Back in the 1860s Egypt experimented with representative elected bodies that soon called for limiting the power of the ruler and the end of foreign interference in the country’s finances.
This promising democratic experience, led by both civilian intellectuals and army officers, ended with the British military occupation of Egypt in September 1882.
Arab intellectuals and statesmen in the early part of the 20th century called for democracy during what was described by the late historian and intellectual Albert Hourani as “the Arab liberal age”.
Ahmad Lutfi al-Sayyid, Taha Hussain, Alal al-Fasi and Farahat Abbas to name but a few, were among those who were committed to the cause of democracy as the way for progress in Arab and Muslim lands.
Disappointment with democracy was a worldwide phenomenon in the 1930s, and many countries in the south, upon their independence, went through the journey from authoritarian rule to a third wave of democracy.
This was the case in South America, East and South-East Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. The only difference is that authoritarian rule survived in Arab countries right through to the 21st century although it gave way to new democratising governments in other parts of the world.
In the latter half of the 20th century, a leading independent Arab research centre based in Beirut took the initiative when, in 1979, it organised a series of public lectures on democracy in Arab countries. Such lectures were published later in its monthly Al-Mustaqbal Al-Arabi – the Arab Future.
No Arab government at the time was willing to host such a conference.
Not finding an Arab city to host their conference, the Arab intellectuals went to Limassol in Cyprus, across the Mediterranean shores of several Arab countries, to examine features of this crisis and to explore the way out.
No Arab government at the time was willing to host such a conference
They reflected major ideological trends in Arab countries, namely Islamist, nationalist, Marxist and liberal.
They met for five days from 26 to 30 November 1983 and debated concepts of democracy, democracy and Arab thought, the problem of democracy in Arab countries, specific cases of democratic practice in the Arab world and they finally confronted the issue of problems presently facing Arabs and future challenges.
Winds of change
An Arab spring seemed to be in the offing in the second half of the 1980s and early 1990s.
Two countries moved to multi-party systems in 1988 and 1989 in the aftermath of popular revolts that were triggered by harsh economic measures. This was the case in Algeria and Morocco.
Tunisia 1987: Zin al-Din Bin Ali
The promise of strict commitment to the rules of a democratic regime was made also in Tunisia in November 1987 following the removal by the then Tunisian prime minister and a former security chief Zin al-Din Bin Ali of Al-Habib Burguiba, the country’s ailing first president after independence.
The conclusion of the 1989 Taaif Agreement did not only end the Lebanese civil war but paved the way also for the restoration of a newly restructured parliamentary system.
Yemen joined the ranks of liberalised regimes with free multi-party elections in the two parts of united Yemen in 1993.
Arab Gulf countries have been affected also by this move to political liberalisation.
Following its liberation from Iraqi occupation, Kuwaiti males went to the polls to elect their deputies in the Council of the Nation, a basic and troublesome component of the Kuwaiti institutional structure since independence.
Elections were held for the first time in Oman for a consultative assembly with the sultan choosing one of three elected representatives from each constituency.
Saudi Arabia finally was endowed with a basic law and an appointed consultative assembly in 1993.
Women were given the right to vote in Oman and Qatar, but Qataris have not yet elected the promised consultative assembly.
The Bahrainis voted for a new national charter that turned Bahrain – in name – into a constitutional monarchy. However, political parties have not been authorised in any of the Gulf countries.
No elections are contemplated either in Saudi Arabia or in the United Arab Emirates.
This process of liberalisation deviated from the pattern observed in other parts of the world. It did not evolve into genuine democratisation of Arab political systems.
Algeria 1992: Civil war followed
It was reversed in some countries, namely in Sudan and Algeria; in Sudan a military coup brought in General Umar al-Bashir and his Islamist National Congress party to power; in Algeria the second round of legislative elections in January 1992, which would have brought the Front of Islamic Salvation (FIS) to power, were indefinitely postponed.
Instead, a military regime was installed for several years and FIS has been banned since then.
In other countries, restrictions on civil and political liberties continue while a liberal facade is maintained.
The process of political liberalisation did not lead to any transfer of power through the ballot box in any Arab country, except perhaps in Morocco with a carefully managed election before the death of King Hassan VI that gave opposition parties a tiny majority in the Moroccan parliament.
Arab democracy initiatives
One very interesting initiative of recent years came from international Arab businessmen who can usually be found participating in such activities as the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
Those businessmen called not only on Arab governments to accelerate the process of liberal economic reform, but they urged such governments also to improve their methods of governance.
Business leaders pressed for
Those Arab businessmen could not claim to represent Arab civil society.
This claim was made in two other meetings, and each meeting produced its own document, hoping to put it before the Arab League summit, which was expected to be held in Tunis in late March of this year, but was, to the surprise of everybody, postponed.
The first of these documents and the most famous was drafted at the Library of Alexandria, in Egypt, at the end of a meeting that was inaugurated by President Husni Mubarak of Egypt.
The other meeting was called the first Arab Civil Society Forum, held from 19 to 22 March 2004, and was planned to be held in Tunisia at the same time as the Arab League summit.
Beirut vs Alexandria
Two statements from the working documents, issued at the end of the two Arab conferences in Alexandria and Beirut, share some common features.
They agreed that the goal of political reform should be the establishment of democratic regimes in the Arab world, as well as the measures necessary to realise such reform including constitutional and legislative reform, reform of political structures and institutions, ending government control over the press and other media, and lifting restrictions on the establishment of civil society organisations.
The two differ however in two important respects.
The Alexandria document is brief, compared to the Beirut document, but more comprehensive, encompassing four areas of reform; namely political, economic, social and cultural reform.
The Beirut document is a more detailed statement covering 15 pages, and almost completely limited to questions of political reform, though touching briefly on some aspects of cultural reform.
There are also important differences in the formulation of key demands which constitute necessary conditions for the democratisation of Arab regimes. Three instances suggest the general tone of each document.
The Alexandria document called for the peaceful transfer of power, but left this to the specific conditions of each Arab country.
It also demanded lifting restrictions on the formation of political parties, but insisted that such formation should be within the laws and regulations of each country. Egyptian law bans the establishment of parties on religious grounds.
Hence members of the Muslim Brotherhood movement are not allowed to have a political party and remain proscribed as a party and as a civil society association.
The Tunisian law does the same with the Nadha (Renaissance) Islamist party.
Finally, while referring to the Iraqi situation, the Alexandria document calls for consolidating Iraq’s independence and safeguarding its territorial integrity.
The Beirut document, on the other hand, does not specifically mention the question of peaceful transfer of power. It refers to freedom of the formation of political parties in two ways.
On the one hand, it calls for Arab constitutions to provide the right for ideological, political and party pluralism, but insists that parties should be based on the principle of citizenship, and that parties instigating or practising violence should be banned.
It also calls on Arab governments to legalise the right of freedom of peaceful assembly for all groups and ideological and political forces within a democratic law and constitution.
While the second reference suggests lifting all restrictions on the exercise of freedom of association, the second qualifies establishment of political parties to be based on the principle of citizenship, which could be also interpreted as excluding parties founded on a religious basis.
It also proposed the establishment of an Arab Human Rights Observatory to advise the Arab League
Authors of the two documents were concerned to launch a popular movement of political reform in Arab countries.
The Alexandria document suggested the holding of civil society meetings in each Arab country. The Beirut meeting called for the holding of an Arab civil society forum simultaneously with each Arab summit and in the same city where such a summit is going to meet.
It also proposed the establishment of an Arab Human Rights Observatory to advise the Arab League on ways of ending human rights violations in Arab countries.
Finally, the Beirut document advised engaging a dialogue with authors of international initiatives on political reform in the Arab world and even the holding of parallel meetings to those three international gatherings that will presumably discuss these initiatives, which will be held later this spring or early summer.
Dr Mustafa al-Sayyid is a human rights activist and professor of political science at Cairo University.