Arab Strategic Report




I. Internal Reforms in the Arab World

Part II:Part II:

Internal Reforms in the Arab World
Initiatives to Reform the Arab Regional System
The Palestinians under Siege
The State of Information Technology in the Arab World

The 9/11 attacks led the US and other developed countries to the belief that existing political, economic, educational and cultural conditions in Arab and Islamic countries contribute to the prevalence of extremism and terrorism. This belief gave rise to increasing pressures on the governments of the region to reform. American and European views on the question of reform in the region diverged. While European countries agreed with the Arab view that the continuity of the Arab-Israeli conflict and continued American support for Israeli policies encourage the spread of terrorism in the region, the US disagreed with this view. A rift thus appeared between Americans and Europeans over how best to deal with the question of reform and extremism in the Arab world. The disagreement focused especially on the role external actors can play to encourage reform, and the types and intensity of pressure needed to persuade Arab governments to pursue reform.
Arab governments could not ignore such external pressures. The dominant attitude of Arab governments was the cautious introduction of some limited reforms in order to ward off external interventions. Generally-speaking, these pressures have not resulted in any serious reforms in any of the Arab countries.

1 - Saudi Reforms

Saudi Arabia experienced several important changes over the past two years which revealed the gap between the desire for reform and existing political and social realities. Recent political developments in the Kingdom have effected some changes in the relationship between ruler and ruled, the most important of which being the initiation of a national dialogue. The events of 9/11 shook Saudi society and polity to the core, as most of the attackers were Saudi nationals. The attacks came as a flagrant proof that Saudi Arabia is in dire need of profound reforms.
Saudi Arabia also experienced a serious rise in violence and terrorism over the past year. This reflected a shift in the tactics of the opposition from merely criticizing the regime and rejecting the American military presence in the Kingdom to the direct use of violence. The explosions revealed the extent to which opposition elements had penetrated Saudi institutions, the weakness of religious institutions and their utter lack of moderation. The rise in violence gave rise to two parallel processes: first, an open confrontation with militant groups and the clerics and intellectuals which support them; second, the pursuit of political and administrative reforms.
The will to embark on a process of reform was expressed in a speech by King Fahd at the opening of the third session of the Saudi Consultative Council in May 2003. The speech emphasized that reform must focus on three dimensions: institutional and political reform, economic reform and religious reform.
Saudi Arabia had undertaken some reforms in 1992 by introducing a basic law, a consultative council, and a new municipal system. However, since then no further reforms have been undertaken in these areas or in other areas. The statute of the Consultative Council states that the Council is an advisory body subordinate to the King; the King appoints Council members, and the Council has very limited legislative or supervisory functions. The Council is not entitled to propose legislation, nor to object to the King's decisions, nor to question the performance of senior officials. Its role is limited to cross-examining a minister or government official (after the King's approval), and to review data and documents presented by the Cabinet.
In the wake of recent pressures, some amendments have been introduced to articles 17 and 23 of the statute of the Consultative Council giving the council more legislative authorities, even though the final decision still lies with the king. However, no reforms have been introduced to replace the method of appointment with elections, or to give delegates greater watchdog functions.
Reforms have also been introduced at the municipal level. Municipalities in Saudi Arabia have traditionally enjoyed limited functions, mostly in the areas of service delivery and infrastructure maintenance. Recent reforms stipulate that half the members of municipal councils are be elected rather than appointed.
