The opposition's thoughts on article 76

Here are the proposals that are coming out of the dialogue among civil society and opposition leaders, as well as notable personalities, on the amendment of article 76:
Recommendations of experts' round table discussion of the presidential proposal to amend article 76 of the Egyptian constitution
With participation of many administrative and constitutional law professors, judges, representatives of political parties in Egypt, and human rights activists, the Alliance for Democracy and Reform (ADR) held a round table discussion on "President Mubarak's proposal to amend article 76 of the Egyptian constitution", the meeting was held in Cairo March 8th 2005.
Participants agreed that the Egyptian constitution needs revising and reconsideration, specially regarding articles related to the authorities of the president, balance of powers and the formation of political parties.
As for how the president is elected, the participants reached two sets of recommendations:
1) Recommendations about the conditions of candidacy to presidential elections
2) Recommendations about the required guarantees to secure fair presidential elections.
The following are the most important items that the participating experts mentioned in this regard.
1 - Conditions of candidacy to presidential elections
· candidates must be Egyptians, with Egyptian parents and grand parents
· candidates must not have dual nationality
· candidates must fully enjoy their political and civil rights
· candidates must be supported by a number of eligible citizens
· It should not be required for candidates to have the support of local assemblies or members of people's assembly.
· Financial guarantees in candidacy requirements should be eased.
· A governmental fund should be established to finance candidates that acquire the support of a defined minimum of votes.
· Any 50 citizens should have the opportunity to present a candidate for presidency, either through the agencies they work at or through civil registration.
2 - Guarantees required to secure fair presidential elections.
The gathering experts agreed that a series of guarantees are needed to secure that the coming presidential elections will be fair and democratic, among these guarantees:
· The constitution should contain the main principles for electing the president, such as stating that he is elected through direct universal voting, while the details should be contained in the relevant laws especially political rights law.
· Emergency laws should be canceled before the elections.
· Elections should be held after the president gives up his belonging to any political party.
· Elections should be held after the wide authorities of the president are constrained.
· Full judicial supervision over the election through an independent agency that is not subject to the ministry of justice. This agency might be a committee that consists of judges, with an independent administrative structure and an independent budget, and whose decisions might be appealed. This committee should have branches all over the governorates in Egypt.
· Elections should not be held in one day, so that judicial supervision is possible.
· Different guarantees must be taken to verify voters' identity, and make sure that they vote only one time.
The only thing that really surprises me is the insistence of disqualifying dual nationals. I wonder if this is designed to exclude a lot of the business elite, much of which has dual nationality (usually American or Canadian.) But maybe it's just complying with the existing regulations on parliamentary membership. Lowering the requirement to only 50 endorsements (from any citizens) also sets a rather low threshold. Finally, requiring that the president gives up belonging to any political party is downright weird and potentially dangerous in that it sets the possibility of a president from the military that oversees a secondary party political process.
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What position towards Hizbullah?

How does this NYT story:
After years of campaigning against Hezbollah, the radical Shiite Muslim party in Lebanon, as a terrorist pariah, the Bush administration is grudgingly going along with efforts by France and the United Nations to steer the party into the Lebanese political mainstream, administration officials say.
The administration's shift was described by American, European and United Nations officials as a reluctant recognition that Hezbollah, besides having a militia and sponsoring attacks on Israelis, is an enormous political force in Lebanon that could block Western efforts to get Syria to withdraw its troops.
square with the European parliament naming Hizbullah a terrorist organization (which is discussed by Praktike here) or with this with this State Department press briefing with Deputy Spokesman Adam Ereli (who by the way is an Arabist and former journalist with Middle East experience): (It's long so I'm putting it below the fold)
QUESTION: 1559 calls for a lot of things. Where is your main focus at the moment? Is it on getting Syria to withdraw its troops or is it on eliminating what you call a terrorist organization?
MR. ERELI: 1559 calls for the full and immediate withdrawal of all foreign forces from Lebanon, the extension of Lebanese Government sovereignty throughout the territory of Lebanon and the disarming of militias. The first step in this the withdrawal of foreign forces and the standing up of a sovereign, empowered Lebanese Government.
In order to have that, you got to have elections, which is what is being planned for May. So those are where our focus are for now: getting foreign troops out, creating a climate where the Lebanese people can be free to vote, can vote free of intimidation and coercion, and helping support a government of Lebanon that represents, that fully represents, the people and can fully exercise its authority and sovereignty.
