Democracy finding its feet at last in the Middle East

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 March, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 07 March, 2005, 12:00am

Democratic reform and the Middle East have until very recently been seen as incompatible terms. Dynastic succession has been the rule rather than the exception, while ballots have been introduced as a means to legitimate absolute rule rather than as real contests for power.

But developments in the past few months have led to speculation that all this is about to change.

Peaceful street protests in Beirut have succeeded in toppling a government beholden to Syria, Lebanon's powerful neighbour, and may yet succeed in ousting Syrian troops from Lebanese soil.

Egyptians are being promised presidential elections where they will be able to choose from more than one candidate.

Iraqis, in January, voted in large numbers despite the threat of violence and chaos that hung over the poll.

In Saudi Arabia, where the ruling family has a solid grip on power, more recent local elections have been lauded as a hopeful beginning.

Support from abroad has played a role in inspiring these fledgling democratic movements. But the real impetus has been internal and the commitment to expand on recent gains will also have to come from within the region.

In Lebanon, a Syrian pullout and the creation of a new, more independent government will not work without the co-operation of Hezbollah, the Islamic guerillas. It is not clear that this group can be convinced to disarm and take part in a reordered political landscape. But the hopeful signs include serious discussions over the pace of Syria's departure, as well as the restraint shown by all sides so far.

In Egypt and Saudi Arabia, it is far from clear that the recent promises of more democracy will be accompanied by the kinds of freedoms that are necessary for fair elections to take place.

As for Iraq, the ethnic and religious divisions made clear by the vote in January still have to be overcome. Continued violence and the decision to convene the new parliament despite a lack of agreement over key leadership posts is a reminder that one successful election does not make a democracy.

There is now perhaps more hope for broad enfranchisement in the Middle East than there has been in a long time. The developments should also be encouraging to those inside and out of the region who have long argued - quite correctly - that democracy and Islam are compatible concepts.

But it is too early for triumphalism. The signs are positive but it may be months before democracy can be declared to be 'on the march' in the region, as US President George W. Bush put it recently.

And while support from outside the Middle East - including help in building the necessary institutions - will be important, the main catalyst for change will have to come from within.