[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Friday, 9 September 2005, 22:00 GMT 23:00 UK
How democratic is the Middle East?
US President George W Bush has said he will focus on nurturing democracy in the Middle East and north Africa. Some moves have already been made in the region this year to further the spread of democratic ideas.

BBC News website looks at the political systems of some key countries in the region.

moroccotunisiajordansyriaalgerialebanonlibyaisraeliraqiranegyptbahrainkuwaitsaudi arabiapalestinian territoriesqatarunited arab emiratesomanyemen


Multi-party politics was introduced in 1989 but a general election two years later was annulled after it was won by an Islamist party. Since then tens of thousands of people have been killed in a struggle between the military and Islamist militants.

In November 1996, with civil war raging throughout the country, Algerian voters opted for a new constitution that granted many new powers to the president.

The subsequent presidential election in April 1999 saw Abdelaziz Bouteflika come to power. When six candidates withdrew from the ballot in protest at what they said was electoral fraud, he ran without opposition.

In 2004, Mr Bouteflika was re-elected in a landslide victory. Western diplomats in Algiers said the poll appeared to be the fairest since 1989.


The country voted in 2001 to turn the country from an emirate into a constitutional monarchy, with an elected parliament and an independent judiciary.

In 2002, Bahrain held local elections - the first elections of any kind for 27 years. They were seen as the initial step in new moves towards democracy being ushered in rapidly by the king, Sheikh Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifah. Women were allowed to stand as candidates and vote for the first time. The Bahraini government also allowed the establishment of "political associations" but not political parties.

Following the elections, a new cabinet was established with six new ministers, including a former opposition figure.


Hosni Mubarak, who has been the country's president for 24 years, won a fith six-year term in office in September 2005, in Egypt's first multi-candidate presidential elections.

The elections were announced in February 2005, when constitutional changes were made to allow multiple candidates for the first time, but were marred by accusation of intimidation and irregular practices. Mr Mubarak won a declared 88.6% of the vote.

But critics say the proposed constitutional change may be more of a cosmetic measure to defuse pressure for reform, from the US among others, than a serious commitment to political pluralism.

Human rights groups have said that the Egyptian electoral process is deeply flawed and undemocratic. The ruling National Democratic Party has dominated parliament and won elections by vast margins since the late 1970s.

There is a one-house legislature, the People's Assembly. About half the house must be farmers and workers. Members are elected for five-year terms by direct universal suffrage.

The president has extensive executive powers. He is nominated by at least one third of the members of the People's Assembly, approved by at least two thirds of them, and confirmed by a popular referendum.


The Supreme Leader is the highest political and religious authority in Iran. He is not elected by voters, but chosen by the 86-member Assembly of Experts. This body is dominated by conservative clerics.

He rules through the Islamic Consultative Assembly, which consists of 290 elected representatives, who serve four-year terms. The people - who enjoy universal suffrage - also elect a president for a four-year term.

Conservatives won controversial parliamentary elections in February 2004 after the country's hardline Council of Guardians, a 12-member vetting body, barred more than 2,000 reformist candidates from standing.

The reformists had swept into parliament four years previously, in an upset for the long-ruling conservative elite.

Reformist President Mohammad Khatami is due to leave office in 2005, at the end of his second term in office. He was swept to power in 1997 and 2001 mainly by young voters eager for change but has faced dogged resistance from hardliners.


At the end of January 2005 to elect members to a new transitional National Assembly. The final goal of the political process, officials say, is a government that is democratically elected by every Iraqi, through an electoral system the Iraqis themselves have decided upon and approved.

In theory, elections for this government should take place in December 2005. But, before that, a constitution needs to be drawn up and approved.

The election for the 275-seat assembly used a list system based on proportional representation with the entire country acting as one constituency. Every third candidate on the list had to be a woman to ensure that at least 25% of the seats went to women.

The United Iraqi Alliance party, a broad Shia Muslim list, won 48% of January's vote. The Kurdish parties came second in the poll, followed by the list of the secular Shia and interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.

The biggest losers were the Sunni Arabs. Turnout was as low as 2% in some Sunni areas as people either boycotted the election or found it hard to vote because of violence.

Drafting the constitution will not be an easy task. There are the issues of Kurdish federalism - Iraqi Kurds are keen to maintain their autonomy within a federalist framework - the role of religion and the under-representation of the Sunnis.

A draft permanent constitution must be presented to Iraqi people for approval in a general referendum in October.

According to UN resolution 1546, the mandate for the US-led military force expires at the end of the political process - in theory by the end of December 2005.


Israel is governed as most Western democracies are. Parliament, or the Knesset, has 120 members who are elected every four years through proportional representation.

