1.17.2006

News Concerning Middle East Reform

This is the news section of the current issue of the Arab Reform Bulletin Published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace:


Iraq: Parties and Platforms in Parliamentary Elections

More than 7,700 candidates ran as independents or as members of political parties in 19 coalitions in December 15 elections for the first full-term Iraqi parliament since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003. The 275-member assembly will serve four years and form a new government. Results are expected in late December.

Major political alliances resemble dominant groupings in January 2004 elections, but new groups have also entered the scene. The elections will be contested by a major Sunni alliance known as the Iraqi Concord Front, composed of three Sunni parties that boycotted the January elections: the Iraqi People's Gathering, the Iraqi National Dialogue, and the Iraqi Islamic Party. The list calls for withdrawing U.S. troops, amending the constitution, and releasing all “detainees and prisoners of war.” The Iraqi Front for National Dialogue led by Saleh Al Mutlaq, a secular Sunni businessman with reported links to Sunni insurgents, will also participate. The participation of Sunni parties will probably guarantee greater representation of Sunni Arabs, who currently occupy only 6 percent of parliamentary seats.

The United Iraqi Alliance retains its position as the main Shiite list. It is not expected to win an outright majority on its own this time (it took nearly half of the 275 seats in the transitional parliament). Led by Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari, it is composed of 18 Shiite Islamist groups including 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. The list has promised to crack down on the insurgency and corruption after criticism of its failure to handle both issues during its ten months in office. Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, the most revered Shiite cleric in Iraq, has not explicitly backed the alliance.

The Kurdistan Alliance is still the main Kurdish bloc, composed of eight groups but dominated by Iraqi President's Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and Kurdish regional President Massoud Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party. Its priority is maximizing the autonomy of the Kurdish region and controlling the oil-rich northern city of Kirkuk, which has a mixed Kurdish, Arab, and Turkmen population. It is also expected to win fewer seats than the 75 it currently has and 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 list calls for national unity and an open Iraqi society that renounces sectarianism in political work. It also advocates revising the de-Baathification laws to return more former officers in the Iraqi army to the new security forces. Prime Minister Ahmed Chalabi also leads a secular party, the National Congress for Iraq. It stresses the need for Iraq to regain full sovereignty and fight the insurgency by improving intelligence. The Independent Electoral Commission for Iraq includes complete lists of candidates.


Egypt: Parliamentary Election Results and Nour Trial

Official results of the November/December elections for the People's Assembly (the lower house of parliament) are as follows:

National Democratic Party 311 seats

Muslim Brotherhood independents 88 seats

Unaffiliated independents 22 seats

Wafd Party 6 seats

Tagammu Party 2 seats

Karama Party independents 2 seats

Ghad Party dissidents 1 seat

Postponed races 12 seats

Appointees 10 seats

Total 454 seats

According to the electoral commission, 26 percent of eligible voters participated in the elections, which were held on a winner-take-all system, with two candidates (one of whom had to be a worker or farmer) elected in each district.

Election monitors organized by civil society groups reported numerous violations, particularly in the second and third rounds. The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights complained of NDP-organized violence to discourage opposition voters and criticized the Egyptian authorities for closing off many polling stations. Click here for detailed reports by the organization on electoral irregularities. The Independent Committee on Election Monitoring, a coalition of sixteen NGOs led by the Ibn Khaldun Center for Human Rights, condemned the arrest of opposition candidates and reported that election observers were denied access to polling stations. An earlier joint statement by the National Campaign for Monitoring Elections, the Shadow Committee for Monitoring Elections, and the Civil Society Election Monitoring Observatory reported incidents of voter-coercion and vote-buying. Media watchdog groups such as Reporters without Borders voiced alarm at attacks on journalists covering the elections by security forces.

President Hosni Mubarak appointed ten additional members to the People's Assembly, including five Christians and five women, and will address the new People's Assembly and the Shura Council on December 17. Mubarak is also expected to reshuffle the cabinet by the end of December.

Ayman Nour, leader of the Liberal Al Ghad Party, was jailed once again on December 6, along with several other defendants. His trial on charges of forging signatures on his party's application for licensing is due to conclude December 24. Nour, who recently lost his parliamentary seat to a former security officer backed by the ruling NDP, has begun a hunger strike to protest his treatment.


