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In 2002, the Bush administration launched its Middle East Partnership Initiative, an effort to bolster reform movements in the Middle East. But it was the invasion of Iraq and the establishment of a democratic electoral system in 2003 that Bush argued would kindle democratic fire in the rest of the Middle East. In the three years since the start of the Iraq war, a number of countries in the region, and Muslim countries outside the Middle East, have taken tentative steps toward democratic politics. Here is a quick look at the current situation.
Which predominantly Muslim countries have held elections?
- Afghanistan. Since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, Afghans cast ballots in two major elections—a presidential vote in 2004 and the first parliamentary elections in thirty years in 2005. In the lead-up to the presidential election, dozens of Afghans and foreigners were killed in attacks targeting election workers and international aid workers. Very little violence was reported on election day, however, and over 10.5 million Afghans registered to vote. A year later, Afghanistan convened an elected parliament in December. Among its members were warlords, opium merchants, and Taliban veterans, along with women and secular politicians.
- Egypt. A specific mention of Egypt in Bush’s 2005 State of the Union address was quickly followed by President Hosni Mubarak’s announcement that Egypt would, for the first time, allow a multicandidate presidential election. As predicted, Mubarak won reelection in September but was criticized for his control of state media and for jailing his primary opponent, Ayman Nour. The presidential election was followed with a three-round parliamentary election, in which many of parties and independent candidates were running for the first time. Experts saw potential for political change and political reform. Candidates backed by the banned Muslim Brotherhood won a record eighty-eight seats—six times more than in the outgoing parliament—under the slogan "Islam is the Solution." But the elections were marred by low voter turnout and some violence. International monitors were not invited to observe the election and many analysts believe there was significant vote-rigging by Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party.
- Indonesia. In 2004, the world’s most populous Muslim country—which is also now considered the world’s third-largest democracy—held its first direct elections for president and parliament. In 2005, Indonesia held its first local direct elections for governors, regents, and mayors. According to the Carter Center, the elections were successful and were held in a "general atmosphere of calm, order, and open participation." After the elections, Freedom House pushed Indonesia’s status from "partly free" to "free" in their annual index, "Freedom in the World."
- Iraq. In the past year, amid an insurgency that has contributed to the deaths of thousands of civilians, Iraq has held two national elections and a referendum for a new constitution. The January 2005 election—the first free election—chose a transitional government. It was marked by low Sunni turnout, as was October’s referendum that approved a new Iraqi constitution. However, December’s parliamentary elections saw a major rise in Sunni participation. The success of the December vote and high turnout—almost 70 percent of those registered voted—provided a glimmer of hope for prospects of a real democracy in Iraq against the backdrop of continuing violence and ethnic and sectarian divisions.
- Lebanon. A sequence of events in 2005, sparked by the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February, led to the withdrawal of Syrian troops several months later and, ultimately, to major advances in political and civil rights in Lebanon. Parliamentary elections held in May 2005 were the first democratic vote since the end of the civil war in 1976, when Syria began its 29-year occupation of the country. International monitors approved the election as free and fair, but also concluded the entire election system in Lebanon needed reform. Freedom House, the international rights monitor, changed Lebanon’s status from "not free" to "partly free."
- Palestinian Authority. After the death of longtime leader Yasir Arafat in November 2004, elections to replace him were held January 2005. The winner, Mahmoud Abbas, quickly set about trying to revive peace talks with Israel. The National Democratic Institute monitored the vote and concluded the election was administered fairly and that election day was orderly and peaceful. There were some problems, including a large percentage of registered voters whose names did not appear on lists and scattered incidents of intimidation and harassment by activists from Fatah, the political wing of the Palestinian Liberation Movement started by Arafat. By year’s end another election looms, and this time the militant Hamas movement indicated it will run a full slate of candidates in January 2006. Israel, in turn, threatened to obstruct the vote in areas under its control.
- Saudi Arabia. In February 2005, the Saudis participated in their first-ever exercise in democracy when they held municipal elections. Women, who constitute 50 percent of the population, were not permitted to vote. In addition, voters only elected half the municipal council—the other half was appointed. But no matter how small, experts believe the election was an introduction to some political participation and a step toward reform in the kingdom.
Has there been any real progress toward individual freedom in any of these countries?
Yes, some. According to the 2005 Freedom House study, there were "modest but notable increases in political rights and civil liberties" in the Middle East this past year, and over the past ten years. In 1995, one majority Muslim country was "free," thirteen were "partly free," and thirty-two were "not free." In this year’s report, three countries are labeled "free," twenty are "partly free," and twenty-three are "not free." In addition, Kuwaiti women were granted the right to vote and in Saudi Arabia women were recently permitted to register for identification cards—though less than 10 percent of women requested them. The progress, some experts believe, puts a crimp in the argument that Islam and democracy are not compatible.
Are there elections slated in Muslim nations for 2006?
Yes. Palestinians will vote in parliamentary elections in January. Chad holds legislative elections in April and a presidential vote later in the year. Yemen, Tajikistan, and the United Arab Emirates are to hold presidential elections sometime in the coming year.