Priorities and Mechanisms of Reform in the Arab World 5 -7 July 2004

In International Advocacy Program by

The Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights (EOHR) and International Politics magazine held a conference in Cairo from July 5th to 7th on priorities and mechanisms of reform in the Arab world. Some 100 participants from 15 Arab countries attended the conference.

The conference discussed international reform initiatives in the Arab world and the achievements of the three recently convened international summits of the G8, EU – US, and NATO last June. It also discussed the Alexandria Document and the “Second Independence” initiative for political reform in the Arab world , and in particular what came out of the Arab League Summit in relation to reform, and the negative assessment by Arab human rights associations’ of the results of the Summit. In addition, the conference discussed visions and priorities of political reform in eight Arab countries: Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, Jordan, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Algeria, with particular attention paid to Morocco’s experience in reform.

The conference drew the following conclusions:

I. Despite suspicions about some of the latent motives behind international reform initiatives in the Arab world, it should be noted that these initiatives include a number of the most important reform demands contained in the reform programme of reformists, political movements and human rights groups in the Arab world. The reform visions of the G8 initiative are a good basis for dialogue, but it should consider the civil society of the Arab world as a competent partner in the proposed partnership alongside Arab governments, as civil society is a genuine party in any serious reform process in any country.

There is no doubt that all parties have a shared interest in countering religious and ethnic fundamentalism, and the culture of violence, discrimination and hatred. The abuse of Islam by small minorities in the Arab and the Islamic world to justify acts of violence and terrorism, and to found a theocratic and discriminatory state is exactly the same as what happened within Christianity and Judaism, where religious ideals were exploited to spread violence and a culture of hatred and discrimination.

The most important positive aspect of the international reform initiatives is their pushing Arab governments – who are indifferent to public opinion on reform in their own countries – to recognise the importance of reform, even if this recognition is restricted to rhetoric addressed to the international community. For the first time in the history of Arab League Summits the issues of reform, democracy and human rights imposed themselves on the agenda. Equally significant, the Egyptian and Yemeni governments convened reform conferences in Alexandria (March) and Sana’a (January) respectively.

II. Arab governments, both collectively and individually, carry the moral and political responsibility for the ugly reality that the international community has been forced to propose reform initiatives in the region due to regional governments’ persistent rejection of internal political, legal, constitutional and judicial reforms aimed at countering corruption and poverty. Democratic and intellectual forces in the Arab world have continuously proposed such reforms since the defeat of 1967 as well as within the framework of the national struggle for independence.

III. This collective governmental responsibility for the Arab world lagging behind when it comes to political and constitutional reform was made worryingly obvious by the decisions issued during the last Arab League Summit in Tunisia. They provide fresh evidence that the majority of Arab governments reject calls for reform, regardless of the origin of this demand, whether it comes from inside or abroad. The summit was satisfied to issue an eloquently composed “statement of intent” that was not only completely devoid of any practical obligations or timetables, but which also linked reform with a solution to the Palestinian problem. Moreover, many Arab governments continued their suffocation of freedoms and harassment of human rights organisations and reformists both before and after the Summit.

IV. Ending the Israeli occupation of Arab lands and fully recognizing the Palestinian people’s rights might help in focusing on political and constitutional reform in the Arab world and act as a moderating force when it comes to religious extremism and political violence in the Arab world. However, the suffering of the Palestinian people cannot be used to hinder the reform programme or justify human rights violations.

V. Arab governments’ desire to escape pressure coming from the international community’s demands for reform explains the speedy convening of reform conferences by some governments. Civil society conferences are convened to mobilise public opinion and pressurise governments for reform. When governments themselves sponsor conferences, however, they must surely result in a programme and detailed plan of action and time frame for the implementation of the reform demands raised by political forces and civil society in the Arab world for decades.


Reform scenarios

VI. The peoples of the Arab world are in a very difficult position for the following reasons:
• They doubt the seriousness and motives behind international reform initiatives.
• They realise that their governments refuse reform because it constitutes a threat to these governments’ absolute power and the monopoly that they enjoy in managing internal affairs without ever being held accountable.
• They do not have the necessary power to pressurise governments to adopt a reform plan as a result of the disunity afflicting Arab elites on major issues.

VII. In this context, four hypothetical paths for the process of reform present themselves:

1. Reform imposed from abroad such as what occurred in Iraq. The present situation is a disappointment to even the most optimistic, even if we compare it to the brutal conditions preceding the occupation. Moreover, the barbaric and bloody former regime appears as a special case when compared with other authoritarian regimes in the Arab world. The Iraqi situation was therefore an exceptional case that cannot be used as an example to be followed.

