Dissent and Reform in the Arab World

An American Enterprise Institute event

Rather than impose democracy on the Arab world, the United States seeks to support the building blocks for political and economic reform that already exist throughout the region. But as the first installment in AEI’s Dissent and Reform in the Arab World conference series has shown, the brave and bright reformers at the heart of democratic change have little political space with which to work and grow.

On January 13, participants from Tunisia, Libya, and Yemen detailed the extensive repressive measures used to stifle democracy in their countries, and offered concrete suggestions for reform. Please join AEI on March 31 for the second installment of the Dissent and Reform series. Participants from Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine will shine a spotlight on reform at home and support from abroad, addressing such challenges as a Hamas-elected government in Palestine, religious conflict in Iraq, and Hezbollah’s threat to Lebanon.

Transcript of the Event, Video of the Event.


8:45 a.m.
Registration and Breakfast
Danielle Pletka, AEI
Opening Remarks:
Shafeeq Ghabra, Alghad Communication/Leadership and Policy Institute; founding president, American University of Kuwait, Kuwait
Panel I: Challenges to Reform in Syria and Lebanon
Ammar Abdulhamid, Dar Emar Publishing House, Syria
Hassan Mneimneh, Iraq Memory Foundation, Lebanon
Najat Sharafeddine, Future Television, Lebanon
Lokman Slim , Hayya Bina [Let’s Go!], Lebanon
Danielle Pletka, AEI
Panel II: Challenges to Reform in Iraq and Jordan
Sama Hadad, Iraqi Prospect Organization, Iraq
Jamil Nimri, Al Ghad, Jordan
Michael Rubin, AEI
Update from Yemen
Hafez al-Bukari, Yemen Polling Center, Yemen
Closing Remarks:
Nejib Chebbi, Progressive Democratic Party, Tunisia
Event Summary

Rather than impose democracy on the Arab world, the United States seeks to support the building blocks for political and economic reform that already exist throughout the region. But as the first installment in AEI’s “Dissent and Reform in the Arab World” conference series has shown, the brave and bright reformers at the heart of democratic change have little political space with which to work and grow. On January 13, participants from Tunisia, Libya, and Yemen detailed the extensive repression used to stifle democracy in their countries and offered concrete suggestions for reform. On March 31, AEI hosted the second installment of the “Dissent and Reform” series. Participants from Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine shined a spotlight on reform at home and support from abroad, addressing such challenges as a Hamas-elected government in Palestine, religious conflict in Iraq, and Hezbollah’s threat to Lebanon.

Opening Remarks

Shafeeq Ghabra
Alghad Communication/Leadership and Policy Institute and American University of Kuwait

Arabs in the Middle East are caught between meeting the challenges of progress and reevaluating their history. Arabs still feel that they are on the outskirts of a progressing world. Indeed, the Arab world must still address many of the issues warned about years ago, such as civil war, failed states, anger and frustration, and the lack of freedom and democracy. It is thus clear that the Arab world must embark on a new path. And while there is a risk of failure, this risk is not greater than the failures already experienced time and again.

Importantly, there are many reasons for optimism regarding change in the Middle East: greater political liberalization and participation in several countries in the Middle East, including the proliferation of non-governmental organizations; improvements in women’s rights; empowerment of the private sector; recognition of the harmful effects of the politicization of religion; and the damaging of al Qaeda. Indeed, too, Iraq will stabilize with time.

One expects then that there will be great tensions during this period of transition. These tensions are normal, and one must take a longer perspective on events in order to see the great changes unfolding. Finally, it is important not to lose this moment of transition in the Middle East to shortsightedness, since this opportunity will not likely come again for a long time.

Panel I: Challenges to Reform in Syria and Lebanon

Ammar Abdulhamid
Dar Emar Publishing House, Syria

There are two obstacles to reform in Syria. The first is the regime, and the second is the nature of the opposition. Despite the seemingly congenial nature of Bashar Assad, his will not be a reformist regime since the regime and the Baath Party cannot produce any technocrats. The economy will thus remain in shambles, and the people’s standard of living will decrease as the corruption and personal enrichment of the Assad family continues.

