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.
Just a week after the Tunisian authorities announced a presidential amnesty for over 1200 political prisoners (including 70 members of the outlawed Islamist Nahda Party) on February 27, Libya released 130 political prisoners including all 85 Muslim Brotherhood prisoners. Do these developments signal a trend toward reconciliation with Islamists in North Africa?
In his first post-victory press conference Mauritanian President-elect Sidi Ould Sheikh Abdullahi called for a broadly inclusive national unity government. He will indeed need a great deal of support to face Mauritania's many political and economic challenges.
President Bush's goal of advancing Arab democracy faced skepticism from the moment he first enunciated it in November 2003, and with good reason. A few months after the invasion of Iraq and amidst continued Israeli-Palestinian violence, the notion that aspiring Arab democrats would look to the United States for support seemed farfetched.
When the European Union (EU) launched the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership (EMP, or Barcelona Process) in 1995 with the participation of 15 of its southern neighbors, the declared objective was to create a “zone of peace, stability, and security in the Mediterranean.” A wide range of economic, political, and cultural measures was foreseen, following in part the Helsinki model of 1975.
The “Al Azhar Militias” incident, in which some Muslim Brotherhood students staged a martial arts display in early December 2006, constitutes a turning point in the Brotherhood's relationship with the Egyptian regime. It triggered a regime crackdown—not the first during the presidency of Hosni Mubarak but the harshest and potentially the most important.
On January 22, Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif officially launched Nile University. Located in the high-tech development zone Smart Village, 20 km northwest of Cairo, it is the first Egyptian private university focusing on post-graduate studies and research. Since 1996, more than ten private universities have been established.
On December 26, 2006 President Hosni Mubarak formally requested that the People's Assembly amend some 34 articles of the constitution, a move heralded by the government-controlled press as promising "a new era of democracy" and "the rise of the citizenry."
The Lebanon war of 2006 changed the political environment in the Arab Middle East at two levels. The first was temporary and receded after the thirty-three day war had ended. The second, however, was structural and rooted in the reality of Arab societies, where the practices of ruling elites and opposition movements reveal the fragility of opportunities for democratic change.