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March 9, 2005

Democratic Reform in the Arab World

Moderator: Lyse Doucet
Panellists: Amat A. Alsoswa, Carl Bildt, Saad Eddin Ibrahim, Amre Moussa
Respondents: Fred Halliday, Marina Ottaway

In the panel Democratic Reform in the Arab World, the discussion revolved around recent developments in the Middle East. Panellists’ experiences from Yemen, Egypt and Iraq helped to view the situation through a variety of regional lenses. Most were hopeful that a new dawn for democracy had broken, because most Arabs were –in the words of one panellist– fed up with the current state of affairs. There was some argument about the merits of foreign intervention to help build democracy, with some arguing that democracy can only emerge from within a nation whilst others welcomed the American attitude towards regime change in Iraq.


Complete audio of the conference

Transcription / Transcripción

Moderator: Lyse Doucet
Welcome to all of you.

I'm Lyse Doucet, from the BBC, and I think I speak for all of us when I say we're very lucky today, meeting in March 2005. What if we'd met six months ago and had a session on Arab reform? What would it have been? Lots of pledges, lots of platitudes, lots of what-ifs, and can't-do, and won't-do. Instead, we're meeting at a most extraordinary time in the Middle East. Do we call it Winds of Change, do we call it the Purple Revolution, the Cedar Revolution, do we call it George Bush's Campaign succeeding...? We don't really know what to call it, but all of us here today—on the panel and in the audience—know that something quite unique is happening, and whether it's the elections in Iraq, the municipal elections in Saudi Arabia, the elections in the Palestinian areas that Sa’eb Erakat has just described as the most successful in 1400 years (I think Hamid Albayati would disagree with that), or the spontaneous uprising in Lebanon, which they're calling a peaceful intifada, or even those little sparks that don't really make the headlines, a few hundred Kuwaiti women shouting outside their parliament this week.

All of these things we want to look at today. We want not just to look at them and the details; we want to ask 'How did we get here' and 'Where is it all going?' 'Are all these events linked in any way?', 'What brought them about?' and, most critically, not just to us but to the people of the Arab World, 'Where is it all leading?'. And can institutional processes like elections and spontaneous uprisings all lead in the direction we've been told they're going to go: to greater democracy, greater openness? Can societies that have lived for decades under authoritarian rule suddenly become democratic? Where have all the democrats been? Do you suddenly become a democrat? Are you born a democrat? What about the outside world? Can we really say that the Bush team, [...] major capitalists? What about Europe, which has been talking about promoting democratic values for so long? And then we want to bring it back to the main question of this conference and to confront the theory that it's become a truism to say that greater political openness, greater democracy and freedom should lead to an end to violence, to militancy, an end to terrorism—in other words, to a safer world, for all of us and for the individual country.

Those are just some of the questions that we would like to discuss today, so we'd like this of course to be more of a discussion, because it's happening right before our eyes. Perhaps even when we go out of this session we'll find out on the news that something else amazing has happened. We want to keep it lively and we want to move it forward. Because I want to share with you, the panel that's been assembled here, because I think we have all the right kind of people who can discuss these sorts of questions.

Just to my left, the man with the grey beard, the man who has fought for democracy for as long as he can remember, Saad Eddin Ibrahim, from Egypt. Now I can't say that much about him, because he's a presidential candidate now, so in effect he's running for office, so I don't want to give him any unnecessary promotion. But all of you know he's been fighting for a very long time, and because of this sudden announcement that there will be multi-party elections, he'll be running. And he also has the Ibn Khaldun Center in Egypt. He'll have a lot to say today.

To my immediate left is Hamid Albayati, who's now the deputy Foreign Minister of Iraq. He's a man also who has suddenly been thrust into a new democracy; we can say just what kind of democracy it is, that Purple Revolution, but he was in exile for twelve years during Saddam Hussein's rule, returned after the fall of Saddam Hussein, he's a leading member of SCIRI, which as many of you know is one of the main parties in the mainly Shiite alliance, which got the largest share of votes in the Iraq election and look set to dominate the new assembly. Do you want to ask him questions about what kind of democracy Iraq is heading towards?

Of course, Yemen would say that it was leading the march towards democracy for a long time before anyone else even started it, and we're very fortunate to have today Amat al-Alim al-Soswa, the Minister of Human Rights, who wants us to know she's not just a government minister, she's been an activist for a very long time, a female activist, a women's activist and also a journalist. You might have to ask her about Yemen's treatment of journalists as well, I think, but Yemen may have some experiences that can be useful in our discussion today.

