Will Internet bring democracy to the Arabs?

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Kuwait’s Annus Mirabilis, an interesting article on Kuwaiti political developments;

“Like the orange-clad protesters, candidates sent reams of text messages, using lists of cell phone numbers generated from records of attendees asked to sign in at events. Some messages, featuring rumor and gossip, were campaign tricks designed to make another candidate look bad. Most focused on thanking the recipient for his or her support and offered information about the candidate’s next event.

Blogs were a more important innovation. Voters could read some of the more sensational blog postings in daily newspapers. The Orange Movement leadership maintains a blog originating in the United States, managed jointly by overseas Kuwaiti students and one of the Orange organizers. This blog, KuwaitJunior, provided running news and commentary during the emiri transition in January 2006. During the campaign, it brought electoral corruption into the public eye thanks to a posting by a woman who recounted how two men in Rula Dashti’s district had attempted to buy her vote with the promise of a Chanel handbag. Although she did not mention the candidate’s name, it soon became public knowledge that she was speaking of Jamal al-‘Umar. The Orange leadership investigated this allegation by dispatching an undercover member, armed with a small video camera, to negotiate with the vote buyers. The camera failed, but the agent managed to capture pictures and voices on her cell phone. Then four young men who were not Orange organizers decided to challenge al-‘Umar during an event at his tent in Jabriyya southeast of Kuwait City. They asked him to explain why people were buying votes on his behalf if he was innocent of corruption as he claimed. The youths were roughed up and thrown out by the candidate’s assistants and, adding insult to injury, the Jabriyya police refused to accept their assault complaint. The worst part of the story came at the end, when al-‘Umar came in second, thereby winning a seat in the 2006 parliament….

All of which brings us back to democracy and Kuwait’s year full of miracles. As political scientist Eleanor Doumato has observed, women’s rights in the Arab Gulf states are the gift of monarchs, not parliaments. This is certainly the case in Kuwait, where opinion polls taken before the electoral law was changed in May 2005 showed a discouraging lack of support for female candidates, although more for female voters. The role of democracy in the 2006 election should be considered in broader terms than that, however. That there was an election at all was even more indicative of expectations that a democratic process should -- and did -- exist in Kuwait. The demonstrations that helped bring down the government were non-violent, as was virtually all of the official response to them. The new emir may have acted precipitously in canceling the parliamentary session and calling a new election -- and the speaker of the parliament later excoriated this decision publicly as unnecessarily confrontational. Yet only 20 years ago, a Kuwaiti emir dissolved a parliament and did not call for a new election until invasion, war and liberation made it impossible for him to continue resisting demands for the restoration of constitutional life.

These demands came from Kuwaitis, through a long and occasionally frightening period when street demonstrations were met with more than the possibly accidental injury of one person by a policeman’s baton. The pro-democracy movement of 1989-1990 saw more widespread beating of demonstrators, along with the desecration of a mosque by tear gas and police dogs, and the arrest of more than a dozen prominent dissidents. Demands for reform came from outside, too, not only from exiles abroad during the Iraqi occupation, but also from countries that, having sent troops to liberate Kuwait, expected its leaders to behave better than the ousted invader. Despite clerical and even popular criticism, after liberation foreign ambassadors and NGOs pressed for women’s rights, protection for stateless persons, better treatment of maids and other foreign workers, and structural changes to open Kuwait’s economy and political system. That each of these causes was also advocated by Kuwaitis does not diminish the usefulness of external support from those whose good opinion Kuwaiti leaders value. Such external advocacy is not only an additional check on backsliding toward a more authoritarian past, but is also evidence that other governments support democratization in the Middle East.

Jamie Meyerfeld, writing in support of the International Criminal Court, emphasizes the role of external checks to support democracy. “Like Ulysses tied to the mast…democracies steel themselves against future unwise temptations…. It is astonishing that [102] countries have voluntarily agreed to make their own leaders vulnerable to prosecution and punishment before an international court.” Similarly, international observers add to the checks exercised by national constituents of governments. These national watchers are more important, of course, but a little encouragement from outside can reinforce their efforts to build democratic institutions, and discourage governments impatient with the noisy demands of democratic politics from shutting those institutions down. If the international community were serious about democratization, no pillar of authoritarianism would fall without an attentive audience listening for the crash.”

Via Abu Aardvark

Related;
Young Kuwaitis turn ‘Orange’
Kuwaiti women one step away from their political rights
Kuwait and democracy in the Gulf;

“Kuwait is hardly a model of democracy either—at least, not yet. Its head of state is hereditary, and he appoints the 15-person cabinet. Typically, half its ministers are members of the ruling Al Sabah family. All have voting rights in the parliament. This raises the number of legislators from the 50 elected MPs to 65, and raises the bar for winning a vote against the government. Yet the parliament does have the right to embarrass ministers with tricky questions. It can rely on the Arab world's freest press to air grievances, too, though in this small, hyper-rich state with barely 1m citizens among its 2.3m residents, word of scandal gets around anyway. In January, it won greater legitimacy when it endorsed the removal of the ailing crown prince, only a few weeks after the death of the previous emir, and his replacement by an abler man.”

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This page contains a single entry by Paul published on September 10, 2006 5:56 PM.

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