Rami G. Khouri is editor at large of the Beirut-based Daily Star newspaper, published throughout the Middle East with the International Herald Tribune.
Right about now, those people who wish to see if democracy will take root and spread throughout the Arab world should be shifting their gaze from the lofty declarations of politicians in Arab and Western capitals to the more ordinary, less-glamorous activities of democratic activists at the local level. The testing ground for Arab democracy will be the nitty-gritty of local politics, painstaking organizational work, mobilizing constituencies and communities, and fostering neighborhood-level citizen participation and accountability.
Such democratic aspirations mirror the ward and street politics of Boston and Chicago a century ago, when strongmen made deals and used muscle to enforce them, formal laws were bent and rewritten to suit the power balances of tribal and religious leaders, families and ethnic sects dominated local politics for generations, passing on incumbency to their sons and brothers like a royal title, always making sure that the local judges and police were happy and on your side.
Chicago and Boston of a century ago in many ways mirror the power dynamics of Beirut, Damascus, Cairo, Tripoli, Amman, Sanaa, Khartoum and Tunis today. This is no surprise, for most autocratic societies in the earliest stages of transition toward democracy show hybrid notions of the rule of law combined with the rule of the jungle and the gun.
The Arab world today is at a juncture in its modern political development, and it could move in any of several directions. The preferred option for most Arab ruling regimes is to make some economic and superficial political changes that do not touch the core concentration of political power in the hands of the traditional ruling elite. Cosmetic changes to governance systems—allowing elections, private newspapers and political parties, for example—effectively maintain all important political decision-making in the hands of a small, unaccountable political and security elite. Many local citizens and foreign governments alike are frustrated with this traditional strategy of slow motion, part-time, unconvincing, unserious Arab reform.
The antidote to deceptive Arab democracy from above is day-to-day efforts from below. The transition from the current top-heavy, semi-feudal Arab power structure to a more egalitarian, democratic system will reflect demand pressures from below—not generous democracy gifts from above. Here, non-governmental and civil society organizations build the culture and structures of democracy, one person and one issue at a time, in elections, accountability, anti-corruption efforts, the rule of law and many other fields. The cumulative impact of such efforts will eventually generate a momentum among the citizenry that demands better governance from public officials—and holds them accountable.
This process is visible in many Arab countries, but particularly so in Lebanon as the country gears up for the parliamentary elections in May and June. While the parliament and professional politicians wrangle over electoral laws and districts—aiming mainly to ensure their own incumbency—the more significant determinants of Lebanon's democratic aspirations will emerge over time from the work of people like Ziad Barood and Oussama Safa.
Lawyer Ziad Barood heads the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections, which has formed a nationwide coalition of more than 40 other NGOs—including universities, local societies, women's groups and others—to train 3,000 election monitors. They want to have a dozen trained independent monitors at every polling station. They are also training election observers from the country's many political parties.
"We sense that the Lebanese people want to reclaim their republic and its values, to build a new country that tackles its issues more responsibly," he explained to me in his Beirut law office this week. "The difference we notice now, after so many Lebanese took to the streets and made their views known in recent months, is that some leaders are being forced to follow the lead of the people, instead of the other way around. The people may be leading the leaders."
The elections are an opportunity for citizens to place conditions on their traditional leaders, and then hold them accountable, he says. "We sense a great deal of new interests in election monitoring, which we've done since 1996. A new generation of Lebanese is interested to participate in civil society and politics, and they are searching for vehicles through which they can express their values and define the country's values also."
Oussama Safa, the General Director of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies (LCPS), sees the many Lebanese who took to the streets recently as a force for change whose goals have not been clearly articulated yet. Yet he and many of his colleagues feel that the process of change has started in Lebanon, aiming both to open up the political system and address some of its most rigid elements.
LCPS is part of the election monitoring coalition because it shares the view that a broad-based, national coalition of civil society groups can have an impact on the political culture.
"Many Lebanese resent the manipulation of their electoral politics. The revival of civil society activities in recent months is a sign that people are more confident and mature, and feel that they can do something about this," he notes.
LCPS itself, with technical assistance from foreign NGOs, will conduct exit polls during the election, making it more difficult for anyone to tamper with the election results. It will conduct focus groups before and after the voting, concentrating on youth and women—traditionally apathetic voters. It is also revising and reissuing a booklet on electoral fraud techniques, for use by monitors, government officials and others in charge of the elections. Several regional and national roundtables will look at campaign financing, candidate accountability and transparency of the electoral process.
Every day, dozens of volunteers in these and other civil society groups gather in their offices and homes, reviewing activities, planning strategy and painstakingly working to transform autocratic Arab political systems into more democratic ones. This is where the struggle for Arab modernity and sensible governance is being waged at its most serious and potentially effective level.
Copyright © 2005 Rami G. Khouri / Agence Global