Is America serious about democracy and political reform in the Arab world? Does the neo-Wilsonian dimension of the Bush administration's policy toward the region presage a decisive departure from the longstanding realist policy of "regime maintenance"?
The Algerian government has billed the country's April 8 presidential election, in which incumbent Abdelaziz Bouteflika defeated five challengers with a reported 83 percent of the vote, as a "turning point" for democratization. The smooth and mostly peaceful conduct of the vote and the 59 percent turnout mark a distinct improvement over the flawed 1999 polls.
There is broad consensus in Washington that a "war of ideas" is a central component of the larger war on terror. And in this war, a prime target is the "poisonous" Arab media environment, particularly the new satellite television channels , which are blamed for spreading anti-American sentiment.
On September 29, Algerians overwhelmingly endorsed the draft Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation, 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 conflict that began in 1992.
The low voter turnout in the May 2007 legislative elections (about 36 percent, compared to 65 percent in 1997 elections) showed that Algerians still believe that their votes do not make a difference. Clearly power rests somewhere other than in the elected legislature.
The second of June marked the second anniversary of the assassination of Lebanese writer Samir Qasir, with no indication of who ordered the car bombing that silenced one of the loudest Arab voices criticizing autocratic Arab regimes, particularly the Assad family in Syria.
Until recently Western assistance programs aimed at strengthening political parties were less present in the Arab world than in almost all other areas of the developing world. As part of the heightened U.S. and European interest in promoting Arab political reform, however, such programs are multiplying in the region.
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.
Foreign democracy assistance organizations working directly with political parties have come into the line of fire as some Arab governments have pushed back against democratization initiatives over the past two years. In Algeria, Bahrain, and Egypt in particular, the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International Republican Institute (IRI) have been among the first to feel pressure.