New democracy test for the Middle East

13 April 2011

Elections are coming in Egypt and Tunisia. They will determine democracy’s prospects in the Middle East for years

Free elections in Egypt and Tunisia, the principal political fruits so far of the Arab uprisings of 2011, could be the Middle East’s last chance for a generation to prove democracy has a chance in the region.

In July, Tunisians will be asked to vote for the members of an assembly that will devise a new constitution. Reformers hope that it will embed multiparty democracy, reduce the powers of the presidency and radically extend individual and civil rights. This will, in turn, clear the way for what should be the freest elections since independence in 1956.

Egypt voted overwhelmingly last month for amendments to the 1971 constitution in preparation for parliamentary elections in September and the presidential poll in October or November. These elections will constitute an historic moment for the Arab world. It will be the first time that the voice of the Egyptian people will be heard.

How Egyptians and Tunisians vote and the way they respond to the outcomes of these polls will also go a long way to answering the question: is democracy possible in the Middle East?

The record so far is abysmal. Elections have been held across the region for decades, but practically none of them have been freely or fairly conducted. In 1992, the military seized power in Algeria after the Islamist Front Islamique du Salut looked like it would win the post-independence parliament poll. Subsequent elections have been fixed. Egyptian elections since 1952 were consistently rigged in favour of the ruling party. Libya’s form of “direct democracy” is no more than a fig leaf that disguises the personal rule of revolutionary leader Muammar Qaddafi.

Elections in Syria are comedic. Two-thirds of the seats in its parliament are reserved for the Baath Party. President Bashar al-Assad, the sole candidate for the presidency in 2007, was reported to have secured 97.6 per cent of the votes cast.

These elections will constitute an historic moment for the Arab world. It will be the first time that the voice of the Egyptian people will be heard.

Elections in Jordan have been comparatively free, but the king retains the right to appoint the government without parliamentary assent. In Yemen, the 1994 constitution ushered in an unprecedented period of open political competition, but the ruling party’s grip on parliament has never wavered. In 2006, President Saleh was deemed to have won the presidential poll with 77 per cent of the vote. The opposition asserts this was a fix.

In Lebanon, elections are constrained by a constitution that allocates seats in parliament on a confessional basis. Christians are guaranteed half parliament’s 64 seats and the president is elected indirectly by MPs.

In the GCC, three countries have directly-elected legislatures but in all three states the government is appointed by the head of state. Saudi Arabia’s Majlis al-Shoura (Consultative Council) is appointed by the king. The UAE’s Federal National Council is indirectly elected by a restricted franchise. Qatar has postponed elections to its Majlis al-Shoura three times.

Iran’s claim to be a democracy was shattered by rigged elections in 2009 that returned President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Iraq’s experience of democracy has been traumatic. The country’s first free parliamentary elections in January 2005 were followed by an explosion of insurgent violence attributed mainly to supporters of parties that lost. The second elections in 2010 were followed by more than nine months of wrangling before a government was formed. The northern Kurdish areas of Iraq are effectively self-governing and largely unaffected by the turmoil in the rest of the country. But even there, there are unresolved tensions between the KDP and the PUK, which form the government of the Kurdish areas, and between the government and liberal reformers tired of corruption and inefficiency.

The overwhelming majority of the people of the Middle East have never voted for or against their governments. And the extent to which those who have can determine the direction of government policy through their votes is limited.

Optimists nevertheless argue that progress has been made in the past two decades. Four of the six GCC states now have a form of directly elected legislatures. Iraqis may not agree, but they can at least vote. Elections in Egypt and Tunisia is seen by those with a positive mental outlook as being part of an irresistible process that will lead the region into a democratic future.

The more sceptical will counter by saying that democratisation is a reversible process. Elected parliaments in Russia, Germany and elsewhere in Europe established by the first decade of the 20th century were extinguished. They have only become the norm for the entire continent since 1990. Experiences in Africa suggest that elections can do more harm than good, as the recent explosion of sectional violence in Cote d’Ivoire suggests.

There is no avoiding the fact that the challenge facing the Middle East is substantial. Liberal reformers say voting is always good, but the region’s silent majority needs to be convinced that elections can also produce tangible benefits. They want compelling examples of democracy in action in the Middle East that deliver prosperity and social stability.

The results of the Arab uprisings of 2011 are not encouraging. Government concessions in Bahrain that restored a form of parliamentary democracy in 2002 failed to satisfy the opposition. The violent suppression of demonstrations in March has been followed by the imposition of emergency rule. Demands for democracy in Libya have set in train a process that appears to be leading to a division of the country. And the appalling violence that followed elections in Iraq is a continuing reminder that voting can fail to heal divided societies.

That is why the importance of elections in Egypt and Tunisia extends well beyond the borders of the two countries involved. People whose views never previously counted will be invited to have their say about complex issues of government and economics. Politicians contending for power will have to communicate with voters in a way that is compelling yet responsible. Results that many will not like will have to be accepted and everyone is going to have to accept that real change takes time.

Having been promised early results by the courageous minority that took to the streets earlier this year, are the people of Egypt and Tunisia prepared to wait, perhaps for years, for the promises to be delivered? It is possible, but if they are not, then the new democratic era will end almost as soon as it has started, not just for them, but also for the whole Middle East.

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