Some News Concerning Middle East Reform

The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has an active project on the Middle East reform theme. This project includes The Arab Reform Bulletin "Objective, timely, and incisive analysis of political reform in the Middle East." I will quote the news section of October issue:

Jordan: National Agenda for Reform

A 27-member government-appointed steering committee for the Jordanian National Agenda is expected to release soon its final report, which will outline a vision for comprehensive economic, social, and political reform over the next ten years. Among the most contentious elements so far is a proposed change in the electoral law from the unpopular one-man one-vote system, in which each citizen may vote for only one candidate although multiple seats are contested in each district. The new law is expected to institute a mixed system combining district candidates and proportional lists on the national level, with the long-term goal of electing a lower house entirely on the basis of proportional representation. Unresolved issues include the percentage of seats to be selected on the basis of proportional representation initially and whether citizens would continue to cast a single vote (choosing between an individual candidate and a list) or be allowed to vote twice, once for a district candidate and once for a proportional list.

Another controversial provision of the Agenda would lift the requirement for membership in the Jordan Press Association (JPA) for journalists. This issue has triggered a heated debate about government efforts to weaken syndicates, typically pockets of Islamist opposition, as well as claims that the provision violates the Professional Associations Law.

Palestine: Third Round of Municipal Elections

Palestinians voted on September 19 in the third of four rounds of municipal elections in the West Bank and Gaza. According to official results, announced by local elections commissioner Jamal Shobaki, Fatah won 51 of 104 municipalities (22 of them uncontested) and Hamas won 13. In the remaining 40 towns and villages, there was no clear winner and coalition talks were underway. The turnout of registered voters was 81 percent. Before the elections, Israel arrested 35 Hamas members in the West Bank, 17 of whom won in the elections. For the first time in municipal elections, the Palestinian parties fielded slates rather than individual candidates, a move intended to streamline the vote count. Results from previous rounds of municipal elections in December 2004 and May 2005 are still being contested. The final phase of elections will be held on December 8 in 107 districts, including major cities such as Gaza City, Nablus, and Hebron. Palestinian legislative elections are scheduled to be held on January 25, 2006, but Arab media have recently reported rumors of possible postponement.

Lebanon: Government Moves on Security Reform

The Lebanese government appointed new security chiefs on October 6 following months of controversy since the February 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. The cabinet named Wafiq Jizzin to head the General Security Department, the intelligence department formerly headed by Jamil Sayyed (now under arrest in connection with the assassination). In an effort to consolidate the security services, the cabinet announced that the State Security Department—a position introduced for political reasons in 1989—will be eventually disbanded and a central operations center established to coordinate activities and share intelligence among the security services. A committee of judges and military officers will oversee security reform.

Morocco: New Political Parties Law

After several months of debate, the Moroccan parliament is expected to pass a new political parties law by the end of October. Some provisions have created heated debate between political parties in Morocco, particularly the stipulation that only political parties that win five percent or more of the vote in parliamentary elections will be eligible for public funding. The two largest parties in parliament, the Socialist Union of Popular Forces and the Istiqlal party, have asked that the figure be raised to 10 percent, inciting opposition from the National Rally of Independents and the Popular Movement Party. The Justice and Development Party (PJD) suggested that 10 percent of the funds be distributed among all parties and 90 percent distributed among the parties that received seven percent or more of the vote. Ultimately, the parliamentary committee in charge of the bill decided on the five percent minimum. Another controversial provision is a ban on religious, racial, regional, socio-professional, or linguistic references in party platforms, which could jeopardize the status of the Islamist PJD as well as that of Berber parties.

Bahrain: Political Societies Abide by New Political Associations Law

After months of protesting a new law of political associations ratified by King Hamad in August, Bahrain's main political societies (Al Wefaq National Islamic Society and the National Democratic Action Society) have decided to register under the new law. The law—which says that associations may not be based on class, profession, or religion and which raises the minimum membership age from 18 to 21—requires all existing political societies to re-register with the Ministry of Justice by November 2. Bahrain's largest political society, Al Wefaq, witnessed a split in its ranks, with some 100 members (including vice president Hasan Mushayma and board member Abd Al Jalil Al Singace) resigning in protest of the decision to abide by the new law. Political groups operate in Bahrain as associations due to a continued ban on political parties.

Saudi Arabia: Human Rights Developments

King Abdullah decreed the establishment of a government human rights agency on September 12 to “protect human rights and spread awareness about them … in keeping with the provisions of Islamic law.” The organization is chaired by former government official Khaled Al Sudairi, who will hold ministerial rank; the 18 board members will be appointed by the King. This is the kingdom's second official human rights organization. In March 2004, the Saudi government gave a green light for the establishment of the National Human Rights Association to review complaints about human rights violations and monitor the Kingdom's compliance with international human rights agreements.

Saudi women will run in an election for the first time. Trade Minister Hashem bin Abdullah Yamani accepted the nominations of businesswomen for positions on the board of the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce. More than 30 women are expected to seek seats on the 18-member board in November 15 elections.

The U.S. administration has postponed a decision on whether to sanction Saudi Arabia for violations of religious freedom. The U.S. State Department's 2004 International Religious Freedom Report lists Saudi Arabia among the countries that violate or restrict the religious freedom of their citizens, for the first time designating it a "country of particular concern" (CPC). The CPC designation can be used as a basis for sanctions, but since the State Department first began evaluating religious freedom in 1999, it has never applied sanctions against any CPC. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice authorized a 180-day waiver of action to allow more time for talks with the Saudi government on improving its record on religious freedom. Click here to read recommendations for U.S. government action by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

Upcoming Political Events

  • Iraq: Referendum on Draft Constitution, October 15, 2005.
  • Egypt: Parliamentary Elections, three rounds November 9, November 20, and December 1, 2005.
  • Palestine: Municipal Elections, last round, 107 districts in the West Bank and Gaza, December 8, 2005.
  • Palestine: Legislative Elections, January 25, 2006.

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