[A-List] MIDDLE EAST: Ballot Boxes? Yes. Actual Democracy? Tough Question.
critical.montages at gmail.com
Thu Jun 7 18:40:53 MDT 2007
Limited as it still is by the Leader, to whom the army, the police,
and the judiciary must answer, my dear Islamic Republic of Iran is the
only democracy in the Middle East. -- Yoshie
June 7, 2007
Memo From the Middle East
Ballot Boxes? Yes. Actual Democracy? Tough Question.
By MICHAEL SLACKMAN
CAIRO, June 6 — This is election season in the Middle East. Syria just
held presidential and parliamentary elections. Algeria held
parliamentary elections. Egyptians will be asked to vote next week on
a new upper house of Parliament. There will soon be elections in
Jordan, Morocco and Oman, followed by elections in Qatar. So is
democracy suddenly taking root in the strongman's last regional
The consensus among democracy advocates, diplomats and citizens
interviewed around the Middle East is that the reverse is true.
Elections, it appears, have increasingly become a tool used by
authoritarian leaders to claim legitimacy.
"There is a state of depression and lack of trust, or faith, among the
Arab masses in the regimes and little belief that these elections can
lead to the change aspired to," said Jaffar al-Shayeb, a member of the
municipal council in Qatif, Saudi Arabia, an advisory body without
The problem is not just what that means for people forced to live
under authoritarian rule, but what it does to the broader perception
of democracy in the region. Countries like Egypt and Syria, which hold
elections, also allow a ruling class to hold a monopoly on power,
limit freedom of speech and assembly and deny their citizens due
"There isn't any democratic regime in the whole world," Abbas Mroue,
29, said as he sat in a coffee shop with friends in Beirut, Lebanon,
one day recently chatting about politics and governance.
"Yes," replied Hussein Jaffal, 31, "there is democracy, but there are
It is that view that seems to be spreading, one that has confused the
process of elections with the principles of democracy.
It is a conclusion that may well have roots in Washington, where
officials have frequently pointed to elections as a barometer of
progress, but it may contribute to tarnishing the concept of
democracy, diplomats and democracy advocates in the region agreed.
Iraq, where a freely elected government has been paralyzed by
sectarian disputes, stands as a particularly damaging example.
"Democracy itself has lost credibility as a way of government," said a
Western diplomat based in Algiers, speaking on condition of anonymity,
following customary diplomatic protocol. "I think the Iraqi
experiment, and the purple finger, didn't help anything. People now
say this democracy is not the answer to anything."
The purple finger had initially been a symbol of pride in what was
hoped to be Iraq's nascent democracy. Millions turned out to cast
their ballots in the first post-Saddam-Hussein election, dipping a
finger in ink to prevent double voting.
Rightly or wrongly, the purple finger has become a symbol of failure.
"I voted because I was so excited — finally I can pick the candidate I
want," said Hussein Marzouk, an Iraqi refugee living in Lebanon. "But
then I found out that I risked my life for nothing. It turned to be a
phony game the Americans brought with them that was full of fraud. So
why would I vote again?"
For decades there have been less than democratic elections in the
Middle East, where ruling parties control candidates' and voters'
access to the ballot and also control the vote counting.
In Egypt's parliamentary elections last year, witnesses reported that
the police fired live ammunition at voters — killing some — to keep
them from casting ballots for candidates aligned with the Muslim
Brotherhood. As Egypt gears up for elections to the upper house of
Parliament next week, security agents have imprisoned more than 150
members of the Brotherhood, which although officially banned is the
only viable political opposition in the country.
In Syria the presidential election was a referendum on one candidate,
President Bashar al-Assad, in a country that has sentenced democracy
advocates to several years in prison for signing a petition asking for
political reforms and recently handed down a 12-year sentence to one
man for membership in the Muslim Brotherhood.
"The system is rigged to bring to power people who are already in
power," said Daoud Kuttab, director of the Institute of Modern Media
at Al Quds University in the West Bank city of Ramallah. "That is what
explains low voter turnout and why elections are turning people away."
With the outcome almost always certain and the manipulation so
evident, why do the leaders even bother? From Syria to Bahrain,
elections have helped bleed off some internal and external pressure
for change without making any substantial alteration to the power
structure, opposition political leaders and diplomats said.
Electing a Parliament in Bahrain, or local councils in Saudi Arabia,
for example, helped satisfy the growing public desire for more
accountable government. Over time, though, it became clear that the
Parliament and the councils had little authority and that the election
was itself the greatest achievement.
"We know that these are things that were introduced to further
embolden the leader, to serve him rather than the people," said Nabeel
Rajab, a Bahraini human rights advocate in the capital, Manama.
A member of the Algerian Parliament, Said Boughadja, who is an
official in the governing party, said such complaints were unfair
because voter turnout was low all over the world, including in the
West. An independent Algerian votemonitoring commission declared that
there was widespread stuffing of ballot boxes in the recent
parliamentary election, which Mr. Boughadja dismissed, saying that if
his party or its supporters were to stuff ballot boxes, turnout would
have appeared to be above 50 percent. Instead it was 36.5 percent, 10
points lower than the parliamentary elections in 2002.
But Mr. Boughadja also did not hide his bigger complaint about
democracy: that with truly free elections there is no guarantee who
will win. In the early 1990s, Algeria's military canceled elections
when a moderate Islamic party appeared poised to take control of
Parliament. That decision touched off a nearly decade-long civil war
that claimed at least 100,000 lives.
"The Islamist trend," he said, "emerged through the democratic process."
That is a reality that has also become evident to democracy promoters
in Washington, which may provide one explanation for why there is
little discussion these days of pushing for full-blown free elections
around the Middle East. But political and social scientists here say
that view misses the point, emphasizing process over substance.
"We should insist on wider concepts of democracy, on democratic
values," said Abdel Nasser Djabi, a professor of sociology at the
University of Algiers who said elections were increasingly viewed as a
technique for misleading people. "There is a real danger this may lead
to the rejection of concepts of democracy."
Nada Bakri contributed reporting from Beirut.
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