The other main obstacle to reform is the ossified nature of the opposition. The opposition has not changed its message in years, has not reached out to the young, and is not utilizing new means of communication. Indeed, it is only recently that the opposition has broken this mold by issuing the Damascus Declaration. Finally, the Muslim Brotherhood-Khaddam alliance has galvanized outside opposition. And while it is not ideal that a former regime official has allied with the Islamists, perhaps this is the most pragmatic approach to posing a serious and effective challenge to the regime.

Lokman Slim
Hayya Bina [Let’s Go!], Lebanon

Hezbollah is a major obstacle to progress in Lebanon. Hezbollah, a terrorist organization and a proxy for Iran, is growing in strength as it continues to maintain its militia five years after Israel’s withdrawal–the militia’s raison d’être. Thus, Hezbollah is a resistance movement in search of an occupation. Hezbollah, too, is a propaganda organization operating in a society that is complicated and divided.

Notably, Hezbollah is tied to the rise of the Shia in Lebanon, which could pose a great obstacle to building a national Lebanese identity. Building a ministate, Hezbollah and its influence are growing, giving rise to two obstacles: First, Hezbollah over-inflates external threats and uses the Israeli/Zionist threat to justify authoritarianism. Second, Hezbollah promotes the idea of monopolizing communities for electoral control, leading other ethnic groups to do the same in order to compete. However, the Lebanese can take action to overcome these obstacles: the constitution must be amended to place restrictions on undemocratic parties like Hezbollah. In this way, the people of Lebanon can construct a national Lebanese identity.

Najat Sharafeddine
Future Television, Lebanon

Following a bloody assassination and demonstrations, Lebanon is facing an opportunity and a challenge to build a national state. Putting community ahead of the state has always been the trend in Lebanon. While it is easy to stagnate in the current situation, it is important to fully implement the 1989 Taif Agreement. First, this requires establishing a senate to represent the religious sects and changing the electoral laws to allow for national parties. Second, development must take place on a national–not a community–level. Third, Lebanon must refocus on solving the problem of the Palestinian refugees. Fourth, Lebanon must resolve its relationship with Syria and with Israel.

There are many challenges. In 2005, only 34 percent of Lebanese felt they belonged to Lebanon first and their sect second. However, for the first time since 1975, there is no occupying force in Lebanon. And while there is as yet no consensus on a Lebanese national identity, the major issues are being debated in a national dialogue without foreign intervention. Most Lebanese hope this dialogue will help set up a system that will resolve disputes peacefully and give the country some unity.

Hassan Mneimneh
Iraq Memory Foundation, Lebanon

Things have changed in the wider Arab word since the 1980s. Islamism has replaced leftism and nationalism as the grand narrative of the era, with no serious ideology to counter it. This puts liberalization in peril. But if and when Islamism fails to deliver, there will be a shift towards realism.

In Lebanon specifically, Hezbollah does not necessarily represent all the Shia of the country and, as such, is not as great a threat as it might seem. Lebanon, however, must deal with the time bombs of Syrian occupation: Hezbollah must disarm and distance itself from Iran while still taking part in the political process. The Lebanese people must confront Sunni extremist Islamism before it develops further. Lebanon must make amends with the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees on its soil.

There are still obstacles: The Constitution creates a weak state. Community political segmentation destroys horizontal integration. Lebanon will remain close to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Finally, while most Lebanese do not see themselves as Lebanese, this poll result changes as a function of age. Thus, there is hope, since the young in Lebanon are increasingly taking on a national identity.

Panel II: Challenges to Reform in Iraq and Jordan

Sama Hadad 
Iraqi Prospect Organization, Iraq

The primary issue of concern within Iraq is that of Islam. One must recognize that a democratic majority is Islamist Shia and, therefore, the road to a long lasting democracy must be through this group. In Iraq, the real way to achieve a lasting, liberal, genuine democracy is through Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr’s theory of Wilayat al-Ummah, the rule of the people. Al-Sadr’s theory embedded in Quranic proofs argues that the people’s choice is central and vital in the establishment of an Islamic country and that the legitimacy of the government in an Islamic state comes from the people. This is in contrast to Ayatollah Khomenei’s theory of Wilayat al-Faqih, the rule of the jurisprudent, which advocates the direct intervention of the scholars in all issues that concern the state.

