Published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Translated by Dar Al-Watan for Journalism, Printing and Publishing.

Michele Dunne, Editor
Julia Choucair, Assistant Editor

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Note from the Editor:

As efforts by the United States, European Union, and other donors to promote democratization in the Middle East have increased in recent years, an increasing number of organizations have become involved in funding and implementing related activities. Please see featured in the Read On section below a new fact-sheet by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace that clarifies which U.S. governmental organizations are involved in democracy promotion in the Middle East, as well as a selection of relevant nongovernmental organizations.  We hope that you will find it useful and, as always, welcome your suggestions.

—Michele Dunne

The Arabic edition of this issue of the Arab Reform Bulletin will be available by March 27 at http://www.alwatan.com.kw/arb .

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Insights and Analysis

Algeria: Debate on Constitutional Reform
Robert P. Parks

Bahrain: A Year of Decision
Toby Jones

Broader Middle East Initiative: Arab Governments Strike Back
Bahey Eldin Hassan

Egypt: What Future for Liberals?
Issandr El Amrani

North Africa: Islamist Prisoner Releases and Reconciliation
Bassam Bounenni

News and Views

Iraq: Government Formation Delayed
Lebanon: National Dialogue Launched
Jordan: New Laws, Leadership Change in Muslim Brotherhood
Palestine: Constitutional Court Challenged
Syria: Closure of Human Rights Center; New U.S. Democracy Promotion Grant
Egypt: Crackdown on Judges, Press, Muslim Brothers
Algeria: Amnesty Law Implemented
Libya: New Prime Minister
Kuwait: New Press Law
United Arab Emirates: First Human Rights Association
Yemen: Release of Al Houthi Supporters
Upcoming Political Events
Views from the Arab Media


Read On

New fact-sheet on U.S. government and non-governmental entities funding and implementing democracy programs in the Middle East, as well as publications on Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon, Algeria, Syria, Egypt, Libya, human rights, and regional trends related to reform.

Subscriber Information

 

Insights and Analysis

Algeria: Debate on Constitutional Reform

Robert P. Parks

On July 19, 2005, Secretary General Abdelaziz Belkhadem of the National Liberation Front (FLN), Algeria's current parliamentary majority party, announced the creation of a party commission for constitutional reform. Citing the pressing need to “clarify the nature of the regime,” he ignited the latest round of political debate over Algeria's Constitution.

The 1996 Algerian Constitution has few friends. Devised as a means of transitioning from military junta to civilian-dominated politics, it outlines an executive system that features both a president and a prime minister as well as a bicameral legislative system wrought with institutional checks and balances to hedge against a possible Islamist-dominated parliament. Algeria's political parties and civil society groups, excluded from the drafting process, complain that the constitution fails to disaggregate the duties of the executive and legislative branches. For his part, Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has declared the document cumbersome and ill adapted to the exigencies of a society exiting armed insurrection and in desperate need of political and economic reform.

With so many powerful players lined up against it, it is surprising that the 1996 Constitution has lasted this long. The explanation is partly institutional and partly political. Amendments to the constitution can only be ratified through a national referendum, which requires either an executive decree or a three-quarter vote of the two houses of parliament (the National Assembly and the Senate) called into joint session. The two main parties comprising the current presidential coalition—the FLN and the Democratic National Rally (RND)—have proposed constitutional reform but neither has been able to gather the required three-fourths vote. Ostensibly parliamentary allies, each has rejected the other's reform proposals.

Underlying this dispute over institutional change is a struggle for control of the government. Article 79 of the Constitution allows the president to select the prime minister from outside the dominant party or coalition in the National Assembly, thus allowing him to play both parties against each other. Indeed, since the constitution's ratification, there have been two periods of awkward cohabitation. Between 1999 and 2002, the FLN held the premiership even though the RND had a governing 42 percent of National Assembly seats. And since 2003, RND Secretary General Ahmed Ouyahia has served as prime minister despite the FLN's 52 percent majority in parliament.

Like the RND's earlier efforts, the current round of FLN constitutional proposals are framed in the language of the institutional separation of powers, best illustrated in two speeches that initiated the debate last summer. On July 14, 2005, FLN Chairman of Party Organization and Finance Abdelkrim Abada demanded FLN control of the prime ministerial portfolio. Implying that it was up to President Bouteflika, who was named symbolic head of the FLN in January 2005, to deliver the premiership Abada added, “We [the FLN] are not the president's men; the president is our man, and we will continue to be his men only insofar as he continues to work for the party.” A few days later, FLN Secretary General Abdelaziz Belkhadem backpedaled, retracting Abada's statements on the premiership while affirming the urgent need to “clarify the nature of the regime” and “clarify the prerogatives of the president.”

As was the case with the previous aborted proposals, the current debate is opaque. Eight months into the discussion the FLN has yet to submit specific proposals to public debate. Belkhadem has kept discussion focused on Article 79, despite his repeated denials to the press of his prime ministerial ambitions. He sweetened the deal on January 18, 2006, announcing an FLN proposal to extend the length of presidential mandate from five to seven years and to abrogate the two-term limit—clearly a quid pro quo in return for the premiership. Given President Bouteflika's continued popularity, however, there is every reason to believe that he would succeed in a referendum to extend his mandate, with or without FLN support.

