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Research Report

Dissent and Reform in the Arab World:: Empowering Democrats

Jeffrey Azarva
Danielle Pletka
Michael Rubin
Copyright Date: Jan. 1, 2008
Pages: 132
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Table of Contents

  1. (pp. 1-8)
    Jeffrey Azarva, Danielle Pletka and Michael Rubin

    Throughout the latter half of the twentieth century, U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East prioritized stability. At the height of the Cold War, makers of U.S. foreign policy offered tacit support if not outright backing to pro-Western authoritarian regimes they viewed as bulwarks against Soviet expansion and as reliable purveyors of oil. Democracy promotion was not a priority. The collapse of the Soviet Union did not lead to a fundamental reassessment among Washington strategists. In U.S. policy circles, conventional wisdom remained that partnerships with illiberal Arab governments, no matter how unsavory, would best serve U.S. national security.

    The shock...

  2. Part I: Essays by Program Participants

    • 1. Bahrain

      • (pp. 11-18)
        Omran Salman

        The Kingdom of Bahrain is the smallest Arab country. An island emirate in the Persian Gulf, Bahrain is located east of Saudi Arabia and west of Qatar. It is a constitutional monarchy headed by King Sheikh Hamad bin Issa Al-Khalifa. The head of government, Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman Al-Khalifa, is the prime minister, and presides over a cabinet of fifteen members. Islam is the official religion of the state.

        Bahrain has been ruled by the Al-Khalifa family since the eighteenth century. The family consists of more than 3,000 members—all of whom have received an allowance since birth—in a...

    • 2. Egypt

      • (pp. 19-25)
        Ayat M. Abul-Futtouh

        Over the last two years, Egypt has witnessed large demonstrations led by new democratic civil society movements, including Kefaya (Enough), the Judges Club of Egypt, journalist advocacy groups, civil society coalitions, and other human rights activists. These groups have championed a number of causes, including an independent judiciary, contested presidential elections, presidential term limits, and the annulment of emergency law. While most of these demands have yet to be met, some gains, as exemplified by the 2005 presidential and parliamentary elections, have been made.

        However, it remains to be seen whether or not this surge of democratic fervor will succeed...

    • 3. Iraq

      • (pp. 26-31)
        Haider Saeed

        Iraq’s new permanent constitution—the eighth constitution in the history of modern Iraq—was created in 2005. This is also the second permanent constitution to have been predicated on a moral crisis—quite similar to the crisis spawned by Iraq’s first constitution, the 1925 Basic Law. In both cases, a core Iraqi group—one of Iraq’s various ethnic, religious, and sectarian groups which are now referred to in Iraq’s political lexicon as the “structures of the Iraqi people”—rejected the constitution. The Shi’a’s rejection of the 1925 constitution paralleled their negative stance toward all political systems that emerged after the...

      • (pp. 32-40)
        Sama Hadad

        The strong showing of Shi’ite Islamists in Iraq’s first ever genuinely democratic elections in January 2005 and then again in December 2005—they won nearly half the seats in the National Assembly—confirmed their position as the most powerful faction in Iraq and the driving force in the construction of a new state.

        Whether or not Iraq becomes a beacon for democracy and liberty in the Middle East will be determined by the Shi’ite Islamists. However, can Islam ever be compatible with democracy? Some argue that Islamists are intrinsically antidemocratic and once in office, they would not give up power...

    • 4. Jordan

      • (pp. 41-50)
        Jamil al-Nimri

        After violent protests over fuel price hikes in April 1989, the Jordanian leadership redoubled its reform efforts. The late King Hussein restored free parliamentary elections, ended martial law, and legalized political parties. But despite these aspects of political life, and some freedom of expression and press, the Jordanian system does not allow for true alternation of executive power.

        The strength of the security apparatus prevented the need to create a ruling party; the regime maintained control by other means. No true centrist, conservative, or liberal parties with any social or parliamentary weight emerged. Those in power channeled the participation of...

      • (pp. 51-58)
        Emad Omar

        Jordan is often touted as a potential model for democratic transformation and political reform in the Arab world and the Middle East. Surrounded by countries experiencing conflict or promoting reckless and tension-creating policies, Jordan is starved of both water and oil, with at least half of its population of Palestinian descent; among this segment of the population, many are still living in refugee camps.¹ The country is also host to hundreds of thousands of Iraqi expatriates and refugees. Yet this small kingdom has charted a decades-long path of stability, moderation, and tolerance.

        Over the past three years, King Abdullah II...

    • 5. Lebanon

      • (pp. 59-62)
        Jad al-Akhaoui

        For the first time in more than thirty years, the Lebanese are masters of their own destiny. Either the Lebanese will succeed in creating a system of individual rights and an independent government that upholds basic human rights, or they will squander the rare opportunity to restore the right to live freely in an independent country. The question at hand is distinctly Lebanese: how can various sectarian or national groups live equally and differently?

        Under the Ottoman Empire, the Druze and Maronite populations of the Lebanese Emirate required a governing structure unique in Ottoman-controlled lands. As a result, the area...

      • (pp. 63-70)
        Lokman Slim

        Lebanon is among the smallest states in the Arab world and also among the most diverse and open societies in the region.¹ According to a 1986 estimate by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, its population was 41 percent Shi’ite, 27 percent Sunni, 16 percent Maronite, 7 percent Druze, 5 percent Greek Orthodox, and 3 percent Greek Catholic.² Such data, though, are at best informed estimates, as the last census in Lebanon was in 1932.

        Lebanon’s position on the Mediterranean Sea has helped shape its cosmopolitan culture and outlook. The 1975–1990 civil war and subsequent Israeli and Syrian occupation inalterably...

      • (pp. 71-76)
        Najat Sharafeddine

        In 2005, Lebanon saw six devastating assassinations. It also gained its independence. The Lebanese today face both tremendous opportunities for progress and unfortunate impediments to reform. Lebanon has long sought to maintain a fragile equilibrium between religious factions (though a state of non-equilibrium has existed for most of the country’s modern history), but it now has the chance to use regional and international circumstances to reconstitute its country—to unify it around stronger and more stable democratic principles. Sectarianism has perpetually caused conflict and instability for the three to four million inhabitants of Lebanon.¹ Eighteen official religious sects have run...

    • 6. Libya

      • (pp. 77-84)
        Mohamed Eljahmi

        Despite Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi’s international rehabilitation, the Libyan leader remains resistant to reform and intolerant of dissent. His ultimate goal—preservation of power—remains unchanged. His decision to abandon his weapons of mass destruction program was not a moral epiphany but rather a calculated attempt to launder his image in order to earn him an exemption from the U.S. effort to democratize the Middle East. So far, his strategy is working. The U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, for example, has licensed companies to enter into business with Libya.¹ Washington’s policy toward Libya is counterproductive, however. People across the...

    • 7. Syria

      • (pp. 85-92)
        Ammar Abdulhamid

        For more than four decades, the Syrian regime has been characterized by tyrannical rule, corruption, and mismanagement. Many in the West expressed hope that Bashar al-Assad would reform Syrian governance. He did not. The last five years have witnessed further political and economic adventurism by the so-called New Guard. Their policies have led to a further narrowing down of the regime’s power base. State decision making has been reduced to a small and corrupt clique centered around the president and his immediate family members and friends.

        The situation has changed in recent months, though. United Nations Security Council Resolutions 1636...

    • 8. Yemen

      • (pp. 93-97)
        Ali Saif Hassan

        Yemen is at a turning point. In 2004, a bipartisan group of American scholars and advisors warned that Yemen was in danger of becoming a failed state.¹ In April 2005, then–World Bank president James Wolfensohn told the Yemeni government that time was running out and that Yemen risked abandonment by the world community. Neither the American scholars nor Wolfensohn referred to the downfall of the Yemeni government. Rather, their concerns were about the future of the state. Failure to reform should not be of concern only to the government; it should be an issue of vital importance to Yemenis...

    • 9. Tunisia

      • (pp. 98-102)
        Neila Charchour Hachicha and Middle East Quarterly

        Middle East Quarterly: What does the Parti Libéral Méditerranéen seek to achieve in Tunisia? What are its goals?

        Hachicha: The Parti Libéral Méditerranéen, PLM, believes that democracy can strengthen national cohesion rather than create divisions and animosity within the population. Specifically, the Parti Libéral Méditerranéen aims to strengthen liberal political and economic views. For too long, we have endured a socialist economic system that facilitates dictatorship. We seek to educate both the people and the regime about the necessity of moving toward liberalism. We also aim to build popular support around the Maghreb Union, which should help us integrate into...

  3. Part II: Voices from the Region:: A Collection of Editorials from the Arab Press Calling for Reform

    • (pp. 105-106)
      Neila Charchour Hachicha

      The recent assassination of Lebanese journalist and politician Gebran Tueni highlighted how shaky press freedom was in Lebanon. Even after the “Cedar Revolution,” forces opposing democratic expression have shown that rights granted on paper don’t necessarily exist in reality.

      While the international spotlight on Lebanon is good for Lebanese independence, Lebanon is not alone in the battle for free speech. On matters of press freedom, Tunisia, considered a success story by many in the West, is quickly seeing its positive image destroyed. Fortunately, it was not a bomb that exposed Tunisian oppression to the outside world, but rather the United...

