Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Currents of Political Liberalization Flowing in Arab World, Too

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Currents of Political Liberalization Flowing in Arab World, Too

Article excerpt

Some commentators have argued that the democratic changes sweeping Eastern Europe and making themselves felt from Mongolia to Nicaragua have not been felt in the Arab world. No Berlin Walls have fallen, no Ceausescus have been shot by firing squad, but from the Atlantic to the Gulf there are signs of new political openness, multipartyism, a freer press and demands for more. There is definitely a wave of change building in the Arab world.

Single Party Strength

Historically, even those Arab countries which had formal multiparty systems have tended to be dominated by a single party, with the smaller parties essentially limited to providing constructive criticism. This was true of Egypt before the 1952 revolution and again of Egypt since the restoration of a multiparty system in the 1970s. Although the ruling party wins elections comfortably, the opposition is vocal, and its press surprisingly free and sometimes outrageous. It can even bring down a government official, as when al-Sha'b published tapes of Interior Minister Zaki Badr threatening to arrest a wide range of Egyptian leaders.

In Tunisia, a similar situation has prevailed. Although since Habib Bourguiba's departure in 1987 there has been a great liberalization of the political system, in the 1988 elections the ruling party won all the seats. Recently it has offered some concessions, changing the electoral system to encourage opposition victories in local elections. The opposition, however, wants new national parliamentary elections. And the single most powerful opposition force, the Islamic Nahda movement, is still barred from formal party activities.

In Morocco, there has been a long tradition of party life and party newspapers, but the parties have always been basically supportive of the monarchy and have little real power. There have been efforts to shift the balance a bit, however, and give more genuine power to the mulitparty parliament.

Algeria has been the real surprise in North Africa. Until 1988, the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN) saw itself as a genuine revolutionary party which claimed to represent all elements of society. That claim was shattered in October 1988 by attacks on party offices and violent riots throughout the country. Since then, dozens of political parties have come into existence. Many of them represent small factions but others, such as the only currently fully legal Islamic party in the Arab world, have a great deal of support. The press has also become vigorous and pluralist.

Multiparty Traditions

Sudan, with a history of vigorous multiparty competition is one Arab country where the tide has been flowing the other way. Last year a civilian, multiparty government in Sudan was overthrown by the military. But the new military rulers seem uncertain and insecure.

Another country with a tradition of democratic multipartyism is Lebanon, though its "parties" have always been communal, religious, or even family/feudal in their orientation. Despite the incredible impediments created by the civil war and the factions within society, parliament managed to meet twice last year and constitutionally elect two presidents, Rene Muawwad and, after his assassination, Elias Hrawi.

In Jordan, where parties had been banned for more than 20 years, withdrawal of Jordan's claim to the West Bank made it feasible to hold new parliamentary elections. …

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