Another important recent development, in the Saudi political sphere, has been the production of a number of reform documents by Saudi intellectuals, academics, businesspersons, and women, which were then presented to the Saudi rulers. At the end of January 2003, 100 Saudi intellectuals presented the Crown Prince with a statement for reform. The Statement comprised demands for political, administrative, and economic reform, a constitution; the separation of powers; and judicial reform. Similarly, 450 prominent Shiite figures issued a document entitled Partners in the Homeland, which demanded a full review of the status of Shiites in Saudi Arabia, an increase in Shiite representation in state agencies, religious institutions, and the Consultative Council. A third document entitled A Vision of the Nation's Present and its Future addressed means of overcoming the internal crises and external pressures through introducing reforms in five areas. First, political reforms focusing on modernizing the Consultative Council and enhancing the independence of the judiciary. Second, economic reform focusing on social justice and the redistribution of wealth, combating corruption and rationalizing spending. Third, social reforms ensuring the protection of human rights, combating unemployment, empowering women and protecting their rights, in line with the teachings of the Shari'a or Islamic law. Fourth, civil society reforms. Finally, the initiation of a national dialogue to discuss these major issues.
The latter document was the source of inspiration for the initiation of a number of important reforms, namely the initiation of a national dialogue, the introduction of municipal elections, amendments of the statute of the Consultative Council, and some additional reforms in the following areas:
1- The protection of human rights: The Saudi government approved the establishment of two human rights committees. The first is state-controlled, is subordinate to the Cabinet, and has a mandate to implement human-rights-related reforms, and to revise laws that conflict with human rights. The second committee is a popular committee, which is supposed to be independent, and is responsible for monitoring the status of human rights in the Kingdom and for reporting any violations to the relevant authorities. This committee is also responsible for raising awareness with human rights issues.
2- The protection of the freedom of the press and the media: On 24 February 2003, the first institution representing Saudi journalists was established with the aim of enhancing the role of the press and of protecting journalists and their freedoms.
3- The reorganization of charitable organizations: charitable organizations have been placed under governmental supervision to ensure that they do not fund illegal or violent activities and organizations. Charitable organizations are now required to acquire an official permit, and subject their financial affairs to governmental supervision. As for Saudi organizations abroad, a special law is being prepared to preclude their involvement in illegal activities.
On 3 August 2003, a Royal decree was issued establishing a center for national dialogue which was given the name the King Abdul Aziz Center for National Dialogue. The establishment of this center came as an acknowledgment that the lack of dialogue and of legitimate channels of expression has bred extremism and violence in the Kingdom. The center thus represented an attempt to create legitimate channels for discussing some of the sensitive problems of the Kingdom.
The first round of the national dialogue was held on 14-18 June 2003. The first round of the dialogue was shrouded with secrecy and only clerics participated, while women and liberals were excluded. This affected the outcome of the meeting, even if indirectly. The only recommendations that were publicized were the ones calling for the establishment of the Center for National Dialogue, for striking a balance in the treatment of all Saudi provinces, for pursuing reform, and for the expansion of grassroots participation.
A second round was held at the end of December 2003 to which sixty persons were invited, including ten women. This round focused on the question of extremism and the intellectual, financial, psychological, social, pedagogical, political, and economic factors underlying it.
The third round of the national dialogue was held on 12-14 June 2004 under the title: the Rights, Duties and Education of women. Participation in the third round was larger in terms of both numbers and women's participation, with 35 men and 35 women included. This round discussed the legal rights and duties of women, the regulations governing women's work, the types of jobs suitable for women, the image of women in educational curricula, women's education, and women's social problems. The recommendations of this round emphasized the significance of the role played by women in the family, women's right to work, the relationship between men and women as one based on cooperation and integration. The recommendations also confirmed the importance of raising awareness about women's rights and duties under Islam, the expansion of women's participation in public life, and the extension of women's professional training. The recommendations also called for the establishment of a specialized committee in Islamic Law and sociology that can help free existing religious discourse and popular culture from widespread discrimination against women.

