The Middle East Channel

Arab elections: free, sort of fair... and meaningless

A certain Arab country recently held parliamentary elections. The vote was reasonably free and fair. Turnout was 67 percent, and the opposition won a near majority of the seats -- 45 percent to be exact. Sounds like a model democracy. Yet, rather than suggesting a bold, if unlikely, democratic experiment, Saturday's elections in Bahrain instead reflected a new and troubling trend in the Arab world: the free but unfair -- and rather meaningless -- election.

Something similar will happen on Nov. 9 in Jordan. The Hashemite Kingdom is a close U.S. ally that has grown increasingly proficient at predetermining election results without actually rigging them. It involves gerrymandering at a scale unknown in the West and odd electoral engineering (Jordan is one of only three countries in the world that uses something called Single Non Transferable Vote for national elections). Even when the opposition is allowed to win, the fundamentals do not necessarily change. Parliamentary legislation in countries like Jordan and Bahrain, after all, can be blocked by appointed "Upper Houses." And even if that were not the case, the King (or the President) and his ministers -- all appointed -- can also kill any threatening legislation.

If you go to Amman today, there are election tents and colorful posters everywhere. If you're lucky, you may stumble across an impassioned campaign speech. The government has launched a Western-style voter awareness campaign called "Let us Hear Your Voice." The U.S.-based National Democratic Institute (NDI) has been conducting voter registration drives and organizing a "Get-out-the-vote" effort to boost youth participation. For its part, the U.S. Congress may very well decide to pass a resolution, as it did in September 2007, commending Jordan for its "continued commitment to holding elections." The elections will likely be free. But, oddly enough, there is no opposition. Jordan's only real political party -- the Islamic Action Front, the Muslim Brotherhood's political wing -- has opted to boycott. For the first time ever, Jordan, long regarded as a bastion of progressive reform, may very well end up with a parliament where the opposition has 0 out of 110 seats.

Jordan and Bahrain are not alone. Egypt, too, will face parliamentary elections next month. Meanwhile, a growing number of Arab countries have opted to hold reasonably free elections, including Morocco, Kuwait, and Yemen. But rarely has the discrepancy between the appearance and substance of elections proven so vast. And rarely has so much been fought over so little.

It is somewhat surprising that things turned out this way, just five years after the short-lived but very real "Arab spring." In 2005, most of the Arab opposition -- Islamist, liberal, and leftist alike -- believed in elections. Elections, however unfair they initially appeared to be, seemed the best mechanism for advancing democratic reform. Islamist groups, such as the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, adopted a political strategy based almost entirely around contesting elections at every level of society. This "elections-first" strategy, for a short while at least, appeared to be working. Islamist groups registered impressive victories across the region. In the 2005 Egyptian elections, the Brotherhood won 20 percent of parliamentary seats, the largest share of any opposition group since Egyptian independence in 1952. In 2006, al-Wefaq, Bahrain's largest Islamist opposition group, won 17 of the 18 seats it contested -- a remarkable win percentage of 94 percent.

But just as Islamist groups adapted to a post-9/11 world in which the U.S. and the international community made democracy a top priority, so too did Arab regimes, which, while resorting to repression when necessary, worked diligently to construct a democratic façade. Some might consider this a workable compromise: Arabs get to vote and let out some steam. Friendly Arab regimes get to maintain their grip on power. After all, with drawdown in Iraq, troubles with Iran, and with Hamas waiting to play spoiler, real democracy -- with all of the uncertainty it brings -- seems like a luxury the U.S. can live without. Besides, the U.S. has been living without it for more than five decades.

Arabs themselves, however, are unlikely to be as accepting. A rising generation of young Arabs wants to take the promise of democracy seriously, and is growing frustrated with the façade -- regardless of how much it pleases international democracy promoters. If free but meaningless elections become the new norm, the Arab opposition may be forced to adopt a more impatient and confrontational approach, one that emphasizes civil disobedience, mass protest, and other "de-legitimization" techniques. This is likely to be a good thing for Arab democracy (at least after the initial messiness and instability) but is less likely to be good for U.S. strategic interests in the region.

The elections in Bahrain, Jordan -- and soon in Egypt -- might seem to suggest that regimes have matters under control. And they might, but not necessarily for long.

Shadi Hamid is the director of research at the Brookings Doha Center and a fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

AFP/Getty Images

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