The constitutional reform impasse has been attributed to failed compromise over institutional details and to inter-party squabbling. The debate, however, should not be viewed as a long process of party negotiation and interest articulation. Rather, as previous proposals and current FLN debate illustrate, Algerian discussion on constitutional reform is a project driven by individuals, reflecting the weak state of Algerian civil and political society. In the absence of political parties with real platforms and the ability to mobilize, Algerian constitutional reform remains a presidential prerogative. And so the key question is not how reform to Article 79 might affect political parties in the long run, but whether the ailing President Bouteflika has the strength or the will to run for a third term in 2009.

Robert P. Parks is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Texas at Austin and is currently Director of the American Institute for Maghrib Studies' newest overseas center, the Centre d'Études Maghrébines en Algérie (CEMA), in Oran, Algeria.

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Bahrain: A Year of Decision

Toby Jones

A political showdown is looming in Bahrain this year. Intensifying domestic and regional pressures—including frustration over Bahrain's disappointing experiment in political reform, escalating social problems, and aggravated sectarian tensions—grip the country. The moment of truth will come in October 2006, when elections to the national parliament are scheduled to be held.

Four years ago, frustrated by the promulgation of what they correctly viewed as a flawed constitution, the country's four main political societies joined in rejecting the unilateral changes handed down to them by a ruling family more interested in protecting its power than sharing it. Technically political parties remain illegal, but political societies such as Al Wefaq (“Concord,” Bahrain's largest and predominantly Shiite political society) have decided to end their boycott and field candidates for the October elections. Despite this change in tactics, the opposition societies remain committed to pursuing their long-established goal of rewriting the constitution to bring it into line with their vision of Bahrain as a constitutional monarchy. In addition, largely as a result of the galvanizing influence of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights in drawing attention to the charged issues of unemployment and predominant poverty in the Shiite community, Al Wefaq has branched out to turn some of its attention to addressing these crises.

The prospect of political competition has raised uncomfortable questions as well as the possibility of an escalation of tensions. Even though opposition political societies enjoy considerable support in Bahrain, they are unlikely to capture even half of the parliament's 40 elected seats. The government guaranteed that the Shiites would remain underrepresented when it gerrymandered openly discriminatory electoral districts in 2002, a system that remains unchanged today. At best, Al Wefaq and the rest of the opposition, who will not compete against each other in individual parliamentary races, hope to capture between 15 and 18 seats.

Opposition leaders also face the possibility of having to quit parliament if the government refuses to address their key grievances, as well as the fact that rapidly emerging alternatives could drain away their support if they misstep. A number of members split from Al Wefaq and formed the Haqq (“Justice”) society in late 2005, mostly as a result of their conviction that by deciding to participate in the system Al Wefaq was lending credibility to an illegitimate government. Haqq gained public attention recently when it circulated a petition calling for the United Nations to intervene in Bahrain and compel the writing of a new constitution. Should the opposition fail in parliament, Haqq might well benefit, as could more populist and confrontational organizations that orbit around the outlawed but omnipresent Bahraini Center for Human Rights, groups that have already demonstrated their willingness to provoke and endure the violent tactics employed by the state.

Cognizant of all these risks, opposition leaders nonetheless hope that their decision to participate will exert more pressure on the government than the boycott did. With regard to reform, state leaders have for over four years proven not only resistant to compromise and unwilling to negotiate a middle ground with its critics, but reluctant even to engage in dialogue. The October elections will prove an important litmus test. It is likely that the country's leaders will be tempted to declare victory with the end of the boycott, pointing to the opposition's participation as a sign of weakness and refusing to address seriously the long list of opposition critiques. Another possibility, one that has taken shape as a rumor, is that King Hamad will postpone the elections in order to delay a test of strength. Either of these two courses could lead to a radicalization of politics.

The elephant in the room is the problem of sectarianism. Shiites make up approximately 70 percent of the country's indigenous population, and many have grown restive in recent years as a result of government-led discrimination. The bombing of the Askariyya Shrine in Iraq in February 2005 led to the largest public protests in Bahrain's history, with as many as 100,000 Shiites taking to the streets the Friday following the attack. Demonstrators downplayed sectarian strife, but the event was clearly a show of Shiite force. Widespread sectarian violence is unlikely for now even with Iraq's slide toward civil war. But that could easily change. Bahrain's leaders have historically proven more adept at inflaming sectarian anxieties than soothing them and can even now be seen as periodically maneuvering Sunnis and Shiites against one another. If Bahrain's Sunni leadership reacts to rising Shiite power throughout the region by becoming more intransigent in dealing with sectarian problems and stalling reforms, this year's political showdown may prove to be a prelude to a more ominous one later on.

Toby Jones, most recently the Persian Gulf analyst with the International Crisis Group, will be a Mellon post-doctoral fellow in History at Swarthmore College from 2006-2008.

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Broader Middle East Initiative: Arab Governments Strike Back

Bahey Eldin Hassan

If some of the Group of Eight (G-8) countries had not found some resolve at the final moments of the concluding session of the Forum for the Future in November 2005, the initiative might have been buried in Manama. There is still danger of the initiative being terminated by Moscow, which in July will host the 2006 G-8 summit, before the third Forum meeting in Jordan takes place later this year. Russian President Vladimir Putin's recent crackdowns on Russian nongovernmental organizations suggest that the Forum, which once held so much promise for carving out a democratic future in the Middle East, might be doomed to be shelved next to other stale regional bodies such as the League of Arab States and the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership.