Of course, we want to broaden it, we want to look at what the international community can do, and there may be no-one better than Carl Bildt, who is a member of the Club of Madrid, he's a former Prime Minister of Sweden, and we all know that those Scandinavian countries love to talk about democracy and try to promote democracy and put their money behind it, but also for a decade he held almost every position possible in the Balkans, whether it was High Representative, Special Representative, Special Envoy... Whatever he was doing, he was trying to promote political processes and getting the Balkans back on their feet after their wars. More recently, he was in the Palestinian areas with Jimmy Carter to oversee the Palestinian election, so he'll have some comments on that.

But we can't let our panellists get away. I work for the BBC, you know, and I can't give them too hard a time, so we have our respondents here to try to help us. And what a good, [...] set of respondents we have. We have Marina Ottaway, who is a Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington, and they have a special Middle East Reform Initiative, so they have been looking at Middle East Reform for some time and now I'm sure your project as well has become a lot more exciting. Also, some of you may be familiar of course with Marina Ottaway's work. She wrote books on Ethiopia, she focussed on the Horn of Africa for a long time, so looking at other parts of the Arab World can sometimes go unnoticed.

And last but not least Frederick Halliday, who likes to write about the one hundred myths of the Middle East. He says there's more than a hundred, but he can only write about a hundred in his recent book. He's a Professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics, he's also working at the CIDOB, in Barcelona, as visiting Professor there as well, so he may lapse into Spanish, which is one of the zillion languages that Fred speaks, so we'll try to keep him to English and also to the topic.

So let us begin to discuss this most pressing issue of the day: democratic reform in the Arab world. With your permission, I'm going to start with Saad Eddin Ibrahim, because he's been waiting so long to talk in public about democracy I think we should allow him. And I think, Saad, I'm going to ask you to answer the question. I went to Egypt a month ago and I was told, 'Egypt is not ready, it's not ready for multi-party presidential elections. We're going to do it, but we can't do it now', and then suddenly... it happened. Explain this sudden epiphany in Egyptian politics. Saad Ibrahim.

Saad Ibrahim
Thank-you very much.

No, nothing occurred suddenly. We have been working for this for some time, but we were hardly heard outside Egypt or the Arab world. There have been Arab democrats fighting for at least the last thirty years, but we were sharing the stage with two more powerful forces. The first one was the autocrats, people who have been in power, entrenched in power for a long time, for at least fifty years, and theocrats, the religious militants, who came onto the scene after 1967—that is to say forty years ago.

So you have three forces at work in the Arab world: the autocrats—the Mubaraks, the Saddams, the Assads, the Gaddafis—; and you have the theocrats —the latest version of which is Bin Laden, but before him there was [...] and others. And then you have the newest of the three, the democrats. That is a thirty-year-old movement that has been fighting. And it is the pressure from that movement internally, it is the regional events, thanks to Iraq, Palestine and, more recently, Lebanon and Beirut and even the limited achievements in Saudi Arabia. These are the forces that have given rise to hope, to a spring of freedom, if you wish. I hope I'm not speaking too early or too prematurely, but that is how I feel, as an activist that finally things are growing in the region, and I hope those of you in the West who have supported autocrats for so long for fear of theocrats will now shift their strategy and line up with the democrats. So between the three —the triangle— please, come to our help for change. Only with your help this spring of freedom will definitely occur.

But I do not think that Mubarak would have initiated the constitutional amendment if it wasn't for domestic pressure, if it wasn't for Iraq and Palestine and Lebanon, if it wasn't for international pressure on him through the G8 or other forums. So, we are all in this together. So if you really want to put an end to not only despotism but also to terrorism, you have to line up with the democrats. These are my opening statements and I hope I answered your question.

As presidential candidate, I have to tell you the story [...] I declared my candidacy, or my intention to run, four months ago, and that was basically a symbolic gesture to challenge Mubarak, to tell him, 'If you really think you are a man of the people, if you think you have popular support, open up the process, move from a referendum to contested elections'. And in the beginning he described that as non-serious, as insignificant, that we are futile, any talk about constitutional amendment is futile. That was only a month ago, and then, as you said, this mounting pressure in the region, from Iraq, to Palestine, to Beirut, even to Riyad, to Washington, to London, has helped to move the process, and to compel him to make that concession.

Now it is a wonderful opportunity and we are trying to make that window a [...] opportunity, to get from changing one article of the constitution to changing at least four articles, to put a term limit, to not have his son, or any other presidential son groomed and hanging onto power for another fifty years. We want to make it contested, we want to make a term limit, probably two terms maximum, each five years to coincide with the parliamentary election, so it will be a maximum of ten years and will keep the process going. I feel we are capable. Many of you ask, and in the morning the question was raised, 'Are we ready for democracy in the Arab world?' I think [...] said, 'Even to pose that question has a smell of racism'. I say, 'No, it is outright racism, not a smell. It is racist to ask that question about the Arab world. The Arabs have had a liberal age from the middle of the nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth century. We had constitution...


