Some news concerning Middle East reform

This is the news section of The Arab Reform Bulletin, November 2005, a product of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which is almost adopting, as I think, an approach to the Middle East reform rests on political considerations to push an ideological and political line related to the American politics more than the Middle East reform. I hope not.

The bulletin has also included some articles. I will post some of them with my review later.

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Egypt: Parliamentary Elections Begin

The first of three rounds of elections for the People's Assembly (the lower house of parliament) began November 9. In preliminary results from the first round of elections as reported by Al Jazeera, 35 out of 164 races have been decided, 66 will go to run-offs, and 63 remain unanounced. The ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) won 31 of the 53 races decided so far; Muslim Brothers won three seats and an independent candidate won one. As expected, senior NDP leaders and government ministers including People's Assembly Speaker Fathi Sorour, Cheif of Presidential Cabinet Zakaria Azmi, NDP Vice Chairman Kamal Al Shazli, and Finance Minister Youssef Boutros Ghali retained their seats. In 66 races NDP candidates will face rivals in run-offs on November 15, with Muslim Brotherhood candidates participating in 41 races.

Opposition parties generally made a poor showing. The National Front for Change did not win any seats and none of the recognized parties will take part in run-offs. Al Ghad party Ayman Nour leader lost the parliamentary seat he has held for ten years to the ruling NDP's Yahya Wahdan (a former security officer) in the central Cairo district of Bab Al Sharia. Nour disputed the result and accused the NDP of intimidation and vote buying. Senior Wafd Party Deputy Munir Fakhry was also defeated.

Election monitors organized by civil society groups reported a number of violations. Hafez Abu Seada, head of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, complained of NDP-organized violence to discourage opposition voters. A joint statement by the National Campaign for Monitoring Elections, the Shadow Committee for Monitoring Elections, adn the Civil Society Election Monitoring Observatory reported incidents of vote-buying and voter coercion as well as outdated and incomplete registration lists. The statement asserts that some monitors were denied access to some polls and that the NDP transported government employees to a single polling place and allowed them to vote for an NDP candidate who victory was not assured. The Independent Commission for Election Monitoring reported several cases of vote-buying, intimidation of voters, ballot box stuffing, and repeat voting by NDP candidates and their supporters.

Contested in the first round are 164 seats in 82 districts located throughout the country including Cairo, Giza, Menufia, Beni Suef, Minya, Assiut, the New Valley, and Marsa Matruh. Subsequent rounds for the remaining 280 seats will be held November 20 and December 1, with runoffs to be completed by December 7. President Mubarak will appoint ten additional members and will call the 454-member Assembly into session on December 13. Elections are held on a winner-takes-all system, with two candidates (one of whom must be a “worker” or “farmer”) elected in each district.

Procedures for the elections will differ from those in 2000 parliamentary elections in several respects. First, there is now a Higher Commission for Parliamentary Elections, albeit not an independent one, headed by the Minister of Justice. Second, the Commission has agreed to allow Egyptian monitors trained and organized by non-governmental organizations to observe the process inside and outside of polling places. Third, the Commission approved the use of transparent ballot boxes to decrease the likelihood of fraud. As in 2000, judges will supervise all polling and counting stations.

The ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) will run a candidate for each seat (click here for a list and here for the NDP's electoral platform). There will also be a large number of independent candidates, many of them members of the NDP not nominated by the party. As in 2000, competition between NDP and independent candidates is expected to be an important aspect of the elections.

The Muslim Brotherhood is expected to run approximately 130 candidates nationwide, double the number it put forward in 2000. The Brotherhood has campaigned far more openly this year than in recent years, organizing electoral marches in Cairo and other cities. It continues to employ the slogan “Islam is the Solution,” despite protests from the NDP and secular opposition groups. The Higher Commission for Parliamentary Elections has banned campaign materials using religious symbols. Egyptian authorities have gradually released Muslim Brotherhood leaders arrested after spring protest marches over the past several months. Click here for the Muslim Brotherhood electoral platform.

Several opposition groups announced on October 8 the formation of a “National Front for Change” which includes the liberal Wafd, leftist Tagammu, and Nasserist parties; the as-yet unlicensed Wasat and Karama parties; the Egyptian Movement for Change (Kifaya); and three other pro-reform movements. The Front is expected to field approximately 200 candidates nationwide. The Muslim Brotherhood has participated in many of the Front's activities but has not agreed to coordinate candidates in most districts. The Front calls for political and constitutional changes including abrogating the emergency law, allowing every citizen the right to contest presidential elections, transferring many presidential powers to a cabinet accountable to the parliament, establishing presidential term limits, and establishing an independent electoral commission. Click here for the Front's founding statement and here for information on its electoral platform. The liberal Ghad Party, which is not part of the Front, will put forward approximately 60 candidates.

Iraq: Political Blocs Complete Alliances

Two hundred and twenty-eight political parties and alliances have registered for the parliamentary elections on December 15, according to the Independent Electoral Commission for Iraq. Most of the major political alliances resemble the dominant groupings in the January 2005 elections. The Kurdistan Alliance is still the main Kurdish bloc, composed of Iraqi President's Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and Kurdish regional President Massoud Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party. This time, however, it will face competition from the Kurdistan Islamic Union, an Islamist group that has left the alliance. Former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi continues to lead the secular Iraqi National List, although he expanded it to include Sunni figures as well as communists and liberals. The United Iraqi Alliance retains its position as the main Shiite list. Led by Prime Minister Ibrahim Al Jafari, it includes the three major Shiite movements: the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the Dawa party, and the movement led by Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr. Unlike in the January elections, however, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, the most revered Shiite cleric in Iraq, will not endorse the alliance.