It is difficult for a single party to win a majority of the seats, so government by coalition is common in Israel.


Jordan is ruled by a hereditary monarch. The legislature, called the National Assembly, consists of a senate and a house of deputies.

The king appoints the members of the senate, and the members of the house are elected by the people. Citizens over the age of 18 may vote.

Political parties are legal.

On ascending to the throne five years ago, King Abdullah sought to press ahead with reforms introduced by his late father, King Hussein, who died in 1999. However, little progress was made.

In January 2005, the king announced a new plan to widen the public's role in decision-making by setting up elected local councils, but he did not say how they would work.


Kuwait is a constitutional monarchy ruled by the al-Sabah family. The ruler, or emir, chooses the prime minister and the members of the Council of Ministers.

It was the first Arab country in the Gulf to have an elected parliament. Adult men and women are allowed to vote and stand in elections.

Attempts by the ruling family to change the male-dominated legislative structure succeeded in May 2005 - after being blocked for six years by tribal and Islamist members of the National Assembly.

But the amendment allowing women political rights also required that women "abide by Islamic law", which may yet impose restrictions on their participation in election campaigns.

Political parties are illegal in Kuwait.


Lebanon has a democratic system but sectarian militias and neighbouring Syria exert great influence.

Syria has held considerable sway over the country, where it keeps some 14,000 troops.

In February 2005, the assassination of a former prime minister Rafik Hariri plunged the country into crisis. Angry demonstrations against Syrian presence in the country ensued, the pro-Syrian government in Beirut resigned and Damascus faced enormous international pressure to withdraw its troops.

Parliamentary elections are scheduled for May 2005. There is universal adult suffrage. Women have held the right to vote and to run for office since 1953. Parliamentary seats are distributed equally among Christian and Muslim sects.

The post of prime minister is customarily given to a member of the Sunni Muslim community, while the country's president is Christian and the speaker of parliament is a Shia Muslim.


The Libyan government is organised as a pyramid of committees and congresses, each layer of which is involved in the selection of the level above.

At the top is the General People's Congress. The structure is intended to allow for broad democratic participation at the pyramid's base.

In practice, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi rules unopposed, and all important decisions are centralised. Despite the claims made for the people's committees, there is currently no movement towards democracy in Libya, and the country's human rights record is widely criticised.

Voting for the leaders of the local congresses is mandatory for all Libyans over the age of 18.

The state owns and controls the media and the authorities do not permit the publication of opinions contrary to government policy or criticising the government.


The Moroccan constitution concentrates power in the hands of the royal palace. A hereditary monarch, a prime minister and a Council of Ministers appointed by the king, form the kingdom's executive branch.

King Mohammed VI, who came to the throne in 1999 has worked to liberalise the tightly controlled regime left by his late father, Hassan II.

In 2002, voters elected members to parliament's lower house in the first general election since 1997. The king and the government said they wanted the vote to lay to rest memories of past corruption-marred elections.

Innovations during that vote included a new system of proportional representation and a national list reserved for female candidates to ensure that at least 10% of new MPs were women.

However, parliament still has limited power.


The head of the Sultanate of Oman is Sultan Qaboos, who has held the position since 1970 and is an absolute monarch.

Since he came to power, a number of political reforms have taken place. The role of elected representatives in the government has been gradually expanded. Earlier this year there were elections to the Shura council in which women participated.

However, the council is a purely consultative body. The sultan makes the laws. There is no formal constitution or legislature, and there are no political parties.

The sultan appoints a council to assist him. The country is divided into 50 governorates. Each has a governor who is appointed by the sultan.

Palestinian territories

The death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in November 2004 opened the way for elections in January 2005. Arafat, who had led his people for decades, was reluctant share power, despite calls from the international community for reform.

US President George Bush called in June 2002 for "the Palestinian people to elect new leaders, leaders not compromised by terror". From the US and Israeli standpoint, the 2005 election fulfilled that need.

The election was won by the candidate of the ruling Fatah faction Mahmoud Abbas and was described by commentators as the most open and transparent election the Arab world has seen in years. There was also a strong showing to Mustafa Barghouti, a democracy and human rights activist who stood as an independent.

Militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad - which have comparable levels of support to the Fatah - boycotted the election. However, Hamas moved into mainstream, democratic politics for the first time when it fielded candidates for local council elections held recently. It won landslide victories in many of the councils in the Gaza strip.

Elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), or parliament, will be held in July 2005. Hamas may well put up candidates and, if so, is expected to achieve a sizeable minority.


Qatar is a constitutional monarchy whose head of state is called an emir.

Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani has advocated greater political openness since he deposed his father in 1995.