Let me just bring in Hamid Albayati, now, especially as Iraq is now pointed to as one of the catalysts that has led to change elsewhere. Just tell us a little bit about just how fragile it seems. Has the simple act of casting a ballot opened up what we call democracy in Iraq?

Hamid Albayati
Thank-you Lyse. Ladies and gentlemen, I don't know if you know that the election in Iraq which was held on January 30 was the first one since 1958 —that's almost fifty years. None of the existing friends or relatives has ever really participated in the election, and you know as well that terrorist groups from all over the world come to Iraq to stop the political process from going ahead. Osama Bin Laden, from his safe haven God-knows-where, issued a fatwah that democracy and elections are infidelity and that those who will vote in the elections deserve to be killed. So did Musab al-Zarqawi, who sent suicide bombers. Dozens of suicide bombers went on election day to blow up women, children and elderly people who went to raise their voices for the first time after half a century. But the majority of the Iraqi people really participated. As you know, over fifty percent of the registered voters went to ballot boxes and the Iraqi people were jubilant, they celebrated this occasion everywhere. It was a big victory and I think the Iraqi people challenged the tyrants and they proved that democracy can be practised even in the most difficult places in the world. So many voices were raised in the region and the world that these elections should be postponed or even cancelled because of the terrorist threat.

However, we insisted and unfortunately very few people supported us in the world that elections should be held according to the timetable because it was a commitment in front of the Iraqi people. It was a commitment in front of the international community, according to Resolution 1546, the Security Council Resolution. Now the election has approved that it is a good start, many events follow in the region; however, it is only the start and many things will follow. I think, [...] Ibrahim mentioned the situations in Egypt, Lebanon and maybe somewhere else in the region are very much affected the situation in Iraq after the election. Now, what sort of election did we manage to have? Although we have the majority of over fifty percent [...] information about the Sunnis' boycott of the election, most of the Sunnis now regret and they feel sorry that they didn't take part in the election. I think they were deceived by certain groups, especially those terrorist groups that tried to intimidate people, and we know that some Sunni leaders were willing to take part but they were afraid that they would be killed. Even some ex-Baath party leaders were willing to take part but they were afraid they would be killed.

Therefore we think if we get rid of terrorism in Iraq or terrorist groups, not completely but to a certain extent, I think, then the Iraqi people will have a healthy election and then they will have real democracy. We need the support of regional countries and the world, of course, to support Iraq and the Iraqi people to build democracy; we need them to help us to get rid of terrorist groups, especially foreigners. You saw, I think, through the media that all nationalities are in Iraq; people come from different countries in the world, even from Europe, to fight in Iraq under the illusion that they are fighting a Holy War while they are killing women, children and elderly people indiscriminately. Therefore, our experiment in Iraq is good for Iraqis, and for the people in the region and I think it will set an example to be followed in the near future. Thank-you.

Here we have two perspectives from two critical Arab countries on the situation in their countries now. I'm just going to mix it up a little bit. Let's ask Fred Halliday, who of course has an opinion on everything. Fred, we've got different explanations as to why it's happening now. I think that's a question that many of us have. Saad Eddin Ibrahim says they've been trying for this for a long time, but why this particular moment? Many factors or is there one salient factor that we can point to?

Fred Halliday
Certainly many factors. I've just visited Sudan and it's the last Middle Eastern country —I've visited every other Middle-Eastern country, Arab and non-Arab, except Sudan, and there's a mood in the Arab world, and the mood is people are fed up with their rulers, they are fed up. They are fed up with Islamist demagogues and murderers and blah-blah-blah, people saying that Shariah can solve everything or they can go back to the seventh century. These people want to be part of the twenty-first century. They are fed up with socialist and Marxist blah-blah-blah, which might have some intellectual application in the Arab world, but nothing in practice. Yemen people said, '[...] where is the bread?'

And they're fed up with World Bank and computer-literate, five computer languages, blah-blah-blah. I can tell you Arab jokes, Egyptian jokes, but there isn't time for that, but they're very good, I promise you. Maybe afterwards.

And the political leaders they admire are people in the Arab world, [...], people who are simple, who speak straightforwardly. If you go to Yemen, who do they admire? The first president of the Republic, who I met, President Sallal, a simple man, one house, one life, spoke straightforwardly. In Sudan, something extraordinary, we had a meeting in a hotel—OK, you can't say this in the papers, but there were lots of people there, NGOs... the moderator asked a question, 'What can the international community do to help you in Sudan?' And a young man got up and he said, 'You can get the hundred leaders of all the different parties, north and south, put them on a plane and send them to Guantanamo and keep them there. That way we'll solve our problems in Sudan'.