New alliances have also formed, such as Deputy Prime Minister Ahmed Chalabi's National Congress for Iraq. Most importantly, the elections will be contested by a major Sunni alliance known as the Iraqi Concord Front, composed of three Sunni parties: the Iraqi People's Gathering, the Iraqi National Dialogue, and the Iraqi Islamic Party (the only major Sunni group that supports the constitution). The participation of a Sunni list will probably guarantee greater representation of Sunni Arabs, who currently occupy only 6 percent of parliamentary seats.

Syria: Opposition Groups Unite in Damascus Declaration

In the midst of international pressure on Syria, Syrian opposition groups released the “Damascus Declaration” on October 16 demanding Syria's transformation through peaceful means from a “security state to a political state” based on free and regular elections, a democratic constitution, the rule of law, pluralism, and individual rights. The declaration calls for an end to Syria's emergency law (in place since 1963), the release of political prisoners, and the return of exiles, and also endorses the cultural and political rights of Kurds and other minorities. The document brought together leftist and nationalist groups, Kurdish movements, secular dissidents, an imprisoned lawmaker, human rights activists, and the exiled leadership of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood is banned in Syria but believed to enjoy wide popular support. Click here for an English translation of the Damascus Declaration.

Jordan: Islamists Announce Reform Program

While Jordan awaits the release of the National Agenda, the Islamic Action Front and the Muslim Brotherhood presented their own reform program on October 23. With the declared aim of “achieving comprehensive national reform,” the program calls for political, judicial, economic, educational, social, and administrative reform within a framework that recognizes Islam as the only source of legislation. The document states that political reform must be based on the rotation of executive power and on political participation and pluralism. It also calls for a separation between the executive, legislative, and judicial powers, with a particular emphasis on increasing parliament's powers. This entails making all state institutions accountable to parliament, ensuring full judicial oversight of parliamentary elections, and dissolving the appointed upper h ouse. In the area of judicial reform, extraordinary courts should be abolished and military courts should only try military personnel.

Bahrain: Controversy over Reform of Family Law

A campaign for legislation on personal status matters has provoked heated debate in Bahrain. Led by the Supreme Council for Women chaired by King Hamad's wife Shaikha Sabeeka bin Ibrahim Al Khalifa, defenders of the initiative argue that the lack of a codified personal status law in Bahrain gives judges excessive discretion in their interpretation of Sharia law and allows them to rule against women in cases of divorce, inheritance, and child custody. Bahrain's largest political society Al Wefaq National Islamic Society is leading the opposition to the legislation on the grounds that it is un-Islamic and that only religious scholars should have a say in determining personal status issues. Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates are the only Arab states without codified personal status laws.

United States: National Intelligence Strategy Highlights Democracy Promotion

Bolstering the growth of democracy in other countries is a top strategic mission for the nation's intelligence agencies, according to the National Intelligence Strategy of the United States of America released on October 26. The document states that the intelligence community must “support diplomatic and military efforts when intervention is necessary” and “forge relationships with new and incipient democracies that can help them strengthen the rule of law and ward off threats to representative government.” It must also provide U.S. policymakers with an analytic framework for identifying both the threats to and opportunities for promoting democracy, as well as warning of state failure.

Media Freedom Report

Countries in the Middle East (along with some in East Asia and Central Asia) scored the lowest in press freedoms in 2005, according to the annual worldwide Press Freedom Index issued by the Paris-based watchdog group Reporters Sans Frontieres. The October 20 report states that the situation in Iraq, which was identified as the most dangerous place on earth for journalists in last year's report, has deteriorated further. In 2005, conditions in Egypt (ranked 143 of 167 countries) also deteriorated with attacks on several journalists and with President Mubarak failing to decriminalize press offences as promised. Authorities in Tunisia also tightened their grip on journalistic activity. In Libya, Syria , and Saudi Arabia, no independent media exist. Lebanon, traditionally the region's top ranking country, dropped more than 50 places because of recent attacks on journalists and now ranks 108 of 167 countries.

Upcoming Political Events

-Egypt: parliamentary elections, three rounds:

  • November 9 (Cairo, Giza, Menufia, Beni Suef, Minya, Assiut, New Valley, Marsa Matruh);
  • November 20 ( Alexandria, Beheira, Ismailia, Port Said, Suez, Qalyubia, Gharbia, Fayyum, Qena);
  • December 1 (Daqahlia, Sharqia, Kafr Al Sheikh, Dumyat, Suhag, Aswan, Red Sea, Northern Sinai, Southern Sinai), 2005.

-G8 “Forum for the Future” meeting, Bahrain, November 11-12, 2005.

-Palestine: municipal mlections, last round, 107 districts in the West Bank and Gaza, December 8, 2005.

-Iraq: parliamentary elections, December 15, 2005

-Palestine: legislative elections, January 25, 2006.

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