Heartening Signs of Arab Political Change

Rami G. Khouri

BOSTON - At rare moments in life, history takes a sharp turn for the better, and sometimes you can see and feel this happening in front of your eyes. This past week was just such a moment for the Arab world, as three different things happened in Tunisia, Egypt, and Jordan that probably portend better days ahead for Arab men and women who cherish life in free and equitable societies that leave behind their ugly legacy of the police and security state.
In Tunisia, following the first free election after the overthrow of the former dictatorship, the Islamist Ennahda Party that won 40 percent of the seats announced it would form a coalition government with one of the secular progressive parties. Rashid Ghannouchi, the long exiled leader of the party, sounded like Thomas Jefferson when he declared: "We will continue this revolution to realize its aims of a Tunisia that is free, independent, developing and prosperous in which the rights of God, the Prophet, women, men, the religious and the non-religious are assured because Tunisia is for everyone."
This clear message from one of the Arab world’s leading Islamists sets in motion one of the critical elements that should shape the new Arab political cultures that are being born month by month: pluralistic and accountable electoral democracy that is open to all and reflects the principle of the consent of the governed. This concept will be enshrined in law when the elected assembly, in which Ennahda has 90 of the 217 seats, will draft a new constitution, form an interim government and schedule new elections in the coming 18 months. The really important election is not this one, but the next one, probably in early 2013. By then, Ennahda’s capacity to govern convincingly will be tested by how well it delivers what the citizens demand, and the 100 political parties that sprang to life this month in an exuberant display of pent-up democratic demand, are consolidated into perhaps two dozen groups that will more accurately reflect public opinion.
The second historic event last week was an Egyptian court’s conviction of two police officers for torturing and beating an Egyptian man to death in Alexandria, and sentencing them to seven years in prison. The policemen were convicted of killing Khaled Said in June 2010, and one of the initial rallying cries of the Egyptian revolution that started in January was that “we are all Khaled Said.” The court verdict is immensely symbolic because of both the victim and the accused, representing the ordinary Egyptian citizens who feel abused by unchecked police and government power. This verdict, along with the more dramatic court trials of former President Hosni Mubarak and other officials, suggests that free and democratic Egyptians will take seriously the principle of the accountability of power. After the Egyptian election next month and the ensuing constitutional reforms, credible legal mechanisms will be needed to embed accountability into the fabric of power and authority at all levels of society.
The third intriguing event last week was the designation of Awn Khasawneh as the new prime minister of Jordan. Everything associated with this move was routine for such government changes in the country that replaces governments regularly. Two things this time that struck me as significant, however, were the prime minister’s lineage as a respected international judge who has served on the International Court of Justice, and King Abdullah’s public call in a letter to the new Intelligence Department chief he appointed effectively to keep the secret police out of the business of politics and public life, and not to try and thwart political reforms. The dual move of handing the reins of government to a judge, in place of a general, and openly calling on the intelligence department to leave politics to the government and the public, could be harbingers of moves towards a more credible, equitable and participatory political system than has been the case to date in Jordan.
One of the most striking developments in Jordan last spring, when public demonstrations called for constitutional reform, was the public demand that the intelligence department stop meddling in everyday citizen affairs, including the media, education, parliament and other fields. The depth and seriousness of the king’s call on the intelligence service to stay out of politics and public life are not clear, but will be tested in the months ahead. For him to make this call in a public letter, however, while also replacing a general with a judge, can only be seen as a positive sign.
It is one of several signs this week that suggest that new political and governance rules are taking root in some Arab countries, and the heartening thing about this is that the rules are pretty much being written or guided by the citizens. Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. Copyright © 2011 Rami G. Khouri -- distributed by Agence Global