QUESTION: Okay, that makes it sound like the Hezbollah issue is being kicked down the street and the focus is Syria -- troops out, get to elections.
MR. ERELI: It's not a question of kicking anything down the street. It's a question of, I would say, fulfilling -- seeing that 1559 is fulfilled and creating --
QUESTION: In a certain --
MR. ERELI: Helping create the conditions for a political environment in Lebanon that is free of violence, that is free of intimidation and that is responsive to the desires of the Lebanese people. And I think that applies to outside as well as internal actors.
QUESTION: Under such a new environment, would you accept a political role for Hezbollah?
MR. ERELI: It's not for us to determine who has a political role in Lebanon from among the Lebanese. That's a decision for the Lebanese people to make.
QUESTION: But if Hezbollah takes part in the political process --
MR. ERELI: Well, they're in part of the political process now. They have members in parliament. They have members elected to parliament. So they're part of the political process.
Again, it's not for us to say who's part of the political process or who's not part of the political process. It's for us -- and when I say us, I mean the international community -- to say that process has to be a process that is governed by the Lebanese people and Lebanese institutions and that what form those institutions take, what form the processes take and how the results are dealt with are matters for the Lebanese people to decide without, again, intimidation, coercion, or outside pressure.
QUESTION: But U.S. would accept a terrorist organization in the political process of Lebanon?
MR. ERELI: As I said, our views about Hezbollah are well known. And I think our views are distinct from the internal Lebanese political dynamic.
QUESTION: Adam, in the last number of days there's been a pro-Syrian type rally in Beirut. You had upwards to 500,000 and you had a firebrand cleric. Now there, of course, may be a religious significance, maybe not, but 40 percent of that population are Shiite, maybe the rest both Druze and Christian.
Is Iran and Syria working together undermining the ability to have a fair election?
MR. ERELI: Clearly the presence of Syrian forces and Syrian intelligence agents is incompatible with a fully fair election, untainted by outside interference. And that's the basis of 1559. That's why we keep repeating the need for the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Lebanon, as well as Syrian intelligence apparatuses. Because you cannot -- the Lebanese people cannot go to the polls without having to worry about people pressuring them to vote one way or another, or the Lebanese political life cannot carry on freely as long as there is this huge outside presence that weighs on the political life and the social life of the country. So yeah, I would say that Syria is -- and the continued presence of Syria -- is incompatible with the Lebanese people exercising their full political and sovereign rights and civil rights.
QUESTION: So you do consider Hezbollah an outside presence if they've got a presence in the Lebanese parliament?
MR. ERELI: I didn't say -- I didn't -- I never characterized Hezbollah as an outside presence.
QUESTION: I heard you, a few minutes ago, say that the new and former Prime Minister is not the best person to be holding the job at this --
MR. ERELI: I didn't say that either. I said --
QUESTION: Well, you said he was inefficient.
MR. ERELI: I said that in resigning earlier, he said that he was resigning because he could not be effective. And I said that if ever there were a time or a need for effective government in Lebanon, now is the time. And then I called -- we called upon him to rise to the challenge and work to fulfill the aspirations of the Lebanese people.
QUESTION: On the -- just one more on Hezbollah. Clearly, the first question was here in reference to the New York Times story. Would you characterize that story as correct or incorrect?
MR. ERELI: I would simply say there's no change in our policy.
Hopefully it just means that they've realized that taking Hizbullah head on is just plain stupid.
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March ARB is out

The new issue of the Arab Reform Bulletin is out, and I have a piece in it on Mubarak's constitutional announcement. It won't be anything particularly new for frequent readers of this site, but summarizes how I interpret the situation in Cairo. Since I wrote the piece last week, I think developments have confirmed my analysis: the opposition (legal and underground) is holding quite frequent meetings and is beginning to strategize for what to do next. I'm a cynic concerning Mubarak's motives and aims, but remain convinced it was a significant step because it put constitutional change on the table. The regime, at some point, will regret doing so because most people were resigned to no change until after the elections. I am starting to get the feeling that this story is beginning to put more focus on the reforms that are still to come than the first step that came with the amendment of article 76 of the constitution. One reason things may have slowed down in the past week is because a close-called election is taking place at the Lawyers' Syndicate, with Muslim Brotherhood candidates giving the slate headed by current president Sameh Ashour a run for his money (an internet poll somewhere recently said they had won.) The leftists are also fighting hard on this one and may make progress considering their recent leadership in political reform movements. Anyway, the election ends tomorrow, and after that I suspect attention will shift back to national politics. This month's ARB also has a piece by Michael Young on Lebanon where he argues that the current political upheaval there is also the result of delayed parliamentary elections. As I've noted before, I think he underplays the significance of the Hizbullah demonstration when he describes it as merely a card for Syria to play:
The parliamentary elections scheduled for May 2005 are now part of a larger struggle centering on ending Syria’s military presence. Hizbollah’s show of strength through a massive rally and the reinstatement of pro-Syria Prime Minister Omar Karami demonstrate that Syria still has cards to play. Pro-government and opposition politicians within the Lebanese elite are carrying out this struggle partly in arguments over institutional legitimacy. The opposition has no faith that the present Lebanese regime, backed by Syria and the intelligence services, will allow a free and fair electoral process.