2 - Elections in the Arab World

Five elections took place in the Arab world during the year 2003: one Presidential election in Mauritania, and four legislative elections in Syria, Jordan, Yemen and Kuwait. The legislative elections in Syria and Jordan served as a useful means of gauging the orientations of new and young Arab rulers on questions of political reform.
In Syria, initial hopes for increased political openness and democratization, which accompanied the accession of President Bashar al-Assad to power, soon vanished. Bashar kept the old elections law, which guarantees the prior allocation of seats to the ruling Baath Party. Moreover, only representatives from the National Progressive Front and independents were allowed to compete over the remaining seats.
The elections contained two types of electoral lists. The first type included representatives from the National Progressive Front (NPF), half of whom are Baathists. Most of these candidates ran uncontested. As a result, candidates did not come forward with electoral programs to attract votes, nor did they show interest in winning voters' confidence. The second type of lists comprised independents, which include members of the opposition as well as supporters of the regime. The lists of independents most likely to win were those composed of tribal and religious chiefs, who depend on networks of loyalty and patronage and often work in cooperation and coordination with the NPF.
The opposition, for its part, was divided. One group refused to participate in the elections, feeling that participation is futile given the inefficiency of the People's Assembly and low turnout. Some opposition figures felt that by participating they would only help the Syrian regime polish its image before world public opinion and human rights organizations. As a result, the outlawed Democratic National Union - comprising five leftist political parties, the Arab Democratic Socialist Union, the Syrian Communist Party, the Arab Democratic Socialist Baath, the Arab Revolutionary Labor Party, and the Arab Socialist Movement - boycotted the elections.
A second group, focused on the importance of participating in elections in spite of the above-mentioned reservations. This group maintained that the objective of participation is not only to win seats but also to gain experience in the area of overt political activism, to communicate with the public, and to exert pressure, which could, over time, lead the Syrian regime to revive the defunct political reform project.
The election results came as no surprise. The overwhelming majority of seats were taken by the NPF (as has been the case since the seventies onwards). The Front kept the same number of seats (167) as in the previous session, 132 of which went to the Socialist Arab Baath party, down from 134 in the previous session. The remaining Front parties kept the same number of seats. The NPF included two new parties, which won three seats, two for the Social National Syrian Party, which had been outlawed for 48 years.
On 27 April 2003, the third legislative elections since unification took place in Yemen. The elections were violent and hotly contested. Almost ten people were killed, and more than twenty-five wounded, during the course of the elections. Twenty-two parties participated, including the Socialist Party, which had ruled South Yemen before unification for almost thirty consecutive years and which had boycotted the 1997 elections.
The election campaign revealed deep mistrust between the Reform and the People's Congress Parties.. The Reform Party accused the People's Congress with using public money in its election campaign, of forcing the electorate to vote for them, of rigging the election, stealing the ballot boxes, and of corruption. The Reform party used mosques to air these accusations. The People's Congress, on the other hand, used the state-owned media to attack the Reform Party, dubbing it as Yemen's Taliban.
Both parties made ambitious promises to attract voters. The Reform Party promised to end the monopoly of the People's Congress over power, and to open new horizons for freedom and democracy. It also promised to remedy the rise in prices, and to raise the salaries of military and security personnel. The People's Congress, on the other hand, made promises to create new job opportunities, tackle unemployment, and to allow for greater political openness.
The legislative elections in Yemen resulted in a landslide victory for the ruling party, the People's Congress, headed by President Ali Abdullah Salih, which received 217 out of 301 seats. The remaining seats were won by the Reform Party led by Sheikh Abdullah Al-Ahmar (40 seats), the Socialist Party (7 seats), independents (14 seats), and the Baath and the Unionist Parties (1 seat each).
In Jordan, three major blocs participated in the elections, each of which with a distinct ideological agenda. The electoral campaigns focused on external political and regional issues, particularly on the conflicts in Iraq and Palestine. The first bloc was the Islamic Action Front, which ran with a 30-person list, including only one woman, under the slogan Yes and forever… Islam is the solution. The main objective of the front was the application of Islamic Law. The Democratic National Movement comprising nine nationalist and leftist parties participated in the election under the slogan Unity, Democracy, Justice, Resistance. The third bloc, the state-oriented Democratic Reform Union, campaigned under the slogan Towards a Better Jordan.
All of the Islamic Action Front nominees in Amman won and Islamists increased their share of seats in Parliament. The final results showed that Islamists won 21 seats, 17 of which went to the Front. However, independents and tribal leaders won most of the seats in Parliament. The elections results were disappointing to women. Out of 45 female candidates, only six won, 5 of whom ran as independents. Hayat al-Messimi, the Islamic Action Front nominee, received the highest number of votes among women, while no women won in Amman.
Unlike the Jordanian elections, the Kuwaiti elections focused on internal issues, namely housing, unemployment, corruption, women's political rights, the rights of the bedouns, or persons without citizenship, and the place of Islamic Law in the legal system. The Kuwaiti elections were somewhat heated, especially given controversy over the issue of separating the posts of Crown Prince and Prime Minister. The advocates of separation (a minority) based their argument on a memorandum previously presented to Sheikh Sobah al-Ahmad asking him to head the government directly. The question of reorganizing and defining the relationship between the various factions of the ruling family was also raised.
The official results of the legislative elections indicated that 50% of the incumbents lost their seats, that government supporters and Islamists made some gains, while representatives from the Shiite and Islamic Constitutional Movement representatives suffered some losses. The most significant development was the great defeat suffered by the Democratic Platform; some independents loyal to the regime also lost.
The Islamic bloc collectively won 18 seats, in comparison to 12 seats in the previous election. However, the winning majority within this bloc came from among Islamic independents (7 seats). The remaining seats went to the Constitutional Movement (2 seats), the Salafi Union (2 seats), the Salafi movement (three seats), and the Shiites (four seats).
In Mauritania , Presidential elections were decisively won by the President Weld Al-Tai' who won 66.69% of the votes in the first round. Six other candidates ran against him and 60.83% of the electorate voted; the highest percentage of participation ever known in Mauritania. Contrary to the demands of the opposition, the Mauritanian Presidential elections were conducted in the absence of international observers. Opinions about the fairness of the elections varied with the government claiming that the elections were free and fair and the opposition maintaining that the elections were rigged from beginning to end.
In conclusion, it may be argued that none of the elections conducted this year constituted a leap forward. Not one of these elections managed to effect a change in the existing structure of political power, however slight.

