... for openness and credibility....

Without Comments: Al-Ahram castigates Arab Parties

(In a powerful editorial leading the Cairo-based Al-Ahram castigated the political parties and their responsibility for the absence of democracy and human rights in the Arab world.  Given its relevance, the MEI is happy to reproduce the full editorial. Editor, MEI)


Most Arab countries are doing poorly when it comes to democracy and human rights, the two main criteria for modernity. Without democracy and human rights, progress and sustainable human development will remain a distant dream. Without democracy and human rights, a country cannot expect others to take it seriously.

It is because of the absence of democracy and human rights that we cannot liberate Arab land in Palestine, Iraq and Syria. It is because of the same reason that Sudan and Somalia, to name just two Arab countries, are falling apart.

Arab societies are still looking for change. They are still hoping to catch up with the rest of the world. But they cannot do so without becoming democratic and honouring human rights. The Arab public needs to get involved in matters of state and society. Arab citizens need to start monitoring their governing bodies, holding them accountable, and changing the people in power as needed.

For this kind of public participation to evolve, we need to get the citizens organised in civil society institutions. We need to create a climate of profound understanding and instil a sense of awareness in the public. We need to encourage the people to work through political and non-political institutions and change the reality around them. Citizens must be encouraged to join syndicates, enlist in rights societies and form professional associations.

Political parties are central to the process of democratisation, as well as a free, fair, and responsible media.

Are the conditions of Arab political parties conducive to integrating citizens in political life? Are political parties offering a counterbalance to the powers that be? The answer is a definite no. Arabic political parties are too disorganised and ineffective to make a difference. Why is this so?

One reason is that the overwhelming majority of Arab countries that allow parties to exist prefer to have one party – that of the government – dominate public life. This situation is a leftover from the revolutionary times of the mid-20th century when slogans of liberation eclipsed democratic considerations. The revolutionaries then wanted only one party to exist. One progressive party was enough to meet the nation's aspirations. Why waste time with multiple parties and political debate?

This thinking, once alluring, seems to have persisted. Successive Arab regimes have held their countries in a despotic clasp while paying lip service to the interests of the majority. Eventually, a powerful economic class took over – the rich or perhaps the army, sometimes a foreign embassy.

Consequently, political parties found themselves excluded from the political game and the average citizen got sick of it all. Politics was left to a ragtag crew of opportunists, social climbers, racketeers and political functionaries.

Even when democracy seemed to send a pale ray of hope upon us, things weren't much better. This is because our parties were not ready for the move. Most Arab parties, let's admit, are far from being democratic. Most are controlled by a small minority and lack democratic decision-making. They hold perfunctory elections and keep the same faces in place. This is why most citizens shun these parties, to the detriment of political life in general.

The authorities, aware of the ramshackle nature of existing parties, tend to dismiss existing parties as irrelevant and minimise their role in political life. Most parties – claim the authorities – are little less than political bazaars that talk a lot and do nothing.

Sadly, the parties are divided. Even those that bear the same goals, often the same name, prefer to act alone. One doesn't see coalitions in the making. One doesn't see parties combining their forces. Consequently, they remain politically insignificant, a fate for which they only have themselves to blame.

The weakness of Arab political parties is what gives authorities the chance to tighten their control and plunder national wealth till the very end. Ruling Arab governments may be unjust, but this is not just the fault of the ruling classes. Arab political parties are also to blame. They refuse to cooperate among each other and engage the public. Their failure is holding us back.

Source: ‘Pointless Parties’ Editorial, Al-Ahram English Weekly, (Cairo), no. 997, 6-12 May 2010. 

As part of its editorial policy, the MEI@ND standardizes spelling and date formats to make the text uniformly accessible and stylