Dr. Ibrahim addressed the question of whether current democratic movements in the Middle East represent a real Arab Spring, or merely a "desert mirage." He noted four major events as hallmarks of a potential Arab Spring: the elections in Palestine and Iraq, the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon, and the kifaya ("enough") demonstrations in Egypt. These events stand in stark contrast to the Arab world of two years ago, he said.
Ibrahim considered the effect of internal and external "jolts" provoking change in the region--for example, the Iraq war. In Lebanon, the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri served as a domestic jolt, and it triggered the Lebanese to challenge the Syrian occupation they had long opposed. The success of this Cedar Revolution greatly empowered young and middle-class Lebanese--but the Cedar Revolution would have not been possible without the Iraqi and Palestinian elections, Ibrahim explained. All four recent movements were linked by the sentiment of kifaya: enough of occupation, and enough of violence. He made particular note of the current democratic movements throughout the Arab world, which have been nonviolent and without talk of armed revolt.
Ibrahim discussed Egypt as the necessary centerpiece of democratic reform in the Arab World, noting that Egypt has the longest democratic tradition in the Middle East and still possesses a significant democratic legacy. Ibrahim noted that many Egyptians have had "enough" of the long rule of President Hosni Mubarak, the third-longest ruling leader of Egypt in its 6,000 year history, because Mubarak "did not have much to show" for his 24 years in office. In February, Mubarak authorized changes to the constitution in advance of the September 2005 elections to allow for multiple parties, caving to kifaya protesters who asked for direct elections rather than a referendum, which in the past has required only a "yes" or "no" vote for his candidacy as part of his National Democratic Party.
Ibrahim asserted this reform is insufficient, but still welcome. He noted that, despite lifting emergency laws, freeing opposition politician Ayman Nour from prison, and changing election policy, Mubarak insists these are all individual matters and not up for debate. Mubarak's proposal to amend the constitution has, however, opened up discussion of other ways to improve the democratic process. Since 1948, Arab regimes have dodged internal reform by shifting attention to the more pressing immediacy of Palestine-but this, Ibrahim expounded, is no longer acceptable to Arabs.
Ibrahim highlighted three questions that Westerners tend to ask about democratic reform in the Middle East. First, is the Middle East prepared for such reform--is civil society ready to take power? The answer varies from country to country, he advised, but most Arab countries possess a middle class, an independent media (via satellite television) and blossoming civil society sectors, so the framework for democracy exists.
Second, would the Islamists take over following a democratic election? Ibrahim discussed that Algeria is often used as a bogeyman for Islamisists winning elections, but he said, Algeria is the exception. In Turkey and Morocco in particular, he said, Islamist parties have proven quite adept at functioning in a democratic system. He reminded the audience that the late King Hussein brought Islamist parties into the system in Jordan, but required them to sign a charter accepting "the rules of the game" (i.e. basic democratic principles); Ibrahim explained this is a model for emulation. Islamist parties like Morocco's can be "as responsible, as orderly, and as active as any secular party," and should be invited in, he contested.
Third, what role is there for outside powers? Ibrahim stated that, in general, they should stay away from interference, and be willing to offer moral and financial support when asked and when needed. Iraq and Afghanistan are not good examples for democracy, he challenged, distinguishing foreign aid, which is fine, from foreign intervention, which is detrimental.
Ultimately, Ibrahim sees a place for ruling elites in the transition to democracy. He noted that monarchies in Bahrain, Qatar, Jordan, and Morocco, lead by young, Western-educated rulers, are often better at reforming than quasi-democratic regimes like Egypt, Syria, or Lebanon. Among the many attempts to transition to democracy over the past thirty years worldwide, several were accomplished with the cooperation of ruling elites, and this, Ibrahim concluded, could also happen in the Arab world.
Drafted by Evan Hensleigh