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Review of 2001 Monday, 31 December, 2001, 10:23 GMT
Democracy seeps into Middle East
people voting
Democratic rule is slowly transforming the Arab world
Frank Gardner

The Arab world is increasingly standing out as one of the least democratic regions in the world. No country has a completely freely elected parliament, and many Arab states are ruled by ageing, military-backed strongmen.

These rulers also show no sign of wanting to let their people choose their successor.

But there are some indications that the region is at last moving slowly towards a more democratic form of rule.

In the island state of Bahrain, a strange thing happened in February. In the poor, Shi'ite villages, where anti-government graffiti used to daub the walls, posters started going up of the country's ruling Emir.

 Sheikh Hamad Al-Khalifa
Changing times: Sheikh Hamad Al-Khalifa
Sheikh Hamad Al-Khalifa is not perhaps a democrat in the western sense. His family still occupies all the major posts in government. But Bahrain's ruler has sensed the wind of change and responded.

He's released hundreds of political prisoners and promised parliamentary elections. Bahraini democracy is not going to happen overnight, but it's a start, and the people have applauded him for it.

Television freedoms

In neighbouring Qatar too, the forward-thinking ruler has promised elections. He's also shaken up the Arab airwaves, by allowing his country's controversial satellite television channel, Al-Jazeera, to broadcast freely.

Talk shows on taboo subjects like prostitution and democracy are now beamed into Arab living rooms, to the fury of less liberal regimes.

And in Yemen, a country ruled by the military strongman, President Ali Abdullah Saleh, recent municipal elections have transferred some power away from the capital, to the provinces.


The Arab world is like a patchwork quilt when it comes to democracy

But in the rest of the Arab world, there is little democratic cheer. Saudi Arabia's ruling family remain firmly opposed to democracy, saying it is incompatible with Islam.

The country's consultative assembly, the Majlis Al-Shura is appointed by the government, not chosen by the people.

Media stranglehold

In Egypt, recent parliamentary elections showed strong gains for the Islamists, despite government agents trying to block their supporters from reaching the ballot boxes.

But the parliament they sit in, is a pliant body that can easily be overruled by the country's all-powerful President Mubarak.

king Sidi Mohamed
Young monarch: Moroccan King Sidi Mohamed
And in Morocco and Syria, hopes of democratic reforms by the new young rulers have largely been dashed.

Journalists and political reformers are arrested, released with a warning, then often re-arrested. And in President Saddam Hussein's Iraq, democracy is not an issue. It simply does not exist.

So overall, the Arab world is like a patchwork quilt when it comes to democracy, with some countries moving forwards, others backwards.

But time is on the side of the reformers as swelling populations of jobless young Arabs press for changes. In much of the Arab world there is a simple formula.

The rulers look after the people's welfare and in return they should not expect democracy. But if the rulers can no longer provide, then the people will eventually demand their share of power.

See also:

09 Oct 01 | Middle East
01 Nov 01 | Middle East
16 Dec 99 | Middle East
07 Mar 99 | Middle East
12 Nov 01 | Business
18 Dec 01 | Middle East
13 Aug 01 | Country profiles
Internet links:


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