The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

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.