3 - The Right to Peaceful Protest

The right to peaceful protest was a central issue of debate across the Arab world this year, largely due to the overwhelming wave of demonstrations protesting the US war on Iraq. As the US war on Iraq became imminent, demonstrations protesting the war broke out worldwide. The 25th of February was designated as a global day of protests under the slogan: No to War. Demonstrators across the Arab world also joined.
However, while in most countries, demonstrations were peaceful and uneventful, in the Arab world, the demonstrations sometimes turned violent with bloody confrontations with security forces, injuries, arrests and, in a few instances, deaths. Arrests were either precautionary or due to actual participation. Five persons were killed, four in Yemen and one in the Sudan, during confrontations between demonstrators and police forces while hundreds were injured in Egypt, the Sudan, Yemen, Bahrain, Jordan, etc.
In Cairo, the security forces arrested almost 800 people, 84 of whom were incarcerated for charges of hostility against police officers and assembly without permit. In Yemen, the Public Prosecutor imprisoned four opposition leaders with the charge of organizing a march without permit, and demanded removing immunity off two MPs for joining in a march against the war on Iraq. In Jordan, the demonstrators challenged a law prohibiting demonstrations without prior permit. Twenty persons at least were wounded when they were prohibited from reaching the American and the Israeli embassies.
In Bahrain, the anti-riot police fired tens of tear-gas grenades to disperse hundreds of youths trying to approach the American embassy. The Academy of Sudanese Scholars in the Sudan led a march in which thousands of Sudanese university students participated. Violent clashes also occurred between the anti-riot police and hundreds of demonstrators who tried to reach the American embassy in the Sudan.

4 - Legislative Reforms

In response to growing internal and external pressures, Arab governments implemented a number of legislative reforms. In the areas of corruption and illegal enrichment, Jordan and Yemen issued legislation against illegal enrichment, requiring top state officials, including heads of state and government, to declare their earnings and financial status. In October 2003, the Jordanian government began implementing a law against illegal enrichment obliging the Prime Minister, cabinet ministers, directors of public institutions, heads of municipalities, judges, and other top officials to declare their financials status. A new department was established within the Ministry of Justice chaired by a judge to receive the financial statements of officials and their dependents. The law also demands the justification of any increase in income after accession to power. Failure to do so will result in incrimination. Relevant
A similar draft law caused wide controversy in Yemen, and was re-submitted to parliament after some amendments were made. The scope of the law is similar to that of Jordan, but in Yemen it also covers military officials. The draft law requires public officials to reveal their financial status within 60 days from the adoption of the law. It also demands that the vice-president, the prime minister, and the speakers of both the consultative council and parliament, present their financial statements to the President of the Republic. Members of Parliament and the Consultative Council, on the other hand, must present their information to their respective bodies, whereas ministers and undersecretaries answer to the Prime Minister. However, the draft law did not stipulate that the president also declare his financial status.
Although the opposition welcomed the Law, it nonetheless maintained that it does not go far enough. The opposition called for widening the scope of the law and for creating an independent body responsible for receiving and reviewing these financial statements.
Women's rights were another area where some legislative reforms were introduced. The Legislative Committee in Morocco prepared a new personal status law, which raises the age of marriage for women from fifteen to eighteen, prohibits verbal divorce and divorce in absentia, and protects the rights of illegitimate children. The proposed law also makes polygamy and divorce more difficult by subjecting them to restrictive conditions. It also gives women the right to a share of their husband's property in cases of divorce and provides for a whole new spectrum of rights protecting children, particularly custody rights.
In Kuwait, the government approved a draft law granting women the right to vote and run for office on the municipal level. In Jordan, the government tried to advance women's rights but encountered opposition from parliament. The Parliament has twice refused a draft law increasing the penalty for honor killings.



©2004 Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies (ACPSS) . All rights reserved.