Palestine: Confusion in Fatah after Primaries, Final Round of Municipal Elections, Judicial Law Overturned

There was confusion in the Palestinian Fatah party following the primaries due to a dispute over candidates for the January 25 Palestinian Legislative Council elections. Held in two rounds between November 25 and December 3, the primaries marked a major victory for Fatah's young guard leadership, led by jailed leader Marwan Barghouti. Barghouti, who received 95 percent of votes in Ramallah, demanded the top slot on Fatah 's list. Angered by President Mahmoud Abbas's decision to include senior members in the final electoral list even though lost their races, Barghouti presented his own list to the Palestinian Central Election Committee shortly before the December 14 deadline for registering candidates. Barghouti's Al Mustaqbal (Future) list includes prominent Fatah members such as Mohammad Dahlan, Jibril Rajoub Kadoura Fares, and Samir Masharawi. There were reports, however, that Fatah also placed Barghouti at the top of its official list. It is unclear how the Central Elections Commission will respond to Barghouti's name appearing on both lists. Prime Minister Ahmed Qurie resigned on December 15 to run for a parliamentary seat on Fatah's list.

The Fatah primaries were marked by violence and violations of voting procedures, with voting in Hebron, Jerusalem, Tulkarem, Salfit, and Rafah aborted. Losers from the primaries challenged the validity of the results in nearly every district.

Hamas also announced its list of candidates on December 14. Headed by Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas's List for Change and Reform consists of 62 members, many of whom are academics, physicians, and university professors, and includes prominent Hamas leaders such as Mahmoud Zahar. Some independent lists have also been formed, such as that of Salam Fayyad, the recently resigned finance minister, activist Hanan Ashrawi, and Yasser Abd Rabbo. Mustafa Barghouti, head of the Palestine Initiative party who ran in the presidential elections, also formed his own list. The election campaign is scheduled to begin on January 3.

The final phase of municipal elections began on December 15 in several West Bank cities and Gaza amid tight competition between Hamas and Fatah. Competition is centered on the West Bank's largest cities of Nablus, Ramallah, Beira and Jenin, and in three small towns in Gaza . Observers believe the poll will give clear indications about balance of power between Hamas and Fatah ahead of the legislative elections. Phased municipal elections in the West Bank and Gaza have been going on for almost a year.

In the latest episode of the ongoing rivalry between the Palestinian judiciary and the executive, the Palestinian High Court overturned the 2005 Judiciary Law on November 27. Claiming jurisdiction as a constitutional court, the High Court declared the Judiciary Law unconstitutional because it contravenes the Palestinian Basic Law. The Judiciary Law changed the composition of the judicial council and the appointment procedure for the attorney general in order to transfer authority from the judicial council (which has been accused of abusing its power) to the Ministry of Justice. The Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) and several Palestinian nongovernmental organizations claim the High Court's decision is illegitimate because it is not entitled to look into constitutional appeals. They also accuse the court of acting on personal motives; the law diminishes the power of those who currently dominate the High Court. This is the first time a piece of PLC legislation has been declared unconstitutional. Click here for more information on the debate.


Jordan: Political Changes after Amman Attacks

Significant political changes have taken place in Jordan following the terrorist attacks in Amman on November 9. After dismissing many of his security advisers and dissolving the 55-member senate, King Abdullah appointed a new cabinet on November 27. Prime Minister Ahmad Badran was replaced by General Marouf al Bakhit, a change many observers believe signals the government's new focus on security. In response to fears that the new security-oriented government will ignore political reforms, King Abdullah's letter of designation calls for a rapid passage of new political laws governing elections and political parties. Prime Minister Bakhit's reply affirmed the government is “committed to placing reform as a top priority” and that it will “maintain a balance between safeguarding security and preserving public freedoms.” Bakhit also pledged to follow the National Agenda that was presented to the King on November 23 after a long delay. The new 23-member cabinet includes fourteen new ministers and nine ministers from the previous cabinet. Click here for a complete list of the new cabinet. There is also speculation about an impending dissolution of parliament.

The government is drafting new anti-terrorism legislation that, according to Interior Ministry officials, will set harsh penalties for anyone who condones or supports acts of terror and will allow authorities to hold any terror suspect indefinitely. Interior Minister Awni Yervas said the new legislation is based on British laws and laws in some Arab states.

New media legislation is also pending. The king will be presented with an amendment of the 1998 Press Association Law that seeks to abolish the provision that prohibits anyone from practicing as a journalist unless they are a member of the Jordanian Press Association. The press association, which is dominated by journalists in media companies that are wholly or partially government-owned, has the authority to punish or expel journalists who express opinions deemed unacceptable under the association's rules.


United Arab Emirates: First Elections Announced

For the first time in its history, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) will hold elections for public office. On December 1 President Khalifa bin Zayed al Nahyan announced that half of the members of the Federal National Council (FNC), the closest body the country has to a parliament, will be indirectly elected. The ruler of each of the seven emirates will form local assemblies which will then elect half the FNC members from among themselves. It is unclear how the local assembly members will be chosen. The other half of the council's members will continue to be appointed by the leaders of the emirates. The 40-member FNC serves in an advisory capacity and lacks legislative powers. No date has been set for elections. The UAE is the only country among the six Gulf Cooperation Council members that has yet to hold any form of elections.