I think this is very important and I think, secondly, the demonstration effect, the fact that people see that there is an element of popular demonstration in Lebanon, the fact that people see there is discussion in Palestine, the fact that the old generation are moving on, and this is a good thing. The old generation have been there far too long, so I think this good.

But thirdly I think the important contradictory—and I use the word advisedly—effect of both European and American policy, not so much what Bush is saying, but the fact that America has an election—that's the important point, the fact that Europe has an election, that's the important point. The force of example. I think, contrary to Reagan and all these people, I think the main reason for the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe was the example of the European Union, Western Europe. Peaceful, democratic, profitable.

It may be boring, but that's what people wanted, and people in the Arab world see that this is a model they are striving for, and please don't tell me that people in the Arab world —or Iran, which is a country I know very well, I went there forty years ago— don't want the same things we do. They do. They want democracy, they want a free press, they want to be treated with respect, and I think these are very important factors. But, I take very much science caution. These things that take time. The European analogy is the inter-war period. Democracy comes, it goes, it's going to take time. There's a certain amount the outside world can do, but not to put your foot in it. And above all, don't start messing with Iran. This would have catastrophic effects for the very interesting changes in Iran and for the region as a whole.

Let's pick up on Fred's last point, because we're focussing on different events happening in the Middle East, but what we want to focus on today is 'How do we move towards democratic reform?' and Amre Moussa, of course, always arrives at exactly the right moment. Just when people are saying they're fed up with their rulers, Amre Moussa walks in to answer that question. We're going to give you a moment, sir, to sit down and collect yourself, but just prepare—that question's for you. Welcome. Let's just move a little bit away from the detail of what's happening, to say it's one thing to have people going out into the streets and asking for reform, it's one thing to have a ballot box, but how do you get from there to democratic reform, truly democratic societies? I think now we're going to bring in Yemen. Amat al-Alim al-Soswa says she's been working for this for a long time, but people say, 'Well, there's been elections in Yemen, there's going to be more elections next year', but has power really been redistributed? Is the country any more democratic? Human rights groups reports still focus on the repression of journalists and the difficulties that journalists are facing there. [...]

Some of the obstacles in this process of moving towards institutions or processes of democracy, towards a truly democratic society. I'm afraid you're going to have to be democratic and share your microphone with her.


Amat al-Alim al-Soswa
This is another false democracy as well. Well, thank-you very much. I think it's difficult, also, to simplify the whole situation in Yemen in five minutes or so, just to give you a brief idea of what's happening, but I'm going to give you just an example of how difficult the situation was prior to 1990, for example. I used to receive a bulletin about human rights Arab organisations in Egypt and I used to receive that in my mailbox and most of the time when I went to get it, either I found an empty envelope or something saying it had been confiscated by the security, because until 1990 it was impossible even to speak about human rights.

This is just to give you a hint about how the situation was, and, moving from there and talking about the implication of the country, because, for us, if we are going to speak about the history of the divided or of the two parts of Yemen, then it's going to take us a very long time, but it's important to just focus on the notion of the change to a socially different political system which took place in 1990. And if you're going to ask me how it happened all of a sudden, no, it didn't really happen all of a sudden. The dialogue and the negotiations and the bloody wars that took place between the two parts of Yemen as well has concluded and has ended in 1990 by the announcement of unification which had to guarantee everybody a place, a suitable place, to really participate, to work together. And then this new political system, of course, had to start with this full notion of openness because, you know, the Yemeni society has such a complex situation as well. The tribal influence, the social structure, the religious conservatism and all these ideas which we also really looked at –obstacles at the beginning. And we found out that, day after day, we could have really used them, with a positive sense of use and people who really involved and different levels of involvement and so it was decided that only a multi-party system would really save the newly announced state and the newly announced society where everybody can share the same responsibility and enjoy the same freedom.

By this, I'm not intending to tell you that Yemen has done that with wonderful storage in terms of the culture of participation or culture of democracy. Yes, we started it with a political announcement, with a political [...], but then the response from the people of Yemen, who were really struggling for so long to enjoy that freedom and that democracy, responded very positively and they were really the main actors and the main factors in the success and also they were still acting to solve the problems and the obstacles which were also a result of a newly introduced system.

So we moved from a country where we had almost not even one announced political party which would work on the table, on the public, except the governing one, except the rulers, to a country where we had more than 58 different political parties in a matter of only two years after the unification, from a country where you had almost not a single newspaper which was independent or privately owned or managed to a country which has more than 116 newspapers, where political parties are to a great extent —I'm not saying fully free, but to a great extent— enjoying freedom of expression and for rights organisations to organise and participate. We have about 5,000 NGOs at least in Yemen, although I'm not saying that all of them are effective or all of them are given the same opportunity to participate, but they are there and everybody is also relying on the constitutional right which is guaranteeing those rights to start with.

