Across nearly the breadth of North Africa, the head of state enjoys a lifetime appointment. Morocco has a king. In Tunisia, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, president since 1987, pushed for a constitutional amendment removing term limits and has now announced a bid for a fifth term in office. President Husni Mubarak of Egypt, who assumed office in 1981, is already serving his fifth term. Libyan strongman Mu‘ammar Qaddafi, in power since September 1969, has never permitted a meaningful election.
Speaking to his people on January 18, hours after Hamas responded to Israel’s unilateral suspension of hostilities with a conditional ceasefire of its own, the deposed Palestinian Authority prime minister Ismail Haniyeh devoted several passages of his prepared text to the subject of Palestinian national reconciliation. For perhaps the first time since Hamas’s June 2007 seizure of power in the Gaza Strip, an Islamist leader broached the topic of healing the Palestinian divide without mentioning Mahmoud Abbas by name.
On the eve of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, the sitting Israeli prime minister spoke more plainly than ever before in public about what will be required of Israel in a comprehensive peace with the Palestinians and Syria. In a September 29 interview with the newspaper Yediot Aharonot, Ehud Olmert said that, to achieve peace, “we will withdraw from almost all the territories, if not all the territories” that have been under Israeli occupation since the 1967 war, including most of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. Particularly coming from Olmert, who long opposed the notion of swapping land for peace, these words might have inspired hope that deals on the Palestinian or Syrian fronts were at hand.
After 18 months of political paralysis punctuated by episodes of civil strife, Lebanon finally has a “national unity” cabinet—but the achievement has come at a steep price. Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and new President Michel Suleiman announced the slate for the 30-member cabinet on July 11, six weeks, and much agonizing and public criticism, after Lebanon’s major political factions agreed on Suleiman’s presidential candidacy and principles of power sharing at a summit in the Qatari capital of Doha. As with much else in Lebanon, however, the words “national unity” are sorely at odds with reality. If anything, the politicking behind the composition of this cabinet has deepened the polarization of the country.
Less than three months after being formed, Pakistan’s coalition government is in trouble. The leader of one of its constituent parties, Nawaz Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), is awaiting a decision from the country’s Supreme Court about whether he can run in parliamentary by-elections that began on June 26. The court is packed with judges appointed by President Pervez Musharraf, the ex-general who overthrew Sharif, a two-time prime minister, in a 1999 coup.
The latest crackdown by the Egyptian state on the Muslim Brotherhood began after a student demonstration at Cairo’s al-Azhar University. Dressed in black, their faces covered with matching hoods whose headbands read samidun, or “steadfast,” on December 10, 2006 several dozen young Muslim Brothers marched from the student center to the university’s main gate. Six of the masked youths, according to video and eyewitnesses, lined up in the middle of a square formed by the others and performed martial arts exercises reminiscent of demonstrations by Hamas and Hizballah.
On July 23, the day after the ruling Justice and Development Party won Turkey’s early parliamentary elections in a landslide, Onur Öymen, deputy chairman of the rival Republican People’s Party (CHP), interpreted the results as follows:
“This is a bullet fired at democracy,” snapped Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan, Turkey’s prime minister and chairman of the country’s ruling party, in reaction to the May 1 ruling by the Constitutional Court. The court had validated a maneuver by the opposition party in Parliament to block the nomination of Erdoğan’s foreign minister, Abdullah Gül, to accede to the presidency of the Turkish Republic. To deny the ruling party the quorum it needed to make Gül president, the opposition deputies simply stayed home. The pro-government parliamentarians voted on the candidate anyway, but the Constitutional Court agreed with the opposition’s contention that the balloting was illegal—and thus null and void.
In the two months since the standoff between the government of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora and the Hizballah-led opposition began in earnest, the atmosphere in the Lebanese capital of Beirut has oscillated between ambient anxiety and incongruous routine. Tensions exploded on January 25, when four Lebanese were killed and over 150 wounded in street fighting that began on the grounds of Beirut Arab University near the neighborhood of Tariq Jadideh, and largely pitted Sunnis against Shi‘a.
The first round of the 2005 Iranian presidential election was rich in lessons regarding the country’s political life, in general, and regarding the political comportment of diverse sectors of the population, in particular. Contrary to what is often said, electoral fraud alone does not explain — or only partially explains — the victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. His incontestable win over one of the most eminent members of the clergy, former President Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, had deeper causes that require an analysis borrowing from various social sciences.
It was supposed to be the election that changed everything. The “90 percent presidency,” wherein the incumbent of 28 years won successive terms in office by laughably large margins, would be relegated to the past. Instead, a more credible accounting of the popular will would prove to Western governments and institutions that Yemen was capable of holding a vote that was both fiercely contested and fair. That Yemen’s presidential election on September 20 would also leave the status quo firmly in place was the unspoken caveat.
No matter how Israelis vote tomorrow, they will likely be voting for a future of insecurity and conflict. The three major political parties—the right-wing Likud, the “centrist” Kadima and the so-called left-wing Labor—have not offered them a genuine peace option.
Despite the talk of possible Israeli withdrawals from parts of the West Bank, a new consensus has emerged among these parties that East Jerusalem and Israeli settlement blocs in the West Bank should be annexed to Israel. This would violate international law, destroy the possibility of a viable Palestinian state and condemn the Middle East to ongoing strife.
The elections scheduled for March 28, 2006 will conclude what has got to be one of the more bizarre campaigns in Israel’s history. The series of totally unexpected events began with Amir Peretz’s surprise victory over Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres in the race for the Labor Party leadership. Peretz immediately withdrew Labor from the coalition government, forcing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to call early elections.
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.