2. Revolution cannot be called reform. More importantly, the Arab world lacks the factors necessary for revolution. There is no evidence of the existence of a democratic movement capable of realising its aims through a popular revolution or a civil-military alliance.

3. Reform from above along the lines of the Moroccan model of gradual reform, which is still ongoing despite some setbacks. This approach is founded on the basis of an agreement between the monarchy, main political parties and important elements of civil society. It enjoins the political regime to acknowledge its previous crimes.
The number of Arab governments qualified to follow this reform path is extremely limited. There is no doubt that the choice of whether this path should be taken or not depends not only on the volition of the ruling regime, but also on the extent of civil society and political party dynamism in the country, as well as the nature of international community interactions with this state.

4. Civil society reform requires that civil society forces and political parties grow in every country and reach a level whereby they are able to influence the balance of power with the ruling political forces. This might encompass the division of the ruling elites, so that a part of them joins the path of reform.
Despite the fact that this scenario depends entirely on the nature of internal relations, the nature of the international community’s interactions with the ruling regime and civil society will play a crucial role in determining to what extent the appropriate environment for progress exists.
There is of course no huge divide separating the last three hypothetical scenarios, as the third could lead to the fourth, and the fourth could lead to the third or the second. A setback in any of the last three scenarios might even lead, in special circumstances, to the imposition of the first scenario.

Requirements for reform from within

VIII. The fourth hypothetical scenario for reform from within requires:
1. The existence of a firm desire within the ranks of the political and cultural elites for reform, and consensus about the absolute priorities that must be placed on the political reform agenda, even at the expense of other issues, no matter how important they might be.
2. That a creative harmonious solution be found to the relationship between religion and the state, without this solution disturbing the essence of the reform case or leading to the substitution of one authoritarian regime with another.
3. An agreement on the basic reform programme.
4. A desire by the ruling elites for reform, or at least their non-resort to violence to suppress the reform movement.

Reform priorities

IX. Outlining every political reform demand was not the aim of this conference since this has already been comprehensively done in the “Second Independence” document. The political, social and cultural differences between Arab countries suggest the existence of different priorities for each country or group of countries. Concentration on specific priorities in demarcated time periods does not, of course, mean that the remaining elements of a comprehensive reform programme will be disregarded.
Conference discussions made clear that the foremost demand for political reform in countries with republican political systems was the exchange of power and the imposition of a time limit on presidential terms of office. Monarchies must be replaced by constitutional monarchies. The priority in Egypt is the transformation into a parliamentary republic, while the rule of law is the priority in Syria. In Saudi Arabia, religious institutional reform and their separation from the state is the priority. Moreover, comprehensive constitutional reform and the application of the values of equality, citizenship and women&#146s rights constitute pivotal issues in all Arab countries
Banking on self-development mechanisms and reform forces in every country necessarily requires the selection of specific priorities. The concentration on these priorities contributes to the development of the power of this reform and the creation of the best environment conducive to the most creative relations between its different components, as well as between them, the ruling elite and international community. It will also eventually lead to a fundamental amendment of the prevailing/dominant political formula.

Discussions identified a number of shared priorities for reform that should aid in the empowerment of reform forces:
i. Freedom of owning media instruments and of the flow of information.
ii. Freedom of establishing and administering political parties, trade unions and NGOs.
iii. Freedom of expression, in particular the rights to assembly and association.
iv. Lifting of states of emergency, wherever it is enforced, and the annulment exceptional laws and courts.

Mechanisms for reform

X. The discussion on reform mechanisms led to the following proposals:
1. On the local level: The creation of a productive organisational framework for reform forces in every country. This must be of a consensual and flexible character, and include political parties, civil society institutions and those individual public figures that agree on a basic reform programme. Where this is possible, this framework could include elements from ruling elites.

2. On the regional level: The creation of a regional platform in the Arab world for dialogue and the exchange of experiences between reform forces, from political parties, to civil society institutions to individual public figures.

3. On the international level: The development of the suggested “triangular” structure for dialogue between the international community and Arab governments seeking reform by making civil society institutions party to this dialogue.

4. Supporting tools:
-A civil society observatory to monitor and measure changes and developments in reform in the Arab world.
-Preparation of a comprehensive document on reform initiatives proposed by democratic forces in the Arab world since the June 1967 defeat, to document the rejection and resistance these proposals and demands have received for decades. This will also allow this document to be a point of reference for political forces and civil society in the preparation of the new reform programmes.

The negative results of the last Arab League summit have made us even more convinced that reform is in the shared interest of all Arab peoples. This conference calls on all political parties and civil society forces – from local associations, trade unions, think tanks and other democratic associations – to build and widen networks and adopt shared action plans aimed at consolidating the struggle for democracy, good governance, human rights and establishing contacts with social and mass movements.

Share this Post