The Forum is unique in that it is the only regional framework that provides an opportunity for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in the Arab world to present their views on reform directly to representatives of their governments at the ministerial level. A t the Manama conference Arab governments pushed back, firmly opposing the creation of a foundation that would have been able to fund local NGOs directly, whether or not they were licensed by their governments. Arab governments have demonstrated consistent incompetence in all fields except for suppressing internal pressures for change, and they proved similarly masterful in their ability to resist external pressures. They demonstrated an impressive ability to maneuver and play on contradictions within the international community in light of a new and changing international environment. Due to obstruction by Arab governments, in its final session the Forum was able to launch a Fund for the Future to finance economic reform, but not the Foundation for the Future that would have been its counterpart in financing political reform and civil society. Thus, once again Arab governments succeeded in sending out the message they have repeated to their peoples and international community over the last two decades: “Yes to economic reform…no to political reform.”

The seeds of this catastrophe were sown by the G-8 organizers themselves, who had earlier allowed Arab governments to insert individuals with close governmental ties into the preparatory meetings of the civil society NGOs. As a result, sensitive human rights issues were removed from the agenda and most preparatory meetings concluded with general, bombastic statements and soft recommendations that, when read at the Forum, drew smiles of satisfaction from Arab government representatives. The farce of civil society representation reached its zenith when a male delegate from the governmental University of Bahrain headed the women's rights delegation and spoke in the name of women at the Forum.

One wonders whether there was a shared decision by G-8 and Arab governments to blunt the claws of civil society—and thereby ensure continued participation in Forum summits by Arab governments—or whether it was merely excessive naivety on the one side met by excessive cleverness on the other. The so-called major powers of our world have yet to realize that they are mere children playing among regimes well schooled in despotism and much older than democratic systems.

Fortunately, at the eleventh hour the United States and United Kingdom realized what was happening and refused to include within the concluding declaration the conditions proposed by Arab states, which would have withheld civil society status from NGOs not registered according to the medieval laws of their respective countries. This resulted in the Bahrain Forum meeting ending without a concluding declaration. Some considered that a devastating failure for the conference, but by other standards it was a success that rescued the Forum from suicide. And meanwhile, plans for the Foundation are proceeding. But for how long? Two weeks after the Bahrain meeting, Arab governments succeeded in adopting at the November 2005 Euro-Mediterranean summit the same statement that they had failed to pass in Bahrain.

In mid-February the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies and other partner organizations met in Rabat to address this question in depth and formulated recommendations for the G-8: (1) that the Forum establish an institutional channel for communication with NGOs between its annual meetings; and (2) that the Forum abide by UN practices in dealing with NGOs, which do not require that the organizations have legal status in their countries and do not allow governments to interfere in preparatory meetings. The backlash from Arab governments will continue, and participants in democracy promotion initiatives need to prepare themselves to deal with it.

Bahey Eldin Hassan is Director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, a member of Egypt's National Commission on Human Rights, and a civil society participant in the Forum for the Future.

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Egypt: What Future for Liberals?

Issandr El Amrani

The 2005 elections realigned the Egyptian political landscape into a virtual two-party system: the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) and an emergent Muslim Brotherhood. Although they have little hope of scuttling bills, Muslim Brothers in the People's Assembly (88 out of 454 seats) are making good use of their parliamentary presence to publicize ideas, embarrass ministers, and generally score points among their constituents and the public. Leftists and liberals were left stranded by their abysmal electoral showing (16 seats total). While civil society groups remain active, liberal political parties are in deep crisis.

Kifaya continues to be a protest movement rather than a party, and lives on largely in the form of issue-based splinter movements (Students for Change, Professors for Change, etc.). But it has yet to establish a clear strategic vision and has few experienced politicians, drawing most of its activists from leftist and civil society groups. Its ongoing weekly protests, while sustaining the movement's base, have become old hat now that the novelty of directly criticizing President Mubarak has worn off.

Elsewhere in civil society, professional associations are carrying the banner of reform. The influential Judges Club continues to push for greater judicial independence. When in February the public prosecutor began an investigation into four leading dissident judges, the Judges Club was able to create a public uproar that caused the prosecutor to back off, at least temporarily, and refer the case to the Ministry of Justice. The Journalists Syndicate also is pressing Mubarak to honor a two-year-old promise to end prison terms in libel cases. But civil society groups have a limited impact as long as there are no like-minded parties substantially represented in national politics.

Al Ghad is a party in dire straits, having virtually disappeared from political life after its leader Ayman Nour was sentenced to five years in prison in December 2005. The party has split in two, with a rebel wing abandoning Nour and toning down its anti-regime rhetoric. Although a campaign to free Nour is underway in Egypt and Western capitals, it is unlikely that the young politician's fate will be better than that of democracy activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim, whose legal ordeal took three years and left him in poor health. In the meantime, should Nour resurface he will have lost valuable time for party and constituency building.