So, moving from one totally different situation to the other, of course we're faced with so many difficulties because [...] our culture, on one hand, was not really the right background for such ideas, to be honest, unless we say 'No, we are really a country of traditions of democracy'. We had to really learn and we had also to make mistakes, but the most important thing is that the mistakes were to be announced, were to be admitted, were to be corrected, even if they were difficult, even if they are not really with the common ground or not necessarily going to please the government, but it was there and people were able to debate them, were able to talk about them, and that made them a bit easier. In the question, for example, of the right of expression and freedom of the press, Yemen has moved from a country where the Ministry of Information was censoring the newspapers prior to and after publishing to a place where only the court has the right to decide.

[...] The pace, though, is not going at the same speed that many Yemenis expect. A prominent newspaper editor has been arrested...


Amat al-Alim al-Soswa
It's also the development not only of the government party, it's also the development of the rest of the institutions, and needless to say, Yemen started all these notions without having prior and well-established institutions to safeguard those rights. So we are really in the process of building up, but also, yes, I admit, there is a [...] problem facing the freedom of the press and the country, but unfortunately it is done now through the judiciary, and now we have to think about changing this attitude and changing the laws in order to really complete all the developments that are taking place and we of course are condemning anything like that even if it is coming from the judiciary but still [...] this is not the common experience; it's not the common behaviour. It's good, also, when you have, for example, imprisonment according to the law, because there is also punishment for imprisonment, unfortunately, now everybody, [...] including the President, is calling for the abolishment of this [...]

[...] These are sobering reminders. How do we move from announcements in Egypt and processes and protests taking place on the ground to a fully democratic society? What has to happen in-between? We've just heard from the minister for Yemen [...] that the society is ready to develop, and of course they take their decision, their own verdict, but society may have a completely different verdict. These are some of the things we want to explore. I'm going to open up the floor now, while we're looking at these particular questions and let's try to keep the questions to where we are now in the discussion. If you have to make a brief comment or ask a question of one of our panellists, we'll just take three or four questions now. And if you'd like to say who you are, that's welcome too. The lady in the green asked the first question at the last one so [...] democracy I won't ask her to get the first one this time but you will get a question. Emma Bonino...


Emma Bonino doesn't need a microphone.

Emma Bonino
I want to ask a question of my Arab friends. I'm a European and etcetera, etcetera, but can you clarify, in your feeling, what do you think the international community, comma, Europe, can/should do to foster your process, because most of the time I hear and I'm very much in a difficult position that, quote-unquote, 'Arab world and democracy', you don't want interference. What do you mean by that? Can you clarify? Because that makes campaigning for some issues a little bit difficult. Is that true what you mean? What do you mean? Is that a sort of modern nationalism? Can you help us to understand?

We're going to save that question for a minute. [...]

Delegate from the floor
[...], from Iraq and from the London School of Economics. I have a question for Saad Eddin Ibrahim and for Hamid Albayati, two questions. Mr Ibrahim demanded, rightfully, support for democrats in the Arab world. Who decides who is a democrat in the Arab world and how is that chosen? For example, your categorisation of politics in the Arab world seems to exclude Islamists from the democratic camp. Is that correct? The second question is for Dr Hamid Albayati. The elections in Iraq, of course, were a great victory, but elected governments have to be accountable, they have to fulfil their electoral pledges in order to be legitimate. The vote is just the first step. So are the groups that won the elections going to carry on their electoral policies, particularly about setting a schedule for the withdrawal of foreign troops from Iraq?

[...] Emma Bonino, with your permission, we're going to hold on to your question because I'm just going to get Carl Bildt to address that. We'll let him speak and then we'll open the panel to your question. So we'll put it in reserve. Would you like to answer [...]

Saad Eddin Ibrahim [?]
My stand on your point is: democracy is democracy for all people. We could not and we should not exclude any group, so long as they are committed to the respect of the rules of the democratic game, and that will include moderates, Islamicists... who pledge their respect for human rights, their respect for the rules of the game [...] If they want to play that game with us we should include them. We should not exclude any group, and therefore [...] I think we all ought to come to grips with that issue. Now you know that our autocrats have used that issue for so long: 'If we allow democracy to take hold, the Islamists will come, the barbarians will invade the country'. That's nonsense. Democracy is democracy. If you believe in the rights of people to participate in the process, we should [...] I'm a secularist. I'm a civil society advocate. And yet, I would be the first to defend the right of moderate Islamists. Look at Turkey, look at Morocco, look at Kuwait, look at Jordan, look at Yemen: Islamists, moderate Islamists, enlightened Islamists take part in the process. It wasn't the end of the world. So that scare politics that some of our autocrats have used for so long has to come to an end and Europeans and Americans have to come to grips with that issue.

