Twenty two members of the Arab League gathered Tuesday for the inaugural meeting of the Arab Parliament. The Parliament will act as the legislative body of the Arab League and is seen as a response to calls for reform in the region.
The Arab Parliament held its first meeting Tuesday, fulfilling an Arab League resolution proposed in March at the Arab Summit in Algiers. President Hosni Mubarak and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad attended the meeting, which was marked by ceremonial speeches.
President Mubarak used a river metaphor to speak about the democratic potential of the parliament.
"This parliament adds a national and democratic tributary to the tributaries of our joint work," he said. "A tributary that expresses the visions and the ambitions of our Arab countries and opens the door in front of its parliament members to propose their opinions of different Arab causes towards our collective work under the umbrella of the Arab League."
Dr. Gamal Sultan, senior research fellow at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, said the parliament is more or less a symbolic answer to calls for reform in the Arab region that materialized after 9/11.
"It indicates the need to reform. It's an attempt by the Arab governments and the Arab League to respond to those demands," he said. "They realize that they got to the point where they cannot ignore it anymore. But at the same time, they are trying to do it in a way that is not sufficient to change the power structure in the region or introduce significant reforms to the decision-making mechanisms on the regional level."
Mr. Sultan said that the parliament is made up of four representatives from each nation's parliament, and many of those national bodies are not elected to office. Hence, the Arab parliament will tend to represent Arab government interests more than those of Arab societies.
Furthermore, he said that the parliament's structure allows little power to make change in the Arab world. It meets only twice a year, and although it can discuss resolutions put forward by the Arab Council, the parliament cannot issue its own discussion items. In addition, Mr. Sultan said the parliament's mandate allows it to consider economic, social and cultural issues but not political issues.
He predicted that if countries with elected representatives such as Morocco and Algeria push for greater legislative power, other countries, such as those in the Gulf, will resist. These are the dynamics he and other political scientists will be watching.