Constituency building is the key issue for liberal parties, which remain elitist and unable to mobilize loyal followers as the Brotherhood has. Most parties have not even broached the issue because they are beset by leadership crises, due partly to their catastrophic electoral performance and partly to the overall generational change taking place in Egyptian politics. The leftist Nasserist and Tagammu parties are locked in succession struggles and have seen their natural constituencies pulled away by Kifaya and its offshoots. Al Wafd, Egypt's historic liberal party, has undergone a struggle to remove autocratic president Nomaan Gomaa. The backlash against Gomaa was long in coming and is significant not only because of Al Wafd's historic importance (it dominated parliamentary life before the 1952 Free Officers' coup), but also because it will be the first time that any party leader is removed because of poor performance. The 2005 elections also claimed as casualties three of the most active, respected and outspoken legal opposition MPs: Al Ghad's Nour, Al Wafd's Mounir Fakhry Abdel Nour (both in Cairo districts) and Al Tagammu's Al Badri Farghali (Port Said). Indeed, there are few charismatic politicians left in the People's Assembly who do not represent either the NDP or the Muslim Brotherhood.

Liberal parties face a further difficulty in building public support: they are vying for the liberal-reformist title against the ruling party itself. Since 2000 the NDP has undergone an internal reform process at the hands of Gamal Mubarak, the president's son. The younger Mubarak and his supporters have gradually gained the upper hand inside the party, sacking long-standing apparatchiks, as well as in the cabinet where technocrat ministers have been brought in from the private sector. While many elite Egyptians feel Gamal Mubarak and his associates have yet to prove their political reformist credentials, they do find their business-friendly approaches a welcome change and see no viable alternative.

There is evidence that support for liberalism exists in Egypt. Liberally minded television talk shows and newspapers, for example, have flourished in recent years. But while a liberal elite is increasingly engaged in political debate, voter turnout among urban, educated Egyptians is extremely low. It remains unclear whether liberal parties could, if they had the necessary skills and resources, mobilize some of the 80 percent of eligible Egyptians who did not vote in 2005; mobilizing even a fraction could make a significant electoral difference. But as long as the political turf of liberalism remains hotly contested, the Brotherhood will continue to represent the only clear alternative to the status quo.

Issandr El Amrani is a freelance journalist living in Cairo.

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North Africa: Islamist Prisoner Releases and Reconciliation

Bassam Bounenni

Just a week after the Tunisian authorities announced a presidential amnesty for over 1200 political prisoners (including 70 members of the outlawed Islamist Nahda Party) on February 27, Libya released 130 political prisoners including all 85 Muslim Brotherhood prisoners. In Algeria authorities released Ali Belhadj, number two in the Islamic Salvation Front, on March 6. In Egypt, there is a new initiative to press the government to release the thousands of Islamists held without charge in administrative detention. Do these developments signal a trend toward reconciliation with Islamists in North Africa?

There is not much similarity among the processes that led to the various releases. While Belhadj was released within the framework of the Pact for Peace and National Reconciliation adopted last September in a national referendum, the Tunisian authorities refuse to acknowledge the existence of any Islamist political prisoners and say they were merely releasing common criminals who were involved in violence. As for Libya, the government considers the Muslim Brotherhood an Islamist organization that has not practiced violence and stresses that they are adopting a reform program. The Egyptian initiative to release Islamist detainees is being driven by political forces motivated by the desire to build consensus and calm after the upset victory of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2005 elections. Imprisoned members of more extreme Egyptian groups, such as Tanzim Al Jihad, also have abandoned much of their earlier ideology—for example, declaring society and the president as apostates and therefore fair game for attacks—in recent years and have apologized for their violent acts.

Despite the recent developments, it remains the case that while many Islamist groups have adapted cleverly to the changing political environment, regimes in general have not changed the way they deal with Islamists. Regimes are postponing dealing with the issue, even though experience has demonstrated that every time the Islamists are given the opportunity to participate in elections that are the least bit fair, they will garner a large number of seats and achieve successes for which they will be envied. Regimes are able to avoid the issue partly due to mixed signals from the West. While influential think tanks stress the need for regimes to do what they have long avoided and incorporate the Islamists into the political arena, all paradoxically insist that Arab regimes cooperate in the U.S.-sponsored war on terrorism.

The return of Islamist moderates, such as Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, to the political arena is a promising development but foreign actors should also affirm the importance of creating a peaceful climate that provides all political forces the right to exist and practice. Secular parties have ironically suffered the most from the many restrictions on political activity, to which Islamists have shown themselves more capable of adapting.

In any case the last word remains with the governing regimes, which hold the reins of power. Reconciliation proceeds, inevitably, according to the will of the decision makers; Islamists and thousands of their sympathizers have already paid the price of admission.

Although some consider talk about the return of Islamists premature in countries like Tunisia and Algeria, all indications are that these countries are not isolated from the profound changes that the Arab east is witnessing. Many taboos have fallen and new protest groups have begun to combine secularists and Islamists, for example the Kifaya movement in Egypt and the Tunisian “October 18 Movement for Rights and Freedoms.” The latter has returned light to the Tunisian political arena. After years of slumber the Tunisian street awoke to a hunger strike by prisoners whose slogan was “Hunger, but not submission,” and whose core was a coalition of communists, nationalists, and Islamists.

Reconciliation between regimes and Islamists remains far from a reality despite popular demands. The obstinacy of the governing regimes in the region and their continued refusal cannot conceal the essence of the matter: there can be no reform without reconciliation. In other words, there can be no new beginning without due regard for those whose rights have been violated, whether Islamist or secularist.