The theory of Wilayat al-Ummah must be revived. Most Shia are not familiar with the theory, but those that truly understand the importance of its application have begun a “seismic, social change in Iraq.” If these proponents of the theory of Wilayat al-Ummah are not supported, the power of the radicals calling for Wilayat al-Faqih will increase and ultimately take power. In order to prevent such an outcome, we must continue to support the Shia majority, so that the moderates are empowered to counter the radicals.

Jamil Nimri
Al Ghad, Jordan

No real democracy exists in Jordan. In order for it to be established, political reforms need to be made. However, three main challenges stand in the way: First, the king’s responsibility for maintaining security and stability in a dangerous environment limit the king’s freedom of action and increase his need to be more cautious in steering decision making. Second, half of Jordanian residents are Palestinian refugees and immigrants with Jordanian citizenship, and any political reform would necessarily be aimed at the Palestinians, increasing their participation in politics. Coupled with the fear of a non-solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, native Jordanians are not supportive of giving the Palestinians more power, and the provincial governors have cooled down reforms on their own. Third, any free democratic election would likely bring Islamists to power. Because many of the Islamists are also Palestinian, many Jordanians see this as a double danger to opening up the political system and use it as a pretext to delaying political reform.

As the current situation stands, the Islamists are the strongest and most organized of the opposition groups, whereas the liberals are both weak and poorly organized. This has allowed the Islamists in opposition to wield power that hinders political reform. Finally, U.S. support for democracy in Jordan is viewed suspiciously by many Jordanians and is opposed by the Islamists. Despite these challenges, however, reform will be achieved and Jordan will become a real democracy.

Update from Yemen

Hafez al-Bukari
Yemen Polling Center, Yemen

While Yemeni authorities claim that their country is a model of good governance, in truth, the country remains repressive. The government allows nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), but in reality, most such groups are actually government-operated NGOs (GONGOs). With no independent elections committee, the prerogative of nominating candidates falls upon the president. He can also nominate and fire judges and cabinet members. The government monopolizes television and radio. With a largely illiterate population, opposition groups have few channels through which to reach the people. Although the government vows to fight corruption, when journalists promote change, they are met with violence.

The government accepts foreign aid to improve its army and security infrastructure, yet, aid to promote press freedom is regarded as Western interference in local issues. The government depicts those who seek freedom as “agents of the West.” It argues that the West faces a choice between fighting terror and promoting democracy in the Arab world, all the while suppressing liberals.

Closing Remarks

Nejib Chebbi
Progressive Democratic Party, Tunisia

Many wonder whether Arabs are capable of reforming their political systems and handling democratic governance. However, these people fail to realize that reform is not an American creation; in fact, a long process of reform in Tunisia began in 1875. Independence allowed for economic and social progress, but also resulted in an end to pluralism with a single-party political system. Since the 1950s, the government has limited political liberties and jailed many dissidents. By now promoting democracy in the Arab world, the United States is ending one of the main sources of anti-Americanism in the Middle East: its cooperation with oppressive regimes.

There are certain requirements for democracy that do not exist in the Arab world: separation of powers, checks and balances, free elections, independent judiciaries, and a respect for basic human rights. Yet, one should not speak of democratization in the same way for each country. In countries where there are no basic freedoms, the challenge is to liberalize the political system. Elsewhere, in countries like Morocco and Lebanon, the challenge is to further democratize. The current regimes will not reform the political systems unless they face pressure. Elites in Tunisia are awakening and beginning to fight for freedom, but the population, following decades of repression, is still largely not involved in this fight. The international community needs to stand beside reformers and democrats and encourage them in their efforts. Reform in the Middle East is not a threat to Western interests. Although political Islam will influence any Middle Eastern democracy, it has evolved as a phenomenon to accept democracy as part of Islamic thought. It is important for observers to distinguish between moderate and totalitarian Islamists. There is always risk in politics, but if Islamist groups accept democracy and basic freedoms, liberals should work with them.

AEI interns Daniel Kaplow, David Ribner, and Colin Kelly prepared this summary.