I also wonder whether his stress on the centrality of a Syrian pullout compared to, say, more political independence for the Lebanese to elect their president and parliament might be misplaced. Mind you, he lives there and knows the country well and I don't. There's also an interesting piece on security reforms in the Arab world, raising the ever-important issue of civilian-military relations. I was not aware that there were efforts underway by local think tanks or by the international community:
There are a few signs of greater willingness to talk about the issues. In January, two nongovernmental organizations, Jordan's Center for Strategic Studies and the Geneva Centre for Democratic Control of Armed Forces, held a conference in Amman that addressed the need for security forces to disengage from their excessive involvement in the media, education, and bureaucratic appointments, and the need for more parliamentary and cabinet oversight of security institutions. Jordan may be a case ripe for change, due to its relatively stable political culture and the role of the king as an intermediary or buffer between the military and the political institutions. With his support, the debate can happen. Security issues are also more openly addressed by the burgeoning nongovernmental community in the Gulf. So far, the agenda is modest, focusing on practical improvements rather than the more theoretical issues of civilian control of defense forces and more transparent and accountable systems.
In some quiet ways, the international community is also trying to contribute. In the aftermath of the Oslo process in the early 1990s, the Arms Control and Regional Security exchanges (ACRS) provided an unprecedented venue for security professionals from across the region to meet each other and talk about issues affecting long term security. While the ACRS process, which formally ended in 1995, was not explicitly about reform, it created more space to discuss security beyond the immediate national interest of each state, established relationships across former forbidden boundaries, and strengthened civilian expertise on previously restricted military issues.
It's about time Western military backers of Arab countries start injecting reform into their military relationship.
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Cairo #2

Check out the latest issue of Cairo magazine... Update: Here are a few highlights to give you a taste of what to read in this issue of Cairo:
  • How different factions of Al Ghad are fighting for control of the party while Ayman Nour lingers in jail
  • The hesitation of the official opposition to run a candidate against Mubarak for reasons of politics and resources
  • An in-depth piece on the future of traditional religious festivals
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    Egypt's FM says Bush is wrong about Democratizing ME

    There is an interesting story in the WaPo today. Egypt's FM Ahmed Abul Ghait became the first high-ranking offical from one of Washington's "accepted" Arab governments to come out and say the "Arab Spring" is not really happening. He constests Washington's view on how Iraq is developing, the nature of Palestinian elections, and the variety of political trends emerging in Lebanon and Syria. There are a couple of telling passages but none as strikingly as this one:
    Aboul Gheit responded that in the "so-called democratic endeavor, the pace will be set by Egypt and the Egyptian people and only the Egyptian people. The Egyptian people will not accept what we call trusteeship. "I think Egypt is a lighthouse for the Middle East. The need for Egypt to be a friend of the United States is something I'm sure people in Washington value very much. We are not subject to any kind of pressure."