Bassam Bounenni is a Tunisian journalist and researcher residing in Doha. This article was translated from Arabic by Kevin Burnham.

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News and Views

Iraq: Government Formation Delayed

Formation of a new Iraqi government has been stalled due to a political deadlock following an upsurge in sectarian violence after an attack on a Shiite shrine in Samarra on February 22. Iraq's parliament delayed its first session until March 16 because of disagreements over the choice of a prime minister. According to the constitution, the prime minister is selected from the parliamentary bloc with the most seats, in this case the United Iraqi Alliance, which won 130 parliamentary seats in the December 2005 elections. The Shiite bloc has resisted demands from Kurdish and Sunni politicians that it withdraw Ibrahim Al Jaafari as candidate for prime minister in Iraq's new government on the grounds that he failed to improve the situation in the year he served as interim prime minister. For their part, the main Kurdish coalition chose current President Jalal Talabani as their candidate for the presidency and Sunni groups are still discussing candidates for the post of speaker of parliament.

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Lebanon: National Dialogue Launched

Political leaders initiated a series of “National Dialogue” meetings on March 2 to discuss pressing issues that have divided the Lebanese political scene into anti- and pro- Syrian camps since the February 14, 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. Items on the agenda include the investigation into Hariri's assassination, Lebanon's relations with Syria, and U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559, which calls for free and fair presidential elections and the disarmament of all militias in Lebanon. The meetings bring together the leaders of fourteen political groups including Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, Future Movement parliamentary leader Saad Hariri, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea, Free Patriotic movement leader Michel Aoun, Phalange Party leader Amin Gemayel, Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, and Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri. So far, politicians have agreed on tasking the government with following up on the creation on an international tribunal to try the suspects in the investigation, on disarming Palestinian factions outside refugee camps within six months, and on establishing full diplomatic ties with Syria. They have also agreed that the Shebaa Farms—an Israeli- occupied border area that the UN says is Syrian unless Beirut and Damascus amend their border—is Lebanese territory. Two of the most controversial issues remain unresolved: the U.N. call for the disarmament of Hizbollah and the fate of President Emile Lahoud, whose mandate was extended under Syrian pressure for three years in 2004. The anti-Syrian majority in parliament has repeatedly called for Lahoud to step down since Hariri's assassination.

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Jordan: New Laws, Leadership Change in the Muslim Brotherhood

Prime Minister Marouf Al Bakhit announced that a draft political party law will be submitted to parliament before the end of the current session on March 30. Under the proposed legislation, an independent body composed of members of the judiciary and the ministers of justice and political development would take over the task of granting party licenses from the interior ministry. The draft also introduces state funding to political parties in accordance with the number of seats won in parliamentary or municipal elections. The draft continues to penalize parties for obtaining foreign funding, which the government claims allows parties to fall under external influence.

A draft municipal elections law is also expected to be submitted to parliament. According to government officials, the new law would introduce a 20 percent quota for women and would redraw current municipal boundaries. Jordan's largest political party, the Islamic Action Front (IAF), opposes the quota on the grounds that it is unconstitutional and underestimates the ability of Jordanian women to win in a free race. The IAF is also opposed to redrawing municipal divisions because it would increase the number of governmental appointees to municipal posts; the 2003 Municipal Law allows the government to appoint the head of every council as well as half of its members. No final date has been announced for municipal elections scheduled to take place in 2006.

In another development, Jordan's Muslim Brotherhood elected a new leader on March 4. Salem Al Fallahat, member of the Muslim Brotherhood Shura (Consultative) council for four consecutive terms, was chosen general supervisor for a four-year term, replacing Abdul Majid Thneibat who held the post for twelve years and declined to stand for reelection. Jamil Abu Bakr, a prominent figure in the movement, was named deputy general supervisor.

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Palestine: Constitutional Court Challenged

In its first session since being sworn in, the new 132-member Palestinian Legislative Council voted on March 6 to revoke all legislation passed by the previous parliament in its final session on February 13, including a new law that gave President Mahmoud Abbas the authority to appoint a new constitutional court without seeking legislative approval. Hamas, whose Change and Reform list won 74 seats in the January elections, strenuously objected to the legislation on the grounds that it would effectively give Abbas veto power over new laws, as judges would be empowered to decide whether laws approved by the new parliament were constitutional. Sixty-nine of 120 present MPs voted to revoke the laws and Fatah members withdrew in protest. It is unclear whether the revocation of the court will stand.

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Syria: Closure of Human Rights Center; New U.S. Democracy Promotion Grant

On March 5, the Syrian government closed the country's first human rights center barely a week after it was established by the Belgium-based Institute for International Assistance and Solidarity with the aim of offering legal advice and training on human rights issues. According to the government, the center was closed because it had not received official permission to operate. Syrian security forces detained Ammar Qurabi, spokesman for the Arab Organization for Human Rights in Syria, upon his arrival at Damascus airport on March 12. Click here for more details on the case.

The U.S. State Department's Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) announced on February 17 that it will grant $5 million to organizations in Syria promoting democratic practices such as the rule of law, government accountability, access to independent sources of information, freedom of association and speech, and free, fair and competitive elections. Grants are expected to range from $100,000 to $1,000,000. The group of Syrian opposition parties and activists known as the Damascus Declaration stated they would not accept U.S. funds because doing so would damage their credibility in Syria.

