Pluralism and the Arab Spring

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When French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe visited the occupied territories last week, a group of young Palestinians were given a chance to speak to him in Ramallah. After asking Juppe whether he would participate in resisting occupation of France, they turned to the issue of Palestinian politics, especially how negotiations are being conducted.

One young Palestinian even questioned the PLO’s present configuration and its role as the reference point for the Palestinians. Without proper and genuine elections of a new Palestine National Council, the young person said, the PLO cannot be allowed to represent the Palestinians.

Many Palestinians are talking publicly about the need to create new political parties different in structure, ideology and working procedures from the present set of nationalist or Islamic factions.

This kind of scepticism about existing political configurations is not unique to Palestine. It can be argued that the absence of genuine independent pluralism in various political groupings has been the major problem facing the Arab world.

With the exception of ruling parties (which are usually a monopoly in their countries) party politics are not well practised in the Arab world. Executive powers act against independent political parties and their activists, causing a dictatorships of the ruling parties. This makes reform so much more difficult.

A look at the reform movements in Syria and Yemen, for example, reflects the difficulties because of the absence of pluralistic societies represented by genuinely independent political parties. Ironically, in both Syria and Yemen, as well as in many other Arab countries, there are many political parties but they are totally isolated and ineffective. Either they are created by the ruling party (as in Syria) to give the appearance of pluralism or they are kept under tight control by the executive branch through various forms of restriction.

While the above applies to so-called Arab republics, the situation in some reform-minded monarchies is also in need of serious development.

For years, the one-person, one-vote in Jordan has been the single most powerful legislative instrument that encouraged tribalism and in effect curtailed the development of effective political parties. Even the changes proposed by the National Dialogue Committee will do little to enhance the development of strong political parties in Jordan.

For example, out of the 130 proposed parliamentary seats, only 15 will be chosen on a national slate. However, voters will be allowed to pick and choose individual party members from these national lists. Furthermore, the proposed elections law stipulates that no district in the Kingdom will be left without a candidate chosen from the national list. Such restrictions will further reinforce tribal and local candidates on the account of national political parties.

Similar policies and electoral procedures have been enacted to limit the creation of a pluralistic political system. Multiparty rule seems a long way from seeing the light in Arab countries despite the success of the Arab Spring.

While those in power are working tirelessly to ensure that new electoral policies reinforce the status quo, young people in the Arab world who have been credited with creating the revolution seem unable to cause deep changes. Part of the handicap is simply their ignorance of how political procedures can be used to support one group or deny another group the chance of reaching democratic goals. There is a lot of political spin accompanying various political plans that are being marketed as encouraging democratic engagement.

To remedy this problem, some civil society activists have begun to educate themselves and their community in such political procedures and their consequences. One Tunisian NGO has begun a widespread campaign to raise political awareness among Tunisians. Much more is needed.

While the need for a legal environment supporting the creation of pluralistic Arab societies is indispensable, much more work is needed in other areas. Again, in Egypt, many political activists are calling for the delay of elections until the new generation of young political activists can get its act together. They are worried that the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been around for many years and is relatively well organised, can make wide gains in any quick elections.

Young people, on the other hand, who have proved quite capable of organising hundreds of thousands of people to participate in the reform demonstrations, are told that they should be able to use the same talent and tools to produce the votes needed to bring down any bad candidates or to elect candidates of their choosing.

Finally, electoral politics also requires creativity in designing alliances and networks of citizens who have shared values and goals. Such political horse-trading also might prove very difficult to some of the inexperienced young people who are now the leaders of the Arab revolts.

While the next months will be crucial to understanding the nuances that will make or destroy the young democratic movements in the Arab world, some issues will require wisdom and experience, and not just energy and creativity. Whether the changes that will be enacted will be enough is still unclear, but as long as the new system will have an internal mechanism that allows change as you go, any temporary mistake can be corrected in the future. However, if the reforms that will be carried out will be a one-time deal, then one has a lot to worry about.

A pluralistic multiparty system continues to be the best guarantee that the voices of Arab citizens will be respected and that change will be allowed to see the light, whether in a temporary process or in the long term.

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