    • (pp. 107-108)
      Sherif Kamal

      We agree with the analysis of our friend Dr. Muhammad al-Sayyid Said concerning the reasons for the Arab elite’s failure, although there is a possibility that additional explanations will surface. Yet, the vision he presented in two articles raised—intentionally or unintentionally—a burning question: Are the Arab masses completely free of blame for the failure of their elite? On one hand, the elite emerge from the people’s wombs; on the other, they both live within the same framework of the intellectual and cultural system. It is inevitable, in our view, that any serious attempt to expose the reasons for...

    • (pp. 109-110)
      Ibrahim Abdul Majid Saleh

      Political reform is the true pillar of economic and social reform. It raises the standard of living and increases the number of services, including healthcare and education, available to all individuals. A new constitution must be written by an elected committee of Egyptians because the current constitution lacks the essential components found in the legal codes of democratic countries. This new constitution must include articles which uphold: a real separation of powers between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches; the freedom to publish newspapers; the freedom of expression for all citizens; the freedom for political parties to conduct public conferences;...

    • (pp. 111-112)
      Shaaban Aboud

      Given the crystal-clear messages sent several days ago and the grave concern surrounding recent developments in the internal Syrian arena, it appears that the democratic debate on display in Damascus and other major provinces is finally coming to an end. But did the democratic “Damascus Spring” end so abruptly that most Syrians never even felt it in the neighborhoods, homes, and salons where these discussions took place?

      One hopes that this is not the result of what has happened thus far. Whatever impression or conclusion people have drawn, and regardless of the “information” linking these activists to foreign intelligence agencies...

    • (pp. 113-113)
      Naguib Mahfouz

      The general view of the world today is depressing. Current events in Bosnia, the conflict in Somalia, and the most recent air strike in Iraq do not give reason for hope. As a result, Muslims have erupted in anger, accused the scales of international justice of being tilted, and exposed the malicious intent [of the West] toward the Islamic faith; however, this buildup of anger only results in periodic [monetary] contributions and a bitter irony about what had been preached to them about the new world.

      The truth is that we were not aware of this new international behavior until...

    • (pp. 114-115)
      Amr Ziab al-Tamimi

      Building democracy in a country like Iraq, even if we assume the existence of indigenous democratic forces, will not be easy.

      While Iraqis, Arabs, and others have questioned the United States’ resolve in changing the ruling order in Iraq, recent events should erase many of their doubts. However, an important question still remains unanswered: What kind of change and what kind of system will be created?

      Democratic forces in Iraq, the region, and the civilized world are interested in an Iraq governed by civilian leadership, one which embraces pluralism, democracy, and the alternation of power through free and fair elections....

    • (pp. 116-117)
      Borhan Ghalion

      It is important to emphasize that our discussion about culture here is a discussion about a social relationship linked with politics, economics, and the sciences—it is not a ready-made set of ideas, skills, customs, or feelings. It is a social relationship, meaning that culture, in all its different fields, emerges from a need to solve the current conflicts in the Arab social structure.

      Current Arab crises, which are not confined to one country, have returned us to square one; that is to say that, today, we are asking the same questions posed by thinkers of the so-called renaissance during the...

    • (pp. 118-119)
      Eid al-Dowaihies

      Seasonal activities, partisan work, forceful action, and contradictory goals are not the ingredients for building a country. Rather, this effort requires comprehensive and continuous action based on principles, knowledge, planning, hard work, sacrifice, and reality. In this vein, elections will serve as a barometer of the Kuwaiti population’s willingness, resolve, and ability to work together and enact reform.

      All popular, cultural, and political forces, in addition to every person and diwaniya,¹ have a role to play in these elections. The time has come for everyone to become involved in this process and back the best candidate with strong and vocal...

    • (pp. 120-121)
      Said al-Gamal

      The world around us is constantly moving. It does not remain frozen in time. In every instance, a nation’s popular will can bring about desired change, as it is the source of legitimacy for all such transformations.

      Yesterday’s elections in Germany, which were held by Chancellor Kohl’s government, resulted in the defeat of his Christian Democratic Party with 35.1 percent of the vote and the victory of new chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, with 41.1 percent of the tally. Immediately after the elections, Kohl accepted his defeat out of respect for the German people’s will. The new chancellor affirmed his great respect...

    • (pp. 122-124)
      Yassin al-Haj Saleh

      The Syrian reform campaign’s focus on fighting corruption has raised serious doubts about the movement’s credibility and the extent to which it can succeed. During President Hafez al-Assad’s last days in office, it even raised questions—and justifiably so—about the campaign’s motives and ability to sustain itself, especially after Bashar al-Assad’s sudden accession to power following the death of his father. Will this campaign come to a standstill, as things now seem to suggest? Or will it develop into a serious policy that meets the citizens’ needs, becomes attuned to the public debate, and develops the country’s economic and...