In June 2004, he issued the gulf state's first written constitution, due to come into force in 2005. It provides for a 45-seat advisory body. Two thirds will be elected, with the others appointed by the emir, who will retain ultimate power.

The constitution guarantees freedom of expression, assembly and religion. The plan received overwhelming support by voters, including women, in a referendum in 2003.

Municipal elections in 1999 were the first democratic polls since 1971 and marked the start of a democratisation programme. Women were allowed to vote and stand for office for the first time.

In 2003, Qatar appointed its first woman cabinet minister, Sheikha bint Ahmed al-Mahmoud, and also set up a human rights committee.

There are no political parties in Qatar, but a fully-elected parliament has been promised for the future.

Saudi Arabia

The absolute monarchy of Saudi Arabia held its first ever exercise in democracy in February 2005 as it began nationwide elections at the municipal level. Voters are electing only half of the municipal council. The other half will still be appointed.

Only men are allowed to vote or stand as candidates. To be eligible, they must be over 21 and not serving in the military. Women, who make up more than 50% of the population, currently lead restricted lives: they are segregated in public places, cannot drive cars and must be covered from head to toe when in public.

Officials promised that women would be part of the next elections in 2009.


The Syrian government is renowned for its authoritarian rule, although there has been a degree of liberalisation since the death of President Hafez al-Assad.

The ruling Baath Party proposes the candidate for president and he is then nominated by the legislative branch, the People's Assembly. After the nomination process, the candidate is confirmed by a popular referendum.

If the candidate fails to secure a majority, the People's Assembly nominates another candidate and the referendum process is repeated. All Syrian nationals over the age of 18 are eligible to vote.


President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his Constitutional Democratic Rally have been in power for 17 years, and exercise almost complete control over Tunisian politics.

He was due to retire in 2004 but in 2002 he secured support in a referendum for changes to the constitution allowing him a further two terms. In October 2004 President Ben Ali was re-elected for a fourth five-year term, in the second multi-party presidential elections since independence.

Official results gave him 94% of the vote The main opposition group, the Democratic Progressive Party, pulled out two days before the vote saying its participation would only legitimise a masquerade of democracy.

The president has faced recent calls by Western politicians such as US President George Bush to implement urgent democratic reforms.

There are a few legalised opposition parties.

United Arab Emirates

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is a federation of seven states.

Although each state - Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Ajman, Fujairah, Ras al Khaimah, Sharjah and Umm al Qaiwain - maintains a large degree of independence, the UAE is governed by a Supreme Council of Rulers made up of the seven emirs, who appoint the president and the cabinet.

The ruler of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, is the current president of the UAE. He took over from his father, Sheikh Zayed Bin-Sultan Al Nahyan, who had been president from 1971 until his death in 2004. Re-elected every five years since 1971, Sheikh Zayed instilled the values of religious tolerance and equality, especially for women, into his policies, which greatly enhanced the stability of the UAE.


The presidential elections of 1999 were the first in which the president was elected by popular vote.

President Ali Abdullah Saleh won more than 96% of the vote, but the main opposition party, which was barred from fielding a candidate, described the poll as a sham.

At present a presidential candidate must receive the nomination of at least 10% of the legislature to participate in the general election.

The bicameral parliament is composed of the Consultative Council and the House of Representatives (Majlis al-Nuwaab). The Consultative Council has no legislative powers, and the president appoints its 111 members.

The Council was most recently appointed in April 2001.

The 301 members of the House of Representatives are elected by plurality vote from single-member constituencies. The latest elections were held in 2003.

Country profile: Algeria
26 Nov 04 |  Country profiles
Country profile: Bahrain
04 Jan 05 |  Country profiles
Country profile: Egypt
15 Jan 05 |  Country profiles
Country profile: Iran
18 Jan 05 |  Country profiles
Country profile: Iraq
15 Feb 05 |  Country profiles
Country profile: Jordan
29 Nov 04 |  Country profiles
Country profile: Kuwait
18 Dec 04 |  Country profiles
Country profile: Lebanon
09 Feb 05 |  Country profiles
Country profile: Libya
18 Dec 04 |  Country profiles
Country profile: Morocco
23 Nov 04 |  Country profiles
Country profile: Oman
18 Dec 04 |  Country profiles
Country profile: Qatar
18 Dec 04 |  Country profiles
Country profile: Saudi Arabia
06 Dec 04 |  Country profiles
Country profile: Syria
04 Mar 05 |  Country profiles
Country profile: Tunisia
09 Feb 05 |  Country profiles
Country profile: United Arab Emirates
04 Nov 04 |  Country profiles
Country profile: Yemen
04 Jan 05 |  Country profiles


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific