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Middle East Political Reform Debated at Washington Forum - 2004-07-12

The question of reform steps being taken by Arab governments was the subject of a discussion Monday in Washington. Panelists called for more progress in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, but said there are clear signs change is taking place.

Each of the panelists in the discussion, sponsored by the Washington, D.C.-based Middle East Institute, pointed to a number of factors holding back reform.

These include a history of male dominated patriarchal societies, tendencies to look at change as a threat, religious factors working against change, and economic weaknesses that have not created an up swell of support for democracy.

Abdel Monem Said Aly, of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, says Egypt has what he calls many of the ingredients for democracy, but many of them are not "functioning" as they should be.

While the government clearly exerts strong control, he says Egyptians nonetheless have the ability to express opinions and obtain information, lately through the internet, and affect public policy and the making of laws, as well as criticize the leadership.

However, focusing on what he calls flaws in a number of institutions, Mr. Aly says there is consensus the Constitution needs serious reform, particularly on the question of presidential succession:

"Most of the people from the right and the left think that we should have a competitive election for the presidency, limited terms for the president," he said. "However, there is disagreement over all the other things. The social components of the constitution are under, at least, suspicion (by) many (people), and those who want to revise the whole constitution in terms of its relationship between the state and the religion."

In Saudi Arabia, according to Khaled al-Maeena, Editor-in-Chief of the Arab News, there is a resistance to implementing reform merely in response to external pressure.

Saying Saudis want "friends not masters" he points to what he says is more openness in Saudi society and readiness to criticize. Yet, says Mr. Al-Maeena, "bold steps" are necessary if the Saudi way of life is to survive.

"Those who are against reforms are many," he said. "They are those who want to cling to the old power set up, they believe that reforms would usher in westernization. But Islam has always been a reformist religion, taking in wherever it went, so this notion that if we reform, if we change, if we have election(s), things will go wrong in the country is absolutely not appreciated by the majority of the people."

Mr. al-Maeena says Saudis should not "divest" themselves of their Islamic roots, but should discover where these traditions and values can bring about change. And he says, the Saudi leadership needs to listen.

"As they ask for more, the response has to be more, because you really have to do, you just cannot sit and not listen because there is an audience, there is a constituency, there is a group of people that would really like to see that their country is not left far behind." he said.

But for all the talk of reform, Amy Hawthorne, editor of the "Arab Reform Bulletin" of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace says there has not been much action.

Saying some regimes have paid lip service to the idea of reform while resisting the launch of actual political changes, while others have enacted what she calls modest changes, she describes what substantive democratic reforms would be.

"Democratic reforms would expand political competition, establish greater accountability in government, dramatically improve the human rights environment, and expand the powers of elected institutions so they matter for the formation of policy," he said. "We don't see any of that occurring in recent years in most Arab countries."

What Amy Hawthorne calls "more far-reaching" reforms have been carried out in only two countries, Bahrain and Qatar. But as positive and welcome as these are, she adds, the reality is that absolute monarchies remain intact.

Algeria's Ambassador to the United States, Idriss Jazairy, says Arab countries, like others, will be forced by rapid social and economic transformations to reform.

Arab countries, he said went through one stage of reform in response to colonialism and to meet the demands of nation-building, but have yet to move quickly enough to another, critically important level.

"We failed to move in a timely manner to a second phase of reform, one that would evolve from the enhancement of community freedom and rights to a second phase of enhancement of individual freedom and rights," he said.

The panelists said while Arab countries welcome advice from outside, they do not want to be patronized.

The discussion on Middle East reform took place on Capitol Hill, where U.S. lawmakers have been focusing sharply on the question of reform efforts underway in Arab countries.