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People, Policies and Presidents: What’s next for the Arab region?

People, Policies and Presidents: What’s next for the Arab region?

A wave of reform has washed over the Arab world. Yet, it remains to be seen whether leaders will stick to pledges and peacefully cede real power, or find ways to divide, co-opt or cow their opponents.

April 3, 2011 1:56 by

In countries which have offered reform — Morocco, Algeria, Jordan — it remains to be seen whether leaders will stick to pledges and peacefully cede real power, or find ways to divide, co-opt or cow their opponents.

“Thus far no Arab ruler has really made a substantial offer of political reform to protesters,” said Robert Springborg, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey.

“The closest appears to be the offer of constitutional reforms presented by Mohammed VI of Morocco, but he has hedged that offer pretty significantly.”

King Mohammed, seeking to pre-empt protests, unveiled plans in March for a 19-member team — named by himself — to draft constitutional changes by June that would strengthen parliament, empower local officials and promote judicial independence.

Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika lifted a 19-year-old state of emergency and offered unspecified political reforms in February, but has not yielded to demands for constitutional amendments to limit presidential terms and allow new parties.

Jordan’s King Abdullah has so far resisted pressure for a constitutional monarchy or an elected government, although he fired his cabinet in February and told his new prime minister, a former intelligence general, to accelerate political reform.
Islamist, leftist, liberal and even tribal figures have called for constitutional limits on the king’s power. Protesters in the streets are still chanting for reform, not regime change.

No matter what happens in those other countries, all Arabs will be watching Egypt and Tunisia, which are already on the stony path to more representative government.

Egypt’s military rulers have set a tight time-table for a return to civilian rule, with parliamentary and presidential elections this year. A new constitution is also planned — an unprecedented 41 percent of voters turned out for a March 19 referendum and 77 percent approved amendments to the old one.

In Tunisia, where the military has already stepped back, voters will pick a 200-member assembly in July that will elect interim leaders and draft a new constitution ahead of elections.

Springborg said such changes were not easy in countries where past regimes relied on patronage and allocations to buy support. The challenges “turn on shifting the base of popular acceptance of rule from a material to a policy basis”, he said.

“So in the absence of economic development occurring very quickly — and it won’t — how does one create competitive political parties in the absence of patronage resources?”

Springborg said Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and the remnants of Mubarak’s ruling party could still wield such resources and offer cash or jobs to counter promises from young reformers.

“The change is reversible, but not all at once. A creeping authoritarianism could gradually erode democratic reforms.”

A new law in Egypt makes it easier to form political parties. That will help the once-banned Brotherhood’s nascent Freedom and Justice Party. Youthful, secular activists who led the anti-Mubarak protests say they need more time to organise before elections if they are to compete with the Islamists.

Whoever wins power will have to tackle the problems — youth unemployment, stunted economic growth, poor education — that helped trigger the change in the first place.

“People are happy to see there is a new regime,” said Volker Perthes, Director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, citing Egypt’s referendum turnout.

“But at some point when the enthusiasm is over and elections have taken place, people will start asking for results — where are the jobs?”

Tunisia, with its well-educated, homogenous and relatively prosperous population of 10 million, has already dismantled much of the old regime, including Ben Ali’s coterie, his ruling party, the information ministry and state security agencies.

“Egypt’s done much less,” Carnegie’s Salem said. “The family has gone, but the ruling party is still there. State security has been disbanded, but many other institutions are still there. The government still contains some Mubarak appointees.”


Perhaps the most difficult hurdle to transforming a country like Egypt will be working out what role the military should play. Egypt’s military has been at the heart of power for the past six decades. So far, pro-democracy reformers have been reluctant to question their future place.

“The Egyptians have an extremely good chance of transiting to a democratic system,” said Khalidi. “But to what extent is the military going to withdraw from power?”

“To what extent does it not only keep its privileges, perks, industries, its sector of the economy, but also a certain veto over major foreign policy decisions which relate to the connection with the United States?”
Salem cited Turkey’s mixed experiences to suggest a possible partnership between the government and the military in Egypt that could promote stability, if not full civilian rule for now.

Turkey’s AK party, which combines Islamist roots with a modern outlook, has gradually forced the military to retreat from politics, an achievement admired by Arab reformers.

Khalidi said the Turkish model was attractive “in the sense of keeping the military out of politics, having an independent foreign policy, accepting the idea that Islam plays a role within politics, but in an essentially secular system”.

(Editing by David Cowell)

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