Democracy is democracy for all. You have the Christian democratic parties in the West; we should have the same here. Muslim democrats who are willing to participate should be allowed to participate.

Hamid Albayati [?]
The question about withdrawing foreign forces from Iraq is a very important issue going on now among the Iraqis and the multi-national force. We believe that according to the Security Council Resolution 1546 there is a timetable for withdrawing the forces. First of all, the resolution stated that these forces will stay in Iraq with the consent of the Iraqi government. Second, that the Iraqi government has the right to review the mandate of these forces any time. Thirdly, that this resolution will be reviewed in twelve months' time. It would be so difficult to put a timetable as such to withdraw these forces because we believe that any premature withdrawal of these forces would cause chaos in Iraq.

First of all, there could be some kind of fighting between different groups and parties. Secondly, we are surrounded by strong neighbouring countries and we don't have a strong army right now. We would rather they asked for more details which was given to them. A week later they said, 'Don't worry. We are tightening our procedure against visas to the United States and we are tightening the rope around al-Zarqawi's neck, so he has no time to plan such an attack. A week later the CNN and the media reported that Americans had intercepted a letter from Osama Bin Laden to Zarqawi asking him to plan an attack in Europe or the States.

Therefore, we believe that if Iraq is going to be a safe haven for terrorists, no country in the region will be safe and we know that Zarqawi planned an attack against the Jordanian institution from Baghdad; we know that there was ...


The question we're interested in today, of course, is whether or not this new embryonic democracy in Iraq can actually do something to minimise the threat of the insurgency and take some of the strength out of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi [...] I think I'm just going to bring in Carl Bildt here, because Emma Bonino mentioned the question about what the international community could do, so I'll bring in Carl here, although we'll still take more questions from the floor in a moment.

Carl Bildt
Well, I'm not quite certain I can answer Emma's question, because that's put the other way round: how much interference—or how much help, if we can put it in those terms—are the democrats or the countries prepared to accept without being compromised, and that's really a question for them [...] But some remarks that I think are important: Why is this happening at this time? I think it boils down to the failure of the system of alternatives in the region, be that Arab socialism, Egypt, or be that a more fundamentalist approach, Iran. The second factor that hasn't been mentioned which I think is very profound is the advent of satellite television, the Al-Jazeera effect. People are seeing all over the Arab world the same pictures of people lining up to cast their vote at democratic elections, be that Iraq or Palestine. They never saw that on television with people speaking Arabic before. Now they see and there's a tremendous impact throughout the region.

Third, of course, the foreign factor: Americans and others [...] a big shift in the way we approach the region. What can we then do? And, primarily, Emma, [...] the European Parliament, what she can do? Take Egypt as the example, because I think that's going to be critical. We now have the European Neighbourhood Policy, as we call it. We have a free-trade agreement with Egypt [...] --no, sorry, an association [...] largely aiming at free trade. We are going to do an action programme together with it. That commission has just proposed that to the council, that's going to be debated in the next few weeks or months. Why don't we [...] conditionality into those particular programmes?, roughly what we've done in the Balkans, roughly what we did [...] when there was rigging of elections in the Ukraine. Are we prepared to go forward with an action programme, where they have a state of emergency that has been in force since 23 years back and which is restricting all of the democratic freedoms that are there in the constitution? I would say that is the question that should be debated in the European Parliament, by the Council of Ministers and by the Commission. And that discussion in itself is going to drive the discussion in Cairo and Egypt is going to [...]

Europe has a soft power that is very strong. We've seen that. We should use that soft power in a somewhat more hard-nosed way. Also, it's a bit late. We've been too complacent. The Americans have been waking us up. We have to give them credit for that, but now we have to be more active on the European side. And it's our neighbours: Europe and the Arab World. We are neighbours. [...] Between us is the small Mediterranean Sea, but that's the nice bit.


Delegate from the floor
I'm [...] Afgani. I represent an international women's solidarity network [...] society. I want to refer to the World Values Survey [...] which reflect the overall support of the Muslim people for the idea of democracy [...] but what it also indicates is the lack of consensus and also very low scores on gender and on tolerance in general. And what I want ask is: in view of the fact that women have been the ones who have done a lot of questioning of the hierarchical structure, the power structures in communities in these countries. They're the ones who are questioning interpretations of the texts that are not egalitarian. They're the ones who are connecting in solidarity and human rights issues, what are the democratic forces in these countries doing to see to it that the process is truly just and egalitarian and takes into effect the entire population as regards participation? Thank you.

The lady in blue...?

Delegate from the floor
[...] of Cordoba, and Averroes, who spoke about laicity as a condition of democracy. Now, what I want to ask is: is the value universal? The constructing is always very specific. We this proof here in my country, in Spain. Don't you think that if somebody wants to lead the [...] from outside, it's spoiling the job?

