their country.
As the electricity blinked on and off, the water stopped running and desert-camouflaged tanks churned up the narrow streets of the ancient capital, women consoled themselves with the thought that these troubles could only be temporary. Especially for women, the Iraqi future was bright.
When, on August 3, 2005, the palace guard of the president of Mauritania seized the reins of power in a bloodless coup, international condemnation was swift. The State Department issued a statement deploring the act and calling for “a peaceful return to order under the constitution in the established government.” France, the UN and the African Union immediately echoed Washington’s demand, as did the International Organization of Francophone Lands on August 25. The US also announced a suspension of non-humanitarian aid to the vast country straddling the semi-arid Sahel that separates North Africa from sub-Saharan Africa.
Standing in line outside a Falluja polling station on December 15, 2005, a man named Qays spoke the words that the White House had been waiting to hear since the preceding January 30. “We Sunnis made a mistake in the last elections, and the people are suffering for that mistake. Even the armed groups know that.” The mass abstention of Sunni Arabs from the January 30 elections, some heeding the calls of communal leaders for a boycott and others fearing the death threats of insurgents, left them under-represented in the transitional national assembly and, ultimately, marginal to the process of drafting the new Iraqi constitution that passed a national referendum on October 15. “Bringing the Sunnis back in” was the foremost goal of US diplomacy in Iraq in 2005.
On a November day in the sleepy Egyptian Delta town of Damanhour, around 1,000 townsfolk gathered in the central square to listen to Mustafa al-Fiqqi of the ruling National Democratic Party explain why they should vote for him as their parliamentary representative in two days’ time. Al-Fiqqi is a former ambassador to Austria and serves on the National Council for Human Rights. Prior to the 2005 elections, he was one of ten MPs appointed to their seats by President Husni Mubarak. But many locals were unimpressed with the national prominence of this native son, who had not come home very often since leaving for Cairo some 40 years before. Some in the square grumbled that he had only shown up to campaign two months prior to the polls.
For undemocratic regimes in a democratic age, elections are an extremely valuable tool. They create opportunities for limited popular participation, disarm domestic and international critics, and enhance political monitoring and control by revealing the relative political strength of government and opposition candidates. Such elections are successful to the extent that they maximize tolerated competition and minimize the residual uncertainty that accompanies even the most managed poll. It is no mystery, then, why authoritarian elites convene elections. The paradox is why they constrain themselves in fixing them.
The administration of President George W. Bush claims a commitment to promoting democratization in the Arab world, whether through regime change or by pressuring authoritarian leaders through “transformational diplomacy” to open their political systems. It has been tempting for the administration’s supporters to find evidence for the success of these policies in the spate of elections in Arab countries in 2005.
Two days before the January 25 Palestinian legislative elections, Birzeit University professor and Hamas campaign adviser Nashat Aqtash found himself in an unusual situation. Bound by US regulations forbidding direct contact with Hamas, the joint National Democratic Institute (NDI)/Carter Center election observer delegation asked Aqtash — who pointedly describes himself as a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood, but not of Hamas — to brief its members on the Islamic organization’s philosophy and electoral activities. After enthusiastically showing several Hamas TV advertisements, Aqtash provided the large group of observers gathered in Ramallah a list of reasons why Hamas may consider a long-term hudna (state of calm), but never a permanent peace with Israel.
On January 27, 2006, Fatah activists and Palestinian security personnel converged on the Palestinian Authority’s parliament building in Gaza City. Within minutes, cars were torched, tires set aflame and stones thrown at election banners displaying the visages of victorious Hamas candidates. The cry was for vengeance, particularly against a leadership that had just presided over Palestine’s premier nationalist movement’s worst political defeat in its 47-year history.
Democracy’s succinct definition, and perhaps its best attribute, is majority rule. But it is unclear that majority rule equates to democracy in places like Lebanon, Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries that are contending with past and present religious or ethnic conflict. Clearly, democracy in such diverse societies would minimally require that citizens of all ethnic and religious backgrounds enjoy the same civil and human rights; it would also require that the government refrain from religious or ethnic persecution. A democracy should also allow its citizens to practice their faith or express their cultural traditions, provided such practices do not contradict other fundamental values the state is bound to uphold.