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THE SANAA MEETING AND THE INEVITABILITY OF REGIONAL CHANGE

Mona Makram-Ebeid On Jan. 10-12, over 800 delegates from 52 countries met in Sanaa, Yemen, to discuss democracy, human rights and the International Criminal Court (ICC). The event was co-sponsored by the Yemeni government, the NGO No Peace Without Justice and the European Commission. The event, most participants agreed, was special in several ways, prompting the following query: Can the Sanaa Declaration become a Sanaa process, similar to the Helsinki process, that will usher in a new wave of political reform in the Arab world? Sanaa was the first and largest gathering of its kind ever held in the Middle East, allowing governments and representatives of civil society to exchange views. Though the issues were not new, what was new was the realization that change is inevitable in the region and the participants’ commitment to effect that change. On the eve of the war in Iraq, commentators and officials in the West and the Arab world outdid one another in considering its probable ripple effects. Supporters of the war predicted a democratic wave and a strengthening of pro-Western Arabs; opponents forecast tumultuous regional upheaval. There is no doubt that one impact of the war, however, has been to reinvigorate debate about regional political reform, and all the evidence suggests that radical change is in the making. One of the most noticeable aspects of the Sanaa conference was the great divide in political discourses. Whereas government officials listed their achievements in democratization, civil society representatives were far more critical of the results, particularly on human rights with women voicing the most incisive and scathing criticism. The critics claimed that perhaps out of concern for Western sensibilities and for aid considerations, most Arab governments adhered in public to accepted human rights norms. However, while many Arab states held parliamentary elections and had relatively developed civil societies operating with qualified degrees of freedom, there was little improvement in the preconditions for genuine popular participation, namely freedom of expression, association and assembly. Instead, the critics noted, the regional record was a catalogue of censorship; bans on meetings, demonstrations, publications and creative works; the closure of private associations; and the arrest of journalists and government critics, whose only offense was to espouse views unpopular with the political or religious establishments. Intolerance was also demonstrated through politically backed religious discrimination against, and persecution of, religious minorities. Moreover, the critics continued, where democratic processes seem to be emerging they are often “managed,” so that there are no independent political parties and so that the locus of political authority cannot be removed through elections. Some participants asked Western delegates why there was a lack of support from outside for human rights in Arab countries. In this context, they underlined that the industrialized world’s interest in cheap oil and Israel’s survival were better served by authoritarian regimes. The conference gave special attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This underlined how much of a mobilizing factor it remains in the Arab world, suggesting that the implications of the conflict transcend its territorial limits and heighten regional and international insecurity. Also new in the debate was that the Arab participants exercised self-criticism, recognizing that there were deep divisions in the Arab world and a lack of democratic culture. Some claimed that the main divide in Arab civil societies was between those seeking a more central role for religion in public life and those opposed to it. The Sanaa gathering was organized following US President George W. Bush’s stated intention of promoting democratic change in the region. It also came on the back of the publication of two Arab Human Development reports that lambasted the region’s rulers for overseeing a deficit in political freedom, faltering systems of education, repression of women and the stunting of scientific and development research. Lebanese MP Nayla Mouawwad noted that NGOs should reflect more on how to resolve such issues, since the impetus for change in the Arab world must come from within. The participants also emphasized that networking among regional and international associations was necessary to generate social capital. Adel Darwish, the British author and journalist, deplored the absence of discussion on how an effective civil society could evolve and thrive without a free market economy to buttress it. There were positive developments. Recently, the Coalition for the International Criminal Court helped in the formation of a Yemeni coalition for the ICC, to support Yemeni endorsement of the Rome statute creating the court. This provoked interest in how a transnational civil association could offer space to regional nongovernmental groups to widen their reach and establish links abroad. Yemeni opposition parties dismissed the Sanaa gathering as a forum allowing Arab governments to again talk more than act. However, the conference provided a platform to advance and legitimize reform efforts, as well as to help define a strategic vision hat can become a driving force for restructuring the Arab world from within. As a follow-up to Sanaa, participants in the civil society session demanded that a nongovernmental conference should precede the Tunis Arab League summit in March. The message from Sanaa was clear: The Arab world stands at a crossroads. It may still be too early to declare the death of the region’s dictatorships, but similar public debates as that in Yemen can only be an eye opener, if not an alarm bell, signifying that regional change is inevitable, whether by conviction or by infliction. Mona Makram-Ebeid, a former member of the Egyptian Parliament, is a professor of political science at the American University in Cairo and president of the Association for the Advancement of Education. She wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR





Altri articoli su:
[ Islam e democrazia ] [ Corte Penale Internazionale e Tribunale Penale Internazionale ] [ ONU e OMD ] [ Conferenza di Sana'a ] [ Diritti Umani, Civili  & Politici ]

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[ Islam e democrazia ] [ Corte Penale Internazionale e Tribunale Penale Internazionale ] [ ONU e OMD ] [ Conferenza di Sana'a ] [ Diritti Umani, Civili  & Politici ]

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[ Islam e democrazia ] [ Corte Penale Internazionale e Tribunale Penale Internazionale ] [ ONU e OMD ] [ Conferenza di Sana'a ] [ Diritti Umani, Civili  & Politici ]


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