Moderator [?]
Do you want to address this question about women and if societies can aspire to democracy why not aspire to women's rights as well?

Amat A. Alsoswa
Yes, I think it is needless to say that, if we are talking about human rights, mainly in our region I think we are talking about human rights, because, some people like it or not, but it's really the heart and the core of the whole question in the region. Of course, the Arab world can not be viewed as one bloc in that particular aspect, because, also, we have to look at [...] the historical context, the cultural context. But that's not to say or to give an excuse in certain societies or cultures. Because always, in the question of women, the whole society, regardless of its educational background or its political position, usually it's favourable to blame the culture on the status of women, and I'm not really subscribing to this. I think it's more of a political issue. [...] We're talking, really, about the involvement of women their role and where do they really belong in this whole process of democratisation?

Now, in the Arab world we have so many examples and explanations to the development of the woman question and the emancipation of woman, but living in [...] maybe I'll be more free to speak about the situation in Yemen. We are faced with one difficult issue and that is literacy amongst women. Women in my country, unfortunately, were the latest in the region when it comes to joining the public schools and education, because the whole country, at least in the vast majority of cases are really denied access to even public schools. But women are really the number-one affected sex in the country and until today we're still paying a very expensive price for that. So the literacy problem and the education and the questions of the enrolment of the girls and the accessibility of the schools —especially in countries like Yemen, where we have the difficulty of the economic situation [...] and we're talking also about those rights (they are called sometimes costs, too)— and of course it is a priority that is also [...] Women in my country [...] were given the political right written in the text of the constitution ever since the revolution of the 1962.

But then what has happened is that there was maybe this mere thinking or ideal thinking that since the men are going to develop, then the women, of course, are going to follow. But without any actual or practical steps on the reality, and that's why the gap between the two sexes is really big and in addition to that as well, always we blame, again, the traditions and the cultures and the change of the societies for that but I think it's also [...] political intention and it is a willingness as well. So, even, for example, the women in my country has won the right, in terms of a political right, and the participation and they have developed their presence in the electoral process, for example, from only 500,000 women participating as voters in the 1993 elections to about a million and a half in 1997. And then, in the elections of 2003, women reached 42% of all the voters. But again, then the utilisation, the investment of this big crowd was not really in favour of women. Because every time we were having a growing number for the women voters, apparently the female candidates were getting less, and we were hearing lots of interesting explanations like 'It is still early. It is still early, you know. You have achieved so many things, but you have to wait and you have to be patient'. This is just to give you an example of this.

Another reminder, if it was needed, that democracy takes time. Now, many of you have put your hands up. I'd like to bring in Marina Ottaway to answer this question which is [...] the specificity of each particular country because we're talking about reform in the Arab world and since you have this programme for democratic reform across the Middle east, do you look at it in one sense or do you have to tailor your approaches to each country differently?

Marina Ottaway
No. What we have learned from the work we have done, not only on the Middle East but on the democratic transformation or the attempted democratic transformation of the last fifty years, pretty much across the world, is that when you remove an authoritarian regime, what comes to the surface is not democracy [...], what comes to the fore are the political forces that exist in that society. And those political forces are really specific to the various countries. There have been a few cases, very rare occasions —perhaps the best of those is the Czech Republi–, where in fact you have organised popular political forces, so that you have a very smooth transition, from another authoritarian regime to a democratic regime.

In a lot of countries, the forces that came to the fore were not necessarily democratic; we have seen the problem of the Balkans, we have seen the problem of [...], we have seen the problems of societies that are divided along ethnic and religious lines, and one of the problems in the society is that unless those various political forces find a modus vivendi among themselves they are headed for a conflict of democracy. This is an issue for some Arab countries; it's an issue for Iraq, it's an issue for Lebanon, I don't think it's an issue for Egypt, for example, but certainly it's an issue in some countries. I'm not saying that there is bound to be civil war or that there is bound to be killing, but democracy is not going to progress unless a modus vivendi or an accommodation is found among the groups. You see the pictures of the demonstrations and counter-demonstrations in Lebanon yesterday and you realise how tenuous the situation can become eventually. So this is one problem.

The other problem that we have seen all over is the lack of organisation amongst political forces. Again, what, very often, we find is you remove autocratic regimes and, for reasons that are quite obvious. The democratic organisations are very weak. They have never been allowed to organise, they have never been allowed even to find the right way to organise, particularly in societies where you have a relatively small educated group and a fairly illiterate larger sector of the population. It's very often difficult for the democrats, for the liberal intellectuals to forge an argument, a discourse, that will bring in the rest of the population. Yes, there is ... everybody's fed up. I think if there is no problem I don't think there is support for authoritarian regimes. But there is a big difference between being fed up with authoritarian regimes and being ready to organise, to create effective democratic organisation. So I would argue that if you look at what we have seen elsewhere in the world, the problem is not just a question of time —yes, it does take time, I agree, but it's more than time; it really requires the solution of two specific issues that we have seen [...] the weakness of democratic organisations: unless political parties organise, I think it's really difficult for democracy to flourish.