    For those of you worrying that Egypt's current leadership is sweating, you can rest your concerns. Regime adaptation, rather than reform, took place on 26 February when Mubarak announced his plan. Like it or not, this actually indicates that the regime is still viable despite moralistic questions that remain. A correction statement has finally emerged to show that the old rules of US-Arab relations really have not shifted as drastically as some of the instant experts are arguing (as cited by Issandr below). Also: See the commentary by Seumas Milne in today's Guardian for a complementary view and reading of the events. The key portion of that article is this:
    The claim that democracy is on the march in the Middle East is a fraud. It is not democracy, but the US military, that is on the march. The Palestinian elections in January took place because of the death of Yasser Arafat - they would have taken place earlier if the US and Israel hadn't known that Arafat was certain to win them - and followed a 1996 precedent. The Iraqi elections may have looked good on TV and allowed Kurdish and Shia parties to improve their bargaining power, but millions of Iraqis were unable or unwilling to vote, key political forces were excluded, candidates' names were secret, alleged fraud widespread, the entire system designed to maintain US control and Iraqis unable to vote to end the occupation. They have no more brought democracy to Iraq than US-orchestrated elections did to south Vietnam in the 1960s and 70s. As for the cosmetic adjustments by regimes such as Egypt's and Saudi Arabia's, there is not the slightest sign that they will lead to free elections, which would be expected to bring anti-western governments to power. What has actually taken place since 9/11 and the Iraq war is a relentless expansion of US control of the Middle East, of which the threats to Syria are a part. The Americans now have a military presence in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and Qatar - and in not one of those countries did an elected government invite them in. Of course Arabs want an end to tyrannical regimes, most of which have been supported over the years by the US, Britain and France: that is the source of much anti-western Muslim anger. The dictators remain in place by US licence, which can be revoked at any time - and managed elections are being used as another mechanism for maintaining pro-western regimes rather than spreading democracy.
    Ouch....I don't think Bush would like that reading.
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    The Beirut demonstration

    I think one of the reasons that the turnout of yesterday's demonstration in Beirut was so large was partly because many Lebanese (much more than the demonstrators of the so-called Cedar Revolution) resent foreign interference from the West and Israel as much if not more than they resent the actual occupation by Syria. What's worth remembering is that it wasn't that long ago that Israel occupied Lebanon or that Israel bombed civilian targets in Lebanon (remember Grapes of Wrath?) -- or for that matter that Hizbullah scored a rare national victory in Lebanon by driving the Israelis out. I thought it was interesting that unlike the previous, much smaller, demonstrations, yesterday's demo didn't get as much play on networks like CNN nor much reaction from the governments who would have preferred they didn't happen. And I have to wonder whether Michael Young really has it right when he writes:
    Now, by supporting Syria, Hezbollah can no longer claim to be above the fray. Its desire to pursue resistance will almost certainly hit up against the reluctance of other communities, and indeed many Shiites, to see Lebanon suffer the backlash of Israeli and perhaps American retaliation.
    In short, Hezbollah faces a dilemma: to defend its regional ambitions, it must preserve a Syrian-dominated Lebanese order (and Syria is working to impose one before its troops depart), even if doing so alienates the clear majority of Lebanese who believe Syria must go; or it can side with that majority, which means abandoning Syria and its own regional objectives.
    One surprising thing is that if the "clear majority" of Lebanese want Syria out (something I was inclined to believe) then why were yesterday's crowds so large? A Hariri-owned Lebanese TV channel said that Syrians were coming in droves on buses to take part in the demonstrations. But I've heard from people who were there that the crowds looked mostly Shia. I asked another friend (a Brit) about it, and this is what he wrote:
    Very funny question -- I met a banker yesterday whose office was near the demo; he said, as we walked past 'I bet half of them are syrian'; in a coffee shop in Achrafiyyeh, watching Nasrallah's speech, we were told the same thing; but down at the demo itself, it looked pretty Shia to me -- lots of women dressed in the Iranian style, quite a few mullahs, quite a few men in the Hizbollahi black shirt/stubble combo.
    Let's face it, Hizbullah has a lot of support in Lebanon, and is very well organized -- most of the demonstrators were Lebanese.
    Related: thousands of Syrian construction workers left Lebanon after reprisal attacks after Hariri's death; contruction at several sites stopped altogether; a lot of them began returning this week, in buses...
    At the end of the day, even if Western TV networks will keep showing the "people revolution" (and the people, for an Arab country, seem surprisingly wealthy and well-dressed -- read this post by Nur Al Cubicle for what I'm getting at) of the past two weeks, can we really believe anymore that there is a widespread, popular consensus against Syria? This article by Mohammed Bazzi in Newsday makes a valid point:
    Hezbollah's action could mobilize the Shia plurality - Shias make up about 40 percent of Lebanon's 4 million people - and heighten sectarian tensions in a country still recovering from a 15-year civil war. Hezbollah's call has already highlighted the fact that there is no Lebanese consensus on a Syrian withdrawal, as the Bush administration has tried to argue. Without support from Shias, the anti-Syria opposition will be hard-pressed to claim it represents the majority of Lebanese.
    "Hezbollah was in a very tough position after Hariri's assassination," said Hazem Amin, an editor at the pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat and an expert on the Shia. "But now it has decided to expose the lack of Shia support for the opposition."