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Egypt: Crackdown on Judges, Press, Muslim Brothers

On February 16, Egypt's Supreme Judiciary Council stripped four senior judges of immunity in order to question them about accusations against other judges of fraudulent activities during 2005 parliamentary elections. Mahmoud Al Khodairi (Vice Chairman of the Court of Appeals and Chairman of the Alexandria Judges Club), Ahmed Meki (Vice Chairman of the Court of Cassation), Hesham Bastawisi, and Mahmoud Meki (both members of the Court of Cassation) have also led the call for the Supreme Judiciary Council to be replaced by an elected body and have criticized the government's laxity in investigating charges of fraud and assaults on citizens and judges in the parliamentary elections. Several other judges also have been called in for questioning. The move was widely seen in Egypt as an attempt by the government to exert pressure on the judges given their increasingly confrontational stances regarding judicial independence. The case reportedly has been referred to the Ministry of Justice, and it is unclear whether the judges will face prosecution or disciplinary measures.

Tension is also on the rise between the Egyptian government and the press in light of recent court rulings against journalists facing prison time in libel cases. On March 7, a criminal court sentenced journalist Amira Malsh to one year in prison on charges of libeling a judge in a story published in the independent weekly Al Fagr in July 2005. On February 23 an appeals court upheld a one-year prison sentence given to Abdel Nasser Al Zuhairi, a journalist with the independent daily Al Masry Al Youm, convicted of libeling the country's former environment minister. Al Zuhairi and two colleagues from the same paper were also ordered to pay US$1,745 in damages to the minister. The events have prompted appeals for the 1996 law criminalizing libel to be repealed, which President Hosni Mubarak promised to do two years ago. Egypt's Press Syndicate has called for a general assembly on March 17 to review the situation.

Egyptian authorities arrested approximately twenty members of the Muslim Brotherhood during the first week of March after temporarily shutting down the Afaq Arabiya weekly, a publication known as the group's mouthpiece.

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Algeria: Amnesty Law Implemented

The Algerian government announced on March 1 that it will release approximately 2,600 Islamists detained during Algeria's 1990s conflict. As part of this initiative, Algerian authorities released 150 prisoners on March 4 and the deputy-chairman of the banned Islamic Front for Salvation (FIS) Ali Belhadj on March 6. Belhadj was arrested in July 2005 on charges of encouraging terrorism; he had previously served a twelve-year term with FIS chairman Abbasi Madani. The releases come after the Algerian government approved on February 21 the implementation of the provisions in the National Peace and Reconciliation Charter, an amnesty law proposed by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to grant exemption from prosecution to any member of an armed group for crimes committed in the civil conflict that began in 1992. Proposed by Bouteflika in 2000 and approved by 97 percent of voters in a September 2005 referendum, the charter provides amnesty for all security forces who fought against armed Islamic groups, shields from criminal prosecution members of these groups who surrender their weapons in the next six months unless they participated in “mass murder, rape or the use of explosives in public places,” and provides for compensation of victims' families. A joint statement by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the International Center for Transitional Justice, and the International Federation for Human Rights argues that the decree consecrates impunity for crimes under international law and will muzzle debate about Algeria's internal conflict.

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Libya: New Prime Minister

A March 6 cabinet reshuffle replaced Libya's Prime Minister Shukri Ghanem, considered an economic reformer, with his more conservative deputy Baghdadi Al Mahmoudi. Appointed prime minister in June 2003, Ghanem faced opposition from hardliners in the Libyan regime who opposed his market-oriented economic plan to rationalize the government subsidy system and privatize state companies. Ghanem has been appointed head of the National Oil Corporation. The cabinet reshuffle created seven new ministries: agriculture, transportation, education, health, housing, social affairs and industry, and electricity.

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Kuwait: New Press Law

The Kuwaiti parliament approved a new press law on March 6 by unanimous vote of the 53 MPs present at the session. The law, which replaces the 1961 press and publications law, will become effective when the government issues its bylaws in six months. The new law prohibits the arrest and detention of journalists until a final court verdict is delivered by the Supreme Court and allows citizens whose applications for newspaper licenses are rejected to sue the government in court (the 1961 law gave applicants the right to appeal only to the government itself). While the new law prohibits the closure of publications without a final court verdict, publications may be suspended for up to two weeks for investigation. It also bans jailing journalists for all but religious offenses, criticisms of the emir, and calls to overthrow the government, stipulating up to one year in jail for these offenses and fines ranging between US$17,000 and US$70,000.

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United Arab Emirates: First Human Rights Association

The United Arab Emirates' first official human rights association was established on February 18 with the aim of “respecting and enforcing human rights according to the state's laws and constitution.” Led by former Ambassador Muhammad Al Duhaim, the organization will be based in Abu Dhabi.

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Yemen: Release of Al Houthi Supporters

President Ali Abdullah Saleh pardoned 627 supporters of the late Shiite cleric Hussein Badreddine Al Houthi on March 6. The prisoners were accused of participating in Al Houthi's armed rebellion in northwest Yemen beginning on June 18, 2004.

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Upcoming Political Events

  • Iraq: First parliamentary session, March 16.
  • Bahrain: Municipal elections in May; legislative elections in October.
  • Jordan: Municipal elections expected by mid-2006.