The second one is the forging of a national compact in those countries that are divided along ethnic and religious lines. And finally, there is an issue which is exclusive to the Arab world —or to the modern world— and that is the issue of the Islamic fundamentalist movement. [...] had touched upon it. I don't think the problem is insurmountable. I would just add one point to what Saad has said; yes, there is no problem in including in the democratic process Islamist parties that agree to embrace human rights and play by the rules. In the early stages, I think the situation is likely to be ambiguous and not so clear-cut.

The other factor is the rulers have to be [...] Before Amre Moussa came in a member of our panel had said that the rulers are not the people who don't want democracy. Amre Moussa, we'll bring you in now, if you'd like to make a comment about where we are [...]

Amre Moussa
Thank-you. I'm not like Emma Bonino; she can talk without a microphone. [...] Thank-you very much for giving me the floor. The title of this session, which is 'Democratic Reform in the Arab World', is an important title and I believe I am comfortable with it and I believe all the representatives of other countries who are here today are also comfortable with it. We consider it an important issue and an important process. At the same time, we have to understand that democracy is a process and the process takes time and our job is to make this time as short as possible. The Arab world now is turning a page, is moving steadily along the path of democracy or towards democracy. Not only the streets or institutions, but the official circles, too. There is a consensus, meeting of minds, that now is the time to move on a democratic path.

I don't have to give examples; you have followed the developments, from Egypt, to Yemen, to Lebanon, to Morocco, to Saudi Arabia, to Palestine, to Iraq. This is a process that is holding and moving. The history of the Middle East —the democratic history of the Middle East— is known to all those who care to read. Democracy started in the Middle East centuries back and in Egypt in particular, since the nineteenth century, there were elected councils, elected parliaments, elected house of commons, if you wish, members elected. In Lebanon, too, and in other places in the Middle East. So there is nothing that would support this racist theory that democracy is incompatible with the Middle-Easterns or with the Arabs or Muslims. This is absolutely a racist view.

[...] But why is it happening now? [...] They want to know why it's happening now.

Amre Moussa
I'll tell you. [...] My view is it has to happen anyway, some time it has to happen. Had it happened ten years ago, [...] ten years ago. It had to happen. But in my judgement, it is the outcome of the change in the international situation since the end of the Cold War. Those of us who were following all those developments, the moment the Cold War ended, the Soviet Union collapsed, many of us thought that now the world is changing, that there would be a wave of changes all over the world, including the Arab and Muslim world, and democracy was one of them. All the nineties, the decade of the nineties, we were discussing a new world order. Carl Bildt will remember that, and Europe participated in that. But what about human rights? What are the new commitments, obligations, rights? Therefore, the fall of the Cold War started the debate about the future of many societies, including democracy, that today, in the first years of the twenty-first century, came to the Middle East, the Arab world—that's fine. But I don't see the value of this question: why now? It is happening. Why are you getting busy with 'why now?'? It is happening and you should help. And when I say you should help, this shows that we have no aversion, and shouldn't have any aversion, to help coming from abroad when we ask for it or which would be the result of a dialogue. It is not a question of 'OK. You do that or else.' This kind of approach will never succeed. Democracy is the path that we all should pursue. I think or I believe, as a citizen of one of the Arab countries, that we need it, we need liberal policies and we need to link up with the world as it is in the twenty-first century. This is a must. One more...


I just want to refer to what the minister from Yemen has just said about women. We were very disturbed, touched, affected by the [...] report about human development, which stressed three deficiencies. One of them was women, the other one was knowledge, the third one was democracy. And I want this audience to know that this report criticising the Arab world tremendously, deeply, was launched from the rostrum of the League of Arab States, which means that we know, we appreciate the power of criticism, and we need to build, we want to change, but we are not ready to enter into auction and attitudes of 'or else', and then, what confused the issue was the talk about democracy linked with, or as a paragraph in, a statement about the broader Middle East, the Wider Middle East, that causes very serious confusion [...] You are asking me 'why now?'. I ask you, 'Why?', what is the relationship between democracy and the wider Middle East—or broader Middle East? What did you mean by that? That confusion created a lot of negative reaction.

Thank-you very much, Amre. I'm going to open because there is a lot of you who have questions [...]

(Continued in: Balancing the Agenda, part 2).


From left to right: sweden's former prime minister Carl Bildt, BBC journalist Lyse Doucet and irakian foreing affairs viceminister Hamid Al Bayati during the session "Democratic reform in the arab world". (Photo: Club de Madrid)

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