    The fact is, most of the Lebanese people that Bush and his administration say they stood with do not share the feeling that Hizbullah is a terrorist organization or that, in the words of Richard Armitage, it is the "A Team" of terror after Al Qaeda, which is supposed to be the "B Team" (a statement even more insulting to Americans than the Lebanese.) And while even Hizbullah seemed to be encouraging the Syrians to withdraw at least to the Bekaa, perhaps not everybody in Lebanon is after regime change in Damascus after all. One of the problems is that beyond the easy "people power" rhetoric of the mass media, there are serious geopolitical considerations at stake here. It may be time to look at these rather than the superficial pictures of attractive twenty-somethings that have been the symbol of this popular uprising.
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    Al Ghad is out

    The newspaper, that is. It took changing the editor-in-chief -- the bete noire of Egyptian journalist, Ibrahim Eissa, had to go -- and it seemed to have been slightly delayed so that the prosecutor's office could take a look at it, but it is on the market in Cairo. I haven't found a copy yet but here's what the BBC is reporting:
    Al-Ghad's first edition reports that Mr Nour, who chairs the paper's board of directors, asked the party to nominate him as its candidate in the presidential election.
    A full-page article is devoted to the constitutional amendment brought in by Mr Mubarak in late February, which allows more than one candidate to stand for the first time.
    The paper says opposition parties would find it difficult to present a competitive candidate "as a result of living for nearly 25 years under emergency laws".
    The newspaper's publication is likely to be seen as a test of Mr Mubarak's new commitment to open elections.
    A senior newspaper official said security officials had demanded a complete rewrite of the front page but eventually backed down and allowed the edition to go out unaltered, Reuters news agency reports.
    Earlier news reports has claimed that the paper had been banned.
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    Egypt, Lebanon and the "Arab Spring"

    Sorry for the absence of posts over the past week. Between travel and a lot of work obligations I've been too mentally tired to put anything together. And thanks for those of you who noticed and expressed concern in the comments. I've been following the recent coverage of the supposed "Arab spring" with some amusement. Basically you have a problematic -- if generally positive -- election in Iraq, another one that was practically rigged in Palestine, a dictator who magnanimously allows rivals in elections in Egypt and various whatever you want to call what's happening in Lebanon and that is supposed to be a "spring?" I think we have a long way to go before we can take any democratic reform in the region seriously, even if a few events could be the seeds of something bigger. Below are some excerpts from articles I've been reading on this issue, with comments in parentheses. The idea is that it gives a taste of the tone of the debate in the Western press, from various relatively mainstream positions. Saad Eddin Ibrahim: Is democracy developing in the Nile River? [Taipei Times]
    The regime may assume that it will be able to use the process to its own advantage, but events may not be that easy to control once people begin to feel empowered. The democratic genie is out of the bottle.
    (Ibrahim is just trying to get people excited about current events. He's like that. But he knows better.) Tamara Wittes: Elections or no, he's still Pharaoh. [Slate]
    Without real political freedom in Egypt, it's hard to see how much will change when Mubarak is gone. Having speared the ghosts of the past, he should feel secure enough to prepare his country for a more democratic future. But Gerald Ford never had much of a vision thing going, and neither does Mubarak. Given the NDP's dominance, his nod to democratic norms won't prevent him from winning a fifth term. Unless Mubarak or his successor lifts the state of emergency, dismantles the Political Parties Committee, and allows open debate, Egyptians will miss their chance for gradual transformation—and start thinking, along with other Arabs, about hitting the streets.
    (The idea that you can compare the US after 200 years of democracy and Egypt is laughable. But don't expect better from the Saban Center.) Micah Halpern: Appearances can be deceiving [Jewsweek]
    So, yes, embarrassing Egypt into announcing change was a brilliant move. Even more brilliant will be transforming that announcement into true action.
    (Read for bizarre references to holding a referendum on whether homosexuals should vote -- they already do and the minister of culture is one -- but some insight the regime wanting to keep a facade ofliberalization, sadly disillusioned if he really thinks this was all the results of pre-planned "brillant moves.") Charles Krauthammer: Three Cheers for the Bush Doctrine [Time]
    The Administration went ahead with this great project knowing it would be hostage to history. History has begun to speak. Elections in Afghanistan, a historic first. Elections in Iraq, a historic first. Free Palestinian elections producing a moderate leadership, two historic firsts. Municipal elections in Saudi Arabia, men only, but still a first. In Egypt, demonstrations for democracy--unheard of in decades--prompting the dictator to announce free contested presidential elections, a historic first.