Yemen: Government Crackdown on Media

Yemeni authorities are clamping down on media activity, according to local and international media watchdog groups. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists cites several cases of defamation lawsuits and legal harassment of opposition and independent newspapers in the past month, including the closure of opposition weekly Al Tajammu for six months. Many journalists have also been physically attacked and threatened in recent months for investigating corruption.

The deterioration of press freedom comes as the Yemeni government is preparing to push its draft Press and Publications Law through the Shura Council. The revision to the 1990 law was set in motion in 2004 when President Saleh called for the abolition of prison sentences for journalists. The Yemen Journalists Syndicate opposes the draft law on the grounds that it is even more restrictive than the existing bill. While it eliminates imprisonment of journalists, it still allows journalists to be prosecuted under the penal code, which sanctions prison terms for libeling Yemen's president or foreign leaders. It also allows courts to sentence journalists to death. Click here for a detailed commentary on the draft law by the media advocacy group ARTICLE 19. Observers believe recent restrictions on the media aim at stopping critical reporting, including on the issue of whether President Saleh will honor his pledge to step down next year.


Saudi Arabia: Strategic Dialogue, First Women Elected

The United States and Saudi Arabia inaugurated a strategic dialogue on November 13 to expand cooperation on six issues: counterterrorism, military affairs, energy, business, education and human development, and consular affairs. According to U.S. officials, the dialogue aspires to institutionalize meetings at the senior level in order to address problems that now rely heavily on personal relationships and ad hoc contacts. Political reform is not on the agenda for the dialogue.

In a separate development, two Saudi women, Lama Sulaiman and Nashwa Taher, won seats on the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce on November 30. These are the first elections in Saudi Arabia that allowed women to vote and run for office.


Morocco: Equity and Reconciliation Commission

After two years of investigations, the Moroccan Equity and Reconciliation Commission, presented its findings on human rights abuses committed between 1956 and 1999 to King Mohummad VI. Established by the king in January 2004, the commission will determine the forms and amounts of reparation the state is to provide the 30,000 applicants. A November 28 report by Human Rights Watch offers the Moroccan authorities recommendations on handling the commission's findings.


Foundation and Fund for the Future Announced

Two new foundations to promote political and economic reform in the Middle East were established at the second meeting of the Forum for the Future held in Bahrain on November 11-12. The Foundation for the Future will provide grants to local nongovernmental organizations and the Fund for the Future will provide loans to small businesses in the region. Both will be financed by the United States and by European and Arab governments, but managed by independent boards of directors from the region. The Foundation for the Future will be launched with $50 million in capital, $35 million coming from the U.S. government. The Fund for the Future, which has a target capitalization of $100 million, will focus initial efforts on small enterprises in Egypt and Morocco. Both countries have pledged $20 million to the fund's startup capital and the U.S. has pledged $50 million.

The meeting failed to release a final declaration, partly due to the Egyptian government's disagreement over the language. Egyptian officials pressed for stipulations that only organizations legally registered with their governments would be funded by the Foundation for the Future. Saudi Arabia and Oman initially supported Egypt, but then agreed to take out language that would have given them control over the grants. Founded by the Group of Eight Industrialized Nations (G-8) at their June 2004 summit, the forum has become the centerpiece of the Broader Middle East and North Africa Initiative. The first Forum for the Future meeting was held in Morocco in December 2004.


Arab Public Opinion Poll on U.S. Foreign Policy

The majority of Arabs doubt that spreading democracy is the real U.S. objective in the region, according to a new public opinion poll, Arab Attitudes towards Political and Social Issues, Foreign Policy and the Media.” Conducted jointly by Shibley Telhami, Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, and Zogby International in October 2005, the survey's findings include the following: 77 percent of those surveyed say Iraqis are worse off now than before the war began in 2003; 58 percent believe the U.S. intervention has produced less democracy in Iraq; 78 percent think there is more terrorism because of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. The survey, which was released on December 2, also finds that Al Jazeera is the most popular television network for international news, favored by 45 percent of those polled.


New Middle East Freedom Index

A new Economist Intelligence Unit lists Lebanon, Morocco, Iraq, and the Palestinian territories as the most democratic Arab countries. On the other hand, Libya received the lowest rating, below Syria and Saudi Arabia. The index ranks 20 countries in the Middle East based on 15 indicators of political and civil liberties. Click here for the complete ranking released November 18.


Upcoming Political Events

  • Iraq: Parliamentary election results, new government, late December
  • Egypt: Verdict in trial of Ayman Nour, December 24; cabinet reshuffle expected late December
  • Palestine: Palestinian Legislative Council elections, January 25, 2006

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