Arabs Speak Out about Democracy

The Arab Center for the Development of the Rule of Law and Integrity and IFES published two surveys (January 12, 2007) showed that corruption and a lack of independence for journalists, parliamentarians, judges, lawyers, are key concerns identified by survey participants in Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, and Lebanon.

This is a summary of the findings:

Arabs Speak Out about Democracy in New Reports

January 30, 2007

Two new reports reveal that an overwhelming majority of Arab citizens in four diverse countries support democratic reform and want to make their courts, media and parliaments more independent. In January, more than 200 Arab officials, judges, lawyers, parliamentarians, journalists, academics and community leaders discussed and debated the reports’ findings during back-to-back conferences in Cairo and Amman.

The Arab Center for the Development of the Rule of Law and Integrity, or ACRLI, and IFES sponsored the conferences and compiled the reports under the auspices of the United Nations Development Programme. The reports examine, for the first time, the current state of the parliament, media and judiciary systems in major cities in Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and Morocco. The reports look at these institutions from multiple Arab perspectives, through a systematic, multi-tiered analytical framework based upon rule of law and democratic good governance principles.

Arab researchers randomly surveyed hundreds of lawyers, judges, journalists and parliamentarians, as well as members of the general public. They also reviewed existing Arab and international constitutions, laws and research, in addition to conducting targeted focus groups. The Beirut-based ACRLI conducted the research from April 2005-September 2006.

“These reports, written entirely by Arabs, debunk the myth that Arabs are not ready or supportive of good governance and the rule of law,” said Keith Henderson, IFES senior rule of law advisor. Henderson added that one of the “amazing” outcomes that has happened, after a series of workshops involving the preeminent legal reform network in the region, is that a consensus has emerged on how to define an independent judiciary, media and parliament within the Arab context, and that Arabs are now ready to assume a leadership role in making these reforms a reality.

The conferences in Amman and Cairo attracted widespread attention among regional media outlets. A former prime minister of Jordan, the first female member of Egypt’s Constitutional Court and governmental officials from Morocco were among the dignitaries in attendance.

“Culture of Fear”

A lack of independence for journalists, parliamentarians, judges and lawyers was one of the main issues identified by both Arab professionals and the general public.

In the judicial survey, experts from all four countries said that external pressures interfere with the independence and efficient enforcement of judicial decisions. Most of the experts surveyed also said that judges do not enjoy their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or freedom to associate. Egyptian experts were the most likely to voice these concerns.

Likewise, almost 80 percent of media experts surveyed in Egypt agreed that government censorship significantly hinders their independence. Jordan was next with 65 percent. Only about a quarter of the public surveyed in Jordan and Egypt said the media can report openly “to a large extent.”

The findings were similar to those in the parliamentary survey in which two-thirds of Jordanian parliamentary experts and about a third of their counterparts in the other countries said parliament is pressured by government “to a large degree.”

Henderson said the surveys shed light on a culture in which Arab professionals routinely self-censor to avoid jeopardizing their careers, being fined, thrown in jail, and in some cases, suffering physical harm.

“Arab professionals across the region are struggling to work within a culture of fear,” said Henderson. He added that this hostile working environment ultimately leads to corruption in these democratic institutions and discourages Arab citizens from openly expressing their desires for reform.

Corruption Rampant

Experts in all four countries said that anti-corruption laws are not rigorously enforced. 83 percent of experts in Lebanon expressed this opinion, followed by Egypt at 61 percent. At the same time, almost 75 percent of the public surveyed in Morocco said parliamentarians do not care about issues pertaining to the public, with more than half of the Egyptians and Lebanese surveyed in agreement.

Bribery was another key concern identified by the general public. Large numbers of citizens in all countries who have dealt with the court system either paid bribes or were asked to pay bribes to court staff and judges. Bribery was the most common in Egypt and Morocco.

Overall, the data showed that the judiciary was strongest in Egypt, the media strongest in Lebanon and the parliament equally strong in Egypt and Jordan, although none of these institutions received high marks in any country. Henderson said those findings indicate that Arab governments can learn from each other when it comes to adopting democratic reforms that will work in the Arab context. Ultimately, Henderson said he hopes Arab governments will use the reports to address their citizens’ concerns.

“These reports are a unified call for reform from the Arab people themselves,” said Henderson. “The question is whether Arab leaders will listen.”

The reports and the conferences come amid a widely-reported backlash against democratic reform efforts in the Middle East, fueled in part by Arab concerns about the war in Iraq. However, the surveys show that despite recent setbacks to democracy efforts in the Middle East, support for democratic values such as media independence and government accountability to citizens remains strong.

A recent Gallup poll supports those findings. That poll found many Muslims support democratic values such as freedom of speech and freedom of assembly and believe those values can coexist with Islam. The poll sampled the opinions of more than 80 percent of the world's Muslim population in 10 countries.


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