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Views from the Arab Media

Al Jazeera's political debate show “Al Ittijah Al Muakis” (The Other Side) featured a discussion on February 28 on the question of amnesty granted to security forces in the Arab world. Tunisian writer and activist Munsif Al Mazrouqi asserted that the recent efforts in Morocco and Algeria to compensate victims of human rights abuses fall short of a comprehensive process of national reconciliation, which would entail identifying abusers from the security forces. Majed Nema, editor-in-chief of Africa and Asia magazine, disagreed, asserting that the Algerian military establishment did not take part in the abuses of the Algerian civil war and that the real perpetrators are the Islamist fundamentalists. He added that the Algerian public voted in a referendum to “turn the page” on these issues.

Egyptian writer Walid Mahmoud Abdel Nasser provides an overview of the different facets of the current debate in the Arab world over Islamist movements participating in government in a March 11 article in Al Hayat. He argues that this discourse is shaped by four main positions: secularists who believe that if democratic reforms are to take place Islamists must be excluded from the political process, secularists who call for the integration of moderate Islamist movements into mainstream politics, Islamists who recognize the need to participate in the political process (for varying reasons), and Islamists who remain skeptical of the benefits of such a course.

Amr Hamzawy argues that Arab secularists can recover from their failure in recent elections across the Arab world in a March 14 opinion article in Ash Sharq Al Awsat. To do so, Arab secularists must not confine themselves to civil society organizations but rather return to the street through political activism and the creation of new parties and movements with a clear reform agenda focused on freedom and justice. Their commitment to these two ideals will give them an ethical legitimacy that both authoritarian regimes and Islamists lack.

In a February 25 article in Ash Sharq Al Awsat, columnist Ahmad Al Rabi warns of the danger posed by certain Iraqi politicians, who are capitalizing on the increasing violence in Iraq to achieve short-sighted goals. He posits that Shiite cleric Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani's call for national unity after the bombing of the Shiite Shrine in Samarra should serve as an example of constructive action to other politicians.

Mohammad Munir criticizes recent court decisions in Egypt sentencing journalists to prison terms for libel. In an article in Egypt's independent daily Al Masry Al Youm on March 11, Munir asserts that the crackdown seeks to prevent the press from uncovering corruption scandals implicating high officials in the government. In the past, these officials could silence journalists through bribes, but the emergence of independent press outlets in Egypt has forced the government to resort to more oppressive tactics.

Several articles discuss the political process in Palestine after Hamas's triumph in the January legislative elections:

  • The post-election political scene could mark the beginning of the first serious Palestinian internal dialogue, according to a March 11 opinion article by Palestinian writer Rasem Al Madhoun in Al Hayat. He contends that Hamas's victory presents an opportunity for actors, particularly Hamas and Fatah, to reevaluate policies and attempt to devise a solution to the Palestinian crisis.
  • Along the same lines, Fahmi Huweidi asserts in a February 22 commentary in Al Sharq Al Awsat that Hamas's victory is a test not only for Hamas but for the Fatah party as well. Criticizing Fatah's reaction to the electoral results, Huweidi calls on the “true and loyal” members of Fatah who still believe in the greater national good to use this experience as a chance to rid the party of corrupt figures blinded by self-interest.
  • In a February 22 opinion article in the same paper, columnist Abdel Rahman Al Rashed argues that Western powers acted rashly in their negative response to Hamas's victory in the Palestinian legislative elections. Denying the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority financial aid does not weaken Hamas, which can find sufficient funds from allies around the region, but will transform it into a popular hero in the region.

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Read On

The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has compiled a fact-sheet on U.S. democracy assistance to the Middle East. The page includes information on U.S. governmental and non-governmental funding agencies, as well as on organizations that implement democracy programs in the region with U.S. funding. Please click here to open the page.

Several recent publications focus on Iraq:

  • U.S. policy in Iraq cannot continue to be informed by the lessons of Vietnam because today's conflict in Iraq is a communal civil war rather than a Maoist people's war, argues Stephen Biddle in “Seeing Baghdad, Thinking Saigon” (Foreign Affairs, March/April 2006).

  • The United States should not repeat the United Kingdom's mistake in Iraq in the 1920s, namely premature withdrawal, argues Joel Rayburn in “The Last Exit from Iraq” (Foreign Affairs, March/April 2006).

  • A recent survey suggests that while there is a widespread desire for democracy among Iraqis, attitudes toward the role of religion, ethnicity, and gender equality are more varied (Mark Tessler, Mansoor Moaddel, and Ronald Inglehart, “What Do Iraqis Want?,” Journal of Democracy, vol. 17, no. 1, January 2006, 38-50).

  • Deborah Avant compares the use of private security in Iraq to the history of U.S. contractors on the battlefield, outlining the risks and benefits associated with their use and considerations for policy makers in “The Privatization of Security: Lessons from Iraq” (Orbis, vol. 50, no. 2, March 2006, 327-42).

  • Beliefs about a war's likely success are more likely to shape public attitudes toward a conflict that combat casualties, argue Christopher Gelpi, Peter Feaver, and Jason Reifler in “Success Matters: Casualty Sensitivity and the War in Iraq” (International Security, vol. 30, no. 3, Winter 2005/06, 7-46).


Several recent publications address the Hamas victory in Palestine's January 2006 legislative elections:

  • David Makovsky, Michael Herzog, and Elizabeth Young propose objectives and criteria for foreign aid to the Palestinian Authority in “ Where to Draw the Line on International Assistance to the Palestinians? ” (Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Policy Watch no. 1083, March 1, 2006).

  • Hamas Triumphant: Implications for Security, Politics, Economy, and Strategy ” details the strategy and tactics of Hamas, the political and security implications of its victory, and proposes options for foreign responses (Robert Satlof, ed., Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Policy Focus no. 5, February 2006).

  • Graham Usher examines the significance of the Palestinian elections and the challenges that it presents to Hamas, Fatah, Israel, and the United States in “Hamas Risen” (Middle East Report Online no. 238, Spring 2006).

  • A properly-executed engagement policy is more likely to encourage a fundamental shift in Hamas's policies than the strategy of isolation currently pursued by Israel, and the Quartet, argues Schlomo Brom in “A Hamas Government: Isolate or Engage”(United States Institute of Peace, Briefing, March 2006).

  • A new Congressional Research Service report provides an overview of the political realities in the West Bank and Gaza after the election and the challenges Fatah and Hamas face as well as implications for U.S. policy (Aron Pita,“ Fatah and Hamas: The New Palestinian Factional Reality,” CRS Report for Congress, March 3, 2006).


Several recent publications discuss reform-related developments in specific Arab countries:

  • Oussama Safa examines the prospects for Lebanese political reform in “Lebanon Springs Forward” (Journal of Democracy, vol. 17, no. 1, January 2006, 22-37).

  • Inmaculada Szmolka examines the institutional dynamics that have led to the overwhelming victory of Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in the April 2004 presidential elections (“The Algerian Presidential Elections of 2004: An Analysis of Power Relationships in the Political System,” Mediterranean Politics, vol. 11, no. 1, March 2006, 39-57).

  • In a recent United States Institute of Peace briefing, Mona Yacoubian and Scott Lasensky discuss the Syrian regime's continued consolidation of power and the positions of Bashar Al Assad, the Syrian public, and the opposition (“Syria and Political Change II,” March 2006).

  • There is no evidence that Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood would adopt more democratic values as a result of political participation, argues Magdi Khalil in “Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood and Political Power: Would Democracy Survive?” (Middle East Review of International Affairs, vol. 10, no. 1, March 2006).

  • Bahgat Korany analyzes the recent constitutional reforms in Egypt, the challenges facing the Egyptian political system, and the prospects for democratization in “Egypt's Overdue Reform: A Prototype of the Middle East to Come?” (Mediterranean Politics, vol. 11, no. 1, March 2006, 83-9).

  • The Libyan model is not applicable to other regimes that seek to develop chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons, such as Syria, Iran, and North Korea, warns Jon Alterman in “Libya and the U.S.: The Unique Libyan Case” (Middle East Quarterly, vol. 8, no. 1, Winter 2006).

  • Recent economic reforms have not succeeded in improving the Syrian economy, argues Soren Schmidt in “The Missed Opportunity for Economic Reform in Syria,” (Mediterranean Politics, vol. 11, no. 1, March 2006, 91-7).

The State Department's 2005 Country Reports on Human Rights were released on March 8, 2006.  The introduction to the 2005 report highlights positive developments in only two Arab states: Iraq for holding historic elections and adopting a permanent constitution, and Lebanon for ending the Syrian military occupation and democratically electing a new parliament. Syria was placed in a category of states that “severely and systematically violate the human rights of their own people,” and was criticized for its continued support to Hizbollah and Hamas, and for its refusal to cooperate fully with the UN International Investigative Commission on the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Al Hariri.   Egypt showed “mixed progress;” it held its first multicandidate presidential election but presidential and parliamentary elections were characterized by low turnout, fraud, and extensive use of force.


Several recent publications address regional trends related to reform:

  • Communalism may be an avenue to democratization in the Arab world, argues Barry Rubin in “Dealing with Communalism” (Journal of Democracy, vol. 17, no. 1, January 2006, 51-62).

  • Naomi Sakr questions the plausibility of separating the two trends that have caused structural changes to the Arab media, namely top-down change and change from within (“Foreign Support to Media Freedom Advocacy in the Arab Mediterranean: Globalization from Above or Below?,” Mediterranean Politics, vol. 11, no. 1, March 2006, 1-20).

  • Pacted transitions that take into account rulers' interests are more likely to produce sustainable democratic transitions, argues Steven Cook in “The Promise of Pacts” (Journal of Democracy, vol. 17, no. 1, January 2006, 63-74).

  • The fundamental problem in Middle Eastern states is not a democratic deficit but the lack of inclusive national identities, notes P R Kumaraswamy in “Who Am I?: The Identity Crisis in the in the Middle East” (Middle East Review of International Affairs, vol. 10, no. 1, March 2006).

  • The March 2006 issue of the Middle East Report Online includes analysis of implications of recent elections in Palestine and Egypt.

  • The Gulf Research Center's Security and Terrorism Bulletin includes commentary on the challenges and limitations of anti-terrorism laws (February 2006).

  • The March 2006 issue of Al Mustaqbal Al Arabi (The Arab Future) includes analysis of the Palestinian elections, the future of Islamist movements in Morocco, and corruption issues in Iraq's reconstruction process (Center for Arab Unity Studies).

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