    (Weird Hegelian delusions of grandeur, anthropomorphizes "History" and in any case mostly an attack on supposed opponents of Bush's pro-democracy policy, whom he identifies as liberals even though most "paleo-conservatives" are more bent against promoting democracy in the Middle East than liberals. This man is too smart to mean what he says, so watch out.) Volker Windfuhr and Bernhard Zand: A Wave of Disobedience [New York Times]
    In Beirut, everything was geared toward Hariri. After he was forced by Damascus to resign, his comeback was only a matter of time. What the celebrators and mourners on Martyr's Square in Beirut lack is a figure of national unity, someone who could solidify the historic alliance among the diverse religious factions into a political force. They need someone who is "indispensable," a word written, in a woman's handwriting, on one of the dozens of images of Hariri lying at his grave.
    (The same applies elsewhere: what the Lebanese have is leadership, even if their leader is now dead and probably would have been less ecumenical if he was still alive. It's lacking elsewhere. But good point about civil disobedience, it's the same one that Tarek Al Bishri is making in Egypt.) Roger Cohen: A Middle East moment of ineluctable motion [International Herad Tribune]
    Bush has changed American policy, making clear that the push for free societies will no longer be of the selective kind that turns a blind eye to the likes of Mubarak or the Saudi royal family. He appears to be serious.
    The Afghan model for a fundamentalist Islamic society has been demolished. The invasion of Iraq has brought into the Arab heartland a model - still bitterly contested - of the very liberal and democratic society most anathema to the jihadists bent on reestablishing the caliphate. Democracy is no longer an abstraction, a risible plaything selectively dangled by Western powers with interests more compelling than ideals. It is right there, on the doorstep, or on the screen in the living room.
    (Taliban-controlled Afghanistan was never exported nor much like as a model for an Islamic society, and Iraq's model of one man, one vote would be rejected by many in Lebanon. And he quotes Israel propagandist Patrick Clawson at length.) Warren Strobel and Jonathan Landay: Political change beginning across Middle East [Knight Ridder] (Varied quotes from neo-cons, realists and others. A good balanced article that looks at the plan, or lack thereof, behind the supposed American push for democracy in the region.) Frank Wisner and Kenneth Bacon: Nudging Along Spring in Egypt [Washington Post]
    As hostility to the United States in the Muslim world continues, we need firm friends. Egypt has been one -- blemishes and all -- for more than a quarter-century. This is not an excuse to overlook Egypt's human rights record or its failure to move toward democracy. But it is a reason to craft policies that protect our alliance with Egypt while encouraging democratic change.
    (The realist view, but their suggestions for how to do it -- using aid, pressure further constitutional changes that will limit Mubarak's successors and strengthening civil society are risibly wishy-washy.) Something stirs [The Economist]
    An Arab democratic opening will be long and tortuous. The regimes that block it are strong, cunning and ruthless. The rhetoric of “resistance”—Islamist, Arab nationalist, anti-American, anti-globalisation, or whatever—retains a powerful grip. Many Arabs still support groups such as al-Qaeda. A huge amount still depends on the outcome in Iraq: a descent into chaos or the failure of the political process there could crush democratic stirrings throughout the region. For all these reasons, it is probably too early for the Americans to crow about an Arab year of revolutions. All the same, the distance between Mr Bush’s talk of freedom and Arab aspirations, which only recently seemed to yawn so wide, may at last be starting to close.
    (A typically Economist-like reasoned -- too reasoned? -- approach. Gives the benefit of the doubt to Bush. More thorough than most articles in giving a wide range of different situations and countries as examples.) Todd Purdum: For Bush, a Taste of Vindication in the MidEast [New York Times]
    At the very least, Mr. Bush is feeling the glow of the recent flurry of impulses toward democracy in Iraq, the Palestinian territories, Lebanon and even Egypt and Saudi Arabia, where events have put him on a bit of a roll and some of his sharpest critics on the defensive. It now seems just possible that Mr. Bush and aides like Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz were not wrong to argue that the "status quo of despotism cannot be ignored or appeased, kept in a box or cut off," as the president put it in a speech at the National Defense University here.
    (Seems to end with the suggestion that democracy would be undesirable because "full and genuine democratic elections in either country might well result in strongly anti-American governments.") Tony Karon: Are We Serious About Arab Democracy? [Time]
    The two, related, challenges facing advocates of Arab democracy are to accept that it will involve parties that the U.S. might regard as beyond the pale, and that the results may be quite different from those Washington would prefer. It's unlikely that most of the key U.S. allies in the Middle East would fare much better than Iraq's Allawi in genuinely democratic elections. But allowing Arab electorates the right to choose their own leaders is still healthier in the long run. The burden of governing is almost always a moderating experience. (Just ask Turkey's crypto-Islamist government, or the leftist administration of President Lula in Brazil.) The alternative, to promise democracy but curtail it when we don't like the outcome, may be even more dangerous.
    (No, Tony, we're not. But what's with that goatee?) Chris Toensing: Freedom, yes, but only if US strategic goals are satisfied. [Daily Star/ MERIP]
    He [Bush] is content to watch these regimes stumble on the cobblestones of the "uneven and unpredictable" road to freedom, as long as they remain congenial to U.S. strategic goals in the region. Their prisons, meanwhile, are convenient pit stops for the CIA's "ghost detainees" in the war on terrorism. If American interrogators cannot build a case against these prisoners, maybe their less legally restrained Saudi Arabian and Egyptian friends can.
    It is easy, of course, to decry the hypocrisy in Bush's self-appointed mission to democratize the broader Middle East. His administration is hardly unique in this respect. But the ink-stained fingers waved by Congressional Republicans at Bush's every mention of the Iraqi elections pointed in a dramatic way to American complicity in its Middle Eastern allies' suppression of the very freedoms the president says are spreading, as well as the artifice of "reform" by regimes with no intention of giving up power.
    (Toensing rightly points out what most people forget: little has actually happened so far. The enthusiasm about an "Arab spring" is far, far too premature.) Apart from the last article by Toensing, I see most of the hullabaloo above as being ridiculously premature and merely serving the political agenda of the Bush administration. Bush's policy definitely had something to do with the events described above, but do it really seem to any of the commentators that there is a consistent policy being followed here? Why is nothing being said about what is happening in Jordan, or why was only about a year Tunisia's nasty President Ben Ali was welcomed to the White House -- after he changed Tunisia's constitution so that he could run again. Moreover, does anyone get the feeling that there is any kind of follow-through? And isn't it bizarre that we only care about democracy that have disputes with Israel?
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    Saad Eddin Ibrahim in the WSJ

    Saad Eddin Ibrahim has an editorial in today's Wall Street Journal in which he concludes that the recent events in Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq and Palestine "may well usher in an Arab Spring of freedom, so very long overdue." Here are a few lengthy excerpts.
    The surprise decision by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to propose a constitutional amendment, opening up the process of electing the president by direct competitive balloting, may well be a giant step for democracy in Egypt and the Arab World. Western readers used to pluralistic democracy may find it hard to understand what a potentially huge shift this will be in a country used to imposed military rulers for over 50 years.
    Many area specialists have long maintained that democratization in the Middle East will not get far until Egypt is fully engaged in the process. And Egypt could not truly set out on a path of democratization without first amending its constitution -- to downsize the pharaonic powers of its president and set limits on his term in office. (Mr. Mubarak is already into his 24th year.) So the announcement is an important first step, one that the regime may assume it will be able to control to its own advantage, but which may not be that easy to contain once people begin to feel empowered. The genie is out of the bottle.
    Despite the historical decision, I don't think anybody is expecting a competitive presidential election this September. And, as Saad points out later in his editorial, similar election law changes in Tunisia simply produced sham elections of a different stripe. So even if the opposition could get their act together and field a feasible candidate, there is no guarantee that he would be given a fair shot. But I like Saad's point here that now a greater possibility exists for the regime to lose control over the process. Were a candidate with a measure of popularity to run and lose in elections that were perceived as flawed by the people... well, that's what happened in Ukraine, and it would never have happened had those elections not included multiple candidates.
    At any rate, it is not only Egypt that is now embarking on the road of democracy in this troubled region. Turkey at one end of the Middle East and Morocco at the other are already well on the way. The real groundswell this time seems to have come from the close timing and positive outcomes of recent elections in Iraq, Palestine and to a lesser degree in Saudi Arabia. The unprecedented demonstrations against Syrian occupation of Lebanon following the assassination of its former prime minister show no signs of abating, and Egyptian opposition groups have staged increasingly bold marches and other forms of civil disobedience in the last few weeks. The catalyst for their anger was the arrest and detention of opposition leader Ayman Nour at the end of January. That heavy-handed act reinvigorated the homegrown "Kifaya," or Enough, movement against further rule by the Mubarak regime. Suddenly the popular wisdom that Egyptians are passive and afraid to act did not seem to be holding up. An alliance of local, regional and international forces is joining forces against tyranny-as-usual on the banks of the Nile.
