Elections across the region

In an AP story this morning, Sarah Al Deeb picks up on an obvious trend: there are elections scheduled across the Arab world for 2005, many of them extremely important to the political future of the country where they will be held.

From Baghdad to Cairo, from Riyadh to the Gaza Strip, election is the mantra for 2005.
Iraqis, Palestinians, Egyptians, even Saudis will be going to the polls, giving them a new sense of power in a region largely run by monarchs and dictators even in places where parliaments exist.
But some say it doesn’t necessarily signal real change.
“Elections are a magic word. You have got the magic word, but you don’t have magic without delivering,” said Saudi analyst Mai Yamani, with the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London.
“I don’t think there is any significance unless there is genuine intent to reform, share of power, minimize the power of the ruling elite, end corruption.”
Fahmi Howeidi, a liberal Islamic thinker in Egypt, says the January 9 Palestinian election is the only one where there are real political players and the possibility of change.
In Iraq, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, it’s just “painting the house,” he said. “The results are known and there will be no fundamental change… a soap opera, a response to American pressure, and not a result of popular demand or a strong political action. There is no political struggle.”


I have to disagree with Howeidi on several counts. First, if anything the Palestinian elections should not be included as ones where there is a real "possibility of change" since the outcome is already almost certain and that the main opposition figures have been discouraged from running. It has been made clear by the ruling Palestinian elite (that same one that hung around "corrupt" Arafat for decades) and by its main international backers that no other outcome will be tolerated -- not even Marwan Barghouti, and never mind the Islamist fundamentalists. I also worry that the prospect of early general elections in Israel if Sharon can't get his coalition together for a Gaza pullout. Over the past decade Israeli elections have tended to produce situations were previously negotiated agreements are reneged by the incoming government, which has differing priorities. It's hard enough to get things moving in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process at the moment without changes in government (as happy as I would be seeing Sharon leave, there are plenty of equally bad people to replace him, and also many worse ones like Netanyahu.)

Secondly, the elections in Iraq are worth being a little more hopeful about. Despite that they are also being set up to ensure a specific result -- the election of Iyad Allawi -- the fact that there are strong alternative centers of power in that country make the general outcome less predictable. Yes, many will be afraid to vote. Yes, the elections may not be that credible. Yes, there is a danger that Sunnis will feel left out. But for better or for worse they will finally start an internal process of deciding what kind of constitution the country should have, and my feeling is that there are too many powerful blocs to make the imposition of a certain outcome really possible. So while there is a risk of civil war, there is also a chance of real political dialogue, compromises and deal-making -- in other words, ordinary politics. The result not being certain is a good thing.

It's encouraging that even neighboring Syria has agreed to help Iraqis who live there to vote, which is ironic considering that Syrians themselves have no meaningful voting rights. And Arabs across the region are talking about these Iraqi elections, and seemingly getting more excited about them than their own.

I'm even slightly positive about the Saudi elections, although of course they won't come close to solving that country's problems nor changing its incredibly craven leadership. But there are a lot of important local issues that need to be tackled in Saudi Arabia -- bread and butter stuff such as sanitation and so on -- and at least Saudis will be able to elect their local representative.

What is rather depressing is the increasingly likely that despite rising opposition Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, 76, will probably be president for another six years. The ruling National Democratic Party will be announcing its candidate in March and the referendum will be taking place in September. The creepiest thing about this is that the referendum will be taking place before the parliamentary elections, now scheduled for November, meaning that an exiting People's Assembly will be electing the president, which is particularly ridiculous considering that it is parliament that chooses the candidate for the presidential referendum.

In terms of elections in the Arab world, 2004 was depressing enough -- particularly with the sick joke of a presidential election in Tunisia. There is a great risk of just picking up the technical aspects of democracy, such as elections, without its spirit. Let's hope 2005 will be better.
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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.