Arabs often question the United States' commitment to promoting democracy in the Middle East, arguing its policies are inconsistent and even hypocritical. In reality, the commitment to democracy by President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is unquestionable, based on a genuine conviction that a democratic Middle East serves the security interests of the United States.
The September 21-23 conference of Egypt's ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) was notable in several respects. First, the proceedings were dominated by Gamal Mubarak, President Hosni Mubarak's 41-year-old son who heads the NDP's powerful policies secretariat, keeping alive rumors that he is being groomed to succeed his father.
In Egypt, the approaching 2005 presidential referendum and parliamentary elections as well as the likelihood that a leadership succession will take place within the next few years—President Hosni Mubarak is seventy-six and was hospitalized in Germany this summer—have energized politics and led to fresh efforts at cooperation among opposition groups.
Donors tend to focus on non-controversial technical issues when promoting the rule of law abroad. In sharp contrast, judicial reformers in the Arab world have plunged into the political aspects of judicial reform far more enthusiastically. Their zeal, however, has not yet translated into success.
At present there are at least three possible readings of Egyptian politics. There is the government version, in which President Mubarak's decision to amend Article 76 of the constitution to permit direct and pluralistic elections for the presidency is an historic reform step approved by a majority of Egyptians, first via the two chambers of parliament and then via the May 25 public referendum.
In recent months, with pressures on the Egyptian government to reform growing, elements of Egyptian civil society have seized the moment to advance longstanding agendas. Among the most surprising and significant groups to press their advantage were judges.
As part of its emergence from political and economic isolation, Libya is converting to an open-market economy after decades of socialist-style policies. Among the most unpopular steps taken by the government so far has been cutting subsidies, which has triggered widespread anger among Libyans.
In February 2004, the Kingdom of Morocco enacted reforms to the Mudawwana, or the law governing marriage, divorce, parentage, inheritance, child custody and guardianship, that have the potential to expand women's rights. Moroccan activists initially hailed the reforms as a major victory for women and for the democratic process more broadly.
The empowerment of women and the establishment of gender equality are crucial to democracy. Democracy is as much about citizenship rights, participation and inclusion as it is about political parties, elections, and checks and balances. The quality of democracy is determined not only by the form of institutions, but also by the extent that different social groups participate in these institutions.
Women's rights in the Middle East remain severely restricted both by law and by social customs. Although some countries have made notable progress in broadening the formal rights of women, the application of the laws remains problematic everywhere. In the worst case, that of Saudi Arabia, both the law and social customs circumscribe women's life choices.
Quite apart from international efforts to "rescue" women in the Middle East, female activists in Arab countries have been toiling for decades for reforms that achieve concrete gains for women. Recently, certain efforts have borne fruit through the use of pragmatic, coalition-building strategies that take advantage of the expanded political space available in some countries.
The low voter turnout in the May 2007 legislative elections (about 36 percent, compared to 65 percent in 1997 elections) showed that Algerians still believe that their votes do not make a difference. Clearly power rests somewhere other than in the elected legislature.
The second of June marked the second anniversary of the assassination of Lebanese writer Samir Qasir, with no indication of who ordered the car bombing that silenced one of the loudest Arab voices criticizing autocratic Arab regimes, particularly the Assad family in Syria.
After a few months of quiet, Egypt's judicial independence movement in recent weeks has surged forward into a major confrontation with the Supreme Judicial Council, which pro-reform judges view as too closely aligned with the executive branch.
"How do you think the Muslim Brotherhood performance has affected parliament?" The question was posted on the website of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest opposition group, in mid-March after 100 days in the current parliament. The results offered a boost.
The Party of Justice and Development (PJD) is the offspring of the Movement for Unity and Reform, itself an amalgam of several Islamist organizations. It has held seats in parliament since 1997 and increased its share from 14 to 42 seats in the 2002 elections, even though the party only ran in half of Morocco's electoral districts.
Until recently Western assistance programs aimed at strengthening political parties were less present in the Arab world than in almost all other areas of the developing world. As part of the heightened U.S. and European interest in promoting Arab political reform, however, such programs are multiplying in the region.
On July 19, 2005, Secretary General Abdelaziz Belkhadem of the National Liberation Front (FLN), Algeria's current parliamentary majority party, announced the creation of a party commission for constitutional reform. Citing the pressing need to “clarify the nature of the regime,” he ignited the latest round of political debate over Algeria's Constitution.
If some of the Group of Eight (G-8) countries had not found some resolve at the final moments of the concluding session of the Forum for the Future in November 2005, the initiative might have been buried in Manama. There is still danger of the initiative being terminated by Moscow, which in July will host the 2006 G-8 summit, before the third Forum meeting in Jordan takes place later this year.
The 2005 elections realigned the Egyptian political landscape into a virtual two-party system: the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) and an emergent Muslim Brotherhood. Leftists and liberals were left stranded by their abysmal electoral showing (16 seats total). While civil society groups remain active, liberal political parties are in deep crisis.