    Like Issandr, Saad seems to be linking the events in Lebanon with events here in Egypt. What's going on in Lebanon is surely having a ripple effect. When was the last time mass demonstrations toppled an Arab government? As for the Egyptians no longer being passive and afraid to act... perhaps. But certainly the handful of small demonstrations we've seen thus far don't convince me.
    We assume that President Mubarak is more serious. As a measure of sincerity, he needs to order the immediate release of the ailing opposition leader Ayman Nour, and take steps to terminate the 24-year-long state of emergency, which effectively prevents political campaigning to take place. We call on him to endorse term limits of no more than two successive five-year terms. Equally needed are confidence-building measures in a free political process that include open and equal access to the media, currently state-controlled. I announced that I would contest this upcoming presidential election as a way of opening debate on these needed reforms, but I would gladly go back to my role as a private citizen once guaranteed a free and open election this fall.
    Saad touches the other principal demand of the opposition with regards to constitutional change: term limits. The other sought after change, which he doesn't mention, are greater constraints on the powers of the executive.
    If seriously implemented, these steps will transform Mr. Mubarak's lasting legacy to his people. Along with events in Lebanon, Iraq and Palestine, it may well usher in an Arab Spring of freedom, so very long overdue
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    Lebanese cabinet resigns

    Lebanon's cabinet has resigned, preferring to forego a vote on no-confidence:
    In the middle of a dramatic parliamentary session, Prime Minister Omar Karami shocked the House by suddenly announcing his government's resignation as it was defending itself against a vote of no confidence.
    Karami said: "Out of concern that the government does not become an obstacle to the good of the country, I announce the resignation of the government I had the honor to lead. May God preserve Lebanon."
    The shock announcement stunned Parliament but was followed by cheers from inside the chamber and outside in Martyrs' Square as the 25,000 people who had gathered there since late Sunday night watched the debate in Parliament live on large screens.
    The interesting thing in my opinion is that the protestors are also trying to bring down the people who really run the country:
    Following the prime minister's announcement, the opposition also demanded the resignation of State Prosecutor Adnan Addoum, Director General of the Surete Generale Major General Jamil Sayyed, Director General of the State Security Major General Edward Mansour, Director General of the Internal Security Forces Ali Hajj, head of military intelligence Raymond Azar, commander of the presidential guard Mustafa Hamdan and head of the Monitoring Agency in the Lebanese Intelligence Bureau Ghassan Tufeili.
    The Daily Star also has an interesting timeline of events following Hariri's assassination. Hopefully they'll keep it updated. Keep an eye put for a special issue of on Lebanon. I've seen some of the articles which will be put up soon and some of them are quite moving testimonies on Hariri, as well as an interesting call to Shias (by a Shia) to join the national movement and a more cultural piece on the new significance of Martyrs' Square after the assassination. From just general reading and watching TV, it seems that the focus in the Lebanese affair is quickly moving towards Hizbullah and whether it should (or can be made to) disarm. However, I don't see many incentives provided to them for disarmament, especially when Lebanon's security remains threatened by Israel and they derive so much power from being the best-armed militia. I hope a Syrian withdrawal will be matched with security guarantees against Israel's frequent incursions into Lebanese territory and airspace -- if for instance the US could secure that from Israel for the Lebanese, it might go a long way to pressuring Hizbullah's disarmament. But there will also have to be some carrots dangled in front of Hizbullah to make it give up its weapons. The question remains, of course, whether it has enough independence from Iran and Syria to make that decision. Meanwhile, Egypt has been quite active in trying to mediate the Lebanon-Syria crisis. The main state-owned papers like Ahram are all calling for Lebanese calm and Syrian withdrawal, which I think indicates Mubarak's position. Masri Al Youm revealed today that there was a secret visit yesterday by Baha and Saad Rafiq Al Hariri to Cairo, which is certainly interesting (although I'm not sure how to interpret it.) I think Egypt's endgame is that this does not turn into a conflict or destabilize Syria. I sense concern that the Syrians just pull out as quickly as possible, for the sake of regional stability. Some people see Saturday's announcement of constitutional reform by Mubarak as partly motivated by the events in Lebanon. I think that's a worthwhile theory, although it's difficult to measure how much of an impact that event specifically had (the Iraqi elections are something else that may have influenced it, in my opinion.) The important thing to remember is that for Mubarak, it's all about stability.
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