Saudi-sponsored conference highlights lack of Arab democracy
2002-10-02:: Agence France-Presse
CAIRO (AFP) - A high-profile conference here sponsored by a leading Saudi think-tank saw strong criticism of the failure of Arab regimes to democratize in the face of the shockwaves from the September 11 attacks in the United States. "We are still in an era of dictatorships," complained the speaker of the Jordan's dissolved parliament, Abdel Hadi al-Majali, to loud applause. "We have not managed to separate religion from politics, that's why we have failed," he said. "Arab parliaments are only there for show," he objected, adding that the "existence of consultative councils or elections does not mean there is democracy."
Pro-Western Jordan has yet to hold general elections 16 months after King Abdullah II dissolved parliament. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was earlier this month credited with 100 percent of the vote in a referendum on a new seven-year term, in an extreme example of the sort of poll which has given other Arab leaders like Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali more than 90 percent of the vote. And in Saudi Arabia, like much of the rest of the conservative Gulf, there is only an appointed council to advise the king. Even in Bahrain, which this month held its first parliamentary elections in nearly 30 years, the new legislature will share its powers with a second chamber appointed by King Hamad. "The Arabs have been talking about democracy for 30 years," said Syrian academic Burhan Ghalioun, who teaches politics in Paris. "But we're still behind and stuck with totalitarian regimes which resort to arbitrary arrests when confronted with those who want to take advantage of their right to free speech.
" Ghalioun said that the "Arab world's dictatorships went through a crisis after the September 11, 2001 attacks, which can only be resolved through a change in the nature of these regimes." But the necessary democratisation was still being blocked by "reinforcement of the system through the hereditary principle as well as the nature of (Arab) societies and outside factors.
" In July 2000, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad succeeded his late father Hafez. Earlier this year, Mubarak oversaw the appointment of his son Gamal to a top position in Egypt's ruling National Democratic Party. Former Sudanese prime minister Sadeq al-Mahdi, who was overthrown by President Omar al-Beshir in a 1989 military coup, blamed "traditional Islamic teachings and the political elite" for the lack of democracy in the Arab world. Arab governments had "sidelined democracy after contacts (with the West), judging that the system would not be in their interests." It was left to the speakers of two of the Arab world's few functioning elected parliaments to defend the status quo.
"Western demands for the implementation of democracy are malicious," the speaker of the Egyptian parliament Ahmed FathiSurur told the conference. "Western countries claim to be democratic, but all of their practices" reveal the contrary. For Nabih Berri, speaker of the Lebanese legislature, efforts to blame Islam for the perceived lack of democracy were entirely misplaced. "It would be wrong to assume that there is any basic contradiction between Islam and democracy," said Berri, who heads Lebanon's Shiite Muslim Amal faction. The three-day "First Conference on Arab Thought", which opened here Sunday, was organized by the Arab Thought Foundation of Prince Khaled, brother of Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal. Discussions centred on economics, the Middle East peace process and relations between the Arab world and the West, as well as democracy.