Kofi Annan warns of difficult times ahead for Middle East democracy

23 November 2011

Chairman of the Global Commission on Elections, Democracy and Security, Annan calls for leaders to embrace change

Chairman of the Global Commission on Elections, Democracy and Security Kofi Annan has warned of a more difficult period for the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region if leaders refuse to push for change.

“What is important is that the changes people are demanding are delivered in a peaceful manner, if the people feel that the changes they pushed for are not being respected and are not forthcoming, we may be in for a much more difficult period,” said the former UN secretary-general while addressing the media, following the commission’s meeting in Doha, Qatar on 22 November.

The Global Commission was launched six-months ago in South Africa. It was jointly created by the International Institute for Electoral Assistance and the Kofi Annan Foundation and works to highlight the importance of the integrity of elections toward a more stable world. It is currently undertaking research and expects to conclude its work and present its recommendations by the end of 2012.

The commission aims to highlight that corrupt elections create enormous problems for societies and can lead to violence and a breakdown in security. It is monitoring the situation in the Arab world in light of the recent uprisings and revolutions.

“One thing that is certain is that the population have made clear they want to have a say on how they are governed and who they are governed by,” said Annan, speaking of the Arab world. “They want democratic rotation of leadership. They are not satisfied with the economic and social conditions in which they live”.

Since the beginning of the year the people of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya have overthrown their authoritarian regimes.

Protests were also seen in Morocco, Oman, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, but were quickly dealt with. Bahrain and Yemen’s political unrest has been bloodier and the ruling families have made pledges for reform and a more democratic process.

Syria’s uprisings continue with violence and President Bashar Al-Assad has made little progress in introducing reforms and appeasing his people.

“It is never good news when a regime takes gun on its own people,” he said of Syria. “It may work in the short term, but in the long run it is always the wrong policy”.

Rima Khalaf, commissioner and former deputy prime minister of Jordan highlighted Tunisia as an example of a peaceful political transition and Iraq as an example of when foreign intervention does not work.  

“We should not lose hope in the Arab world and the Arab nations and their ability to achieve democracy. We have witnessed several models and examples. Tunisia was a very peaceful transition which was followed by elections. Intervention is not always related to democracy or peaceful transition of power. Most of the time it is related with the economic interest of the nations,” said Khalaf.

With regards to Syria, Khalaf is less optimistic. “We are not at a point where a Syrian transition can happen. It has already been determined by the high level of violence. What matters are the results, we want to see democracy, respect for human rights and people participating in their lives,” said Khalaf.

Speaking exclusively to MEED vice-chairman of the commission and former president of Mexico Ernesto Zedillo said “We should be optimistic, change has started, but nothing guarantees that the process is going to be successful quickly. When we think about other political transitions from authoritarian regimes to democracy, it is very hard to find that these transitions are always smooth. When you move into democracy, usually you have a difficult period to adapt your institutions, policies and societies”.

On 18 November, frustrated Egyptians took to Tahrir Square once again to vent their anger at the slow pace of development. The authorities reacted with violence and to date about 55 protestors have been killed. It sent shockwaves through the region and the Egyptian Exchange tumbled to its lowest point since March. There were fears that the parliamentary elections scheduled for 28 November could be delayed. The chaotic scenes have renewed fears that Egypt’s road to recovery will be a long one and that a smooth transition to democracy is far from reality.

“There are still some deficiencies in the capacity of Egypt to organise the elections. It is very wearisome that just a few days away from the election date that there is social agitation and unfortunately there seems to be a rather aggressive reaction from the government. Democracy is a very high ideal, but it is up to every country and society to decide how they go about establishing it,” said Zedillo.

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