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Journal of Democracy 11.3 (2000) 69-83

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Arabs and Democracy

Illusions of Change

Emmanuel Sivan

Many observers regarded 1999 as a year of progress for democracy in the Arab world. Yemen, Egypt, and Tunisia all held presidential elections in what was deemed a relatively free atmosphere. In September, Algeria held a referendum on a "Civil Concord" that sought to end a seven-year civil war by offering amnesty to Islamist rebels who would lay down their arms. Combined with the recent changing of the guard in Jordan and Morocco, where young monarchs succeeded the two most veteran Arab rulers, these events were widely viewed as a significant move toward more pluralistic and participatory politics.

But are we actually witnessing meaningful political change? There is reason for doubt. Mubarak has been elected for the fourth time, Tunisia's Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali for the third time, and Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh for the second time--after 18, 12, and five years of rule, respectively. Mubarak ran unopposed, while Saleh faced just one token candidate from within his own party (the candidacies of leaders of the opposition parties were not approved by the Electoral Committee). In Tunisia, the two contenders allowed to run came from minor opposition parties and got barely 0.6 percent of the vote. This compelled the presidential palace, which had promised that the opposition would get one-fifth of the seats in the parliamentary elections, to resort to changing the size of electoral districts in order to give the opposition its "due share" of the parliamentary vote. In Algeria, all six opposition candidates planning to run in the April 1999 elections against the army's candidate, Abd al-Aziz Bouteflika, quit the race in protest against the government's strong-arm tactics against their activists. In the run-up to the September referendum, no advertisements opposed to [End Page 69] granting amnesty to the rebels were allowed on government-controlled radio and television, and there was virtually no public debate on the merits of the proposal. If all this does not constitute a return to the old rule of thalath tis'a (99.9 percent), it comes very close.

No less significant, perhaps, was the low turnout for these elections, estimated by seasoned observers at one-third of registered voters in Egypt and two-fifths in Tunisia. Election fraud, long a common occurrence in the Middle East, was less blatant, but still alive and well. As for the broad declarations from the official press about new "winds of liberty," a June 1999 study by the Jordanian Institute of Strategic Studies showed that 71 percent of those questioned said they are still afraid of speaking out on public affairs, and just 16 percent said they have no fear of criticizing the government.

Voter apathy is also related to suspicion of the official media. Those who can afford it prefer Arab-language satellite television, which is considerably freer (especially the Jazira Channel broadcasting out of Qatar), Radio Monte Carlo, and (in North Africa) French television on cable or via satellite. The two new kings, Abdallah II of Jordan and Muhammad VI of Morocco, have somewhat relaxed the restrictions on the press laid down by their fathers in recent years as part of the fight against radical Islam. Yet this so-called Arab glasnost' does not go very far. In Jordan, the editors of two opposition dailies were arrested for publishing reports that female nurses in Aqaba had been sexually harassed in public by the prime minister's son. The Department of Human Rights, which had just been created in the prime minister's office, was, of course, unable to intervene. In Egypt, where press laws are still heavily skewed in favor of those in authority, the editor and two journalists of the pro-Islamist daily Al-Sha'ab got stiff prison sentences for slandering the deputy prime minister with allegations that he had personally profited from "commerce with the Zionists." Protests by the Journalists' Syndicate were of no avail. In a similar case in Yemen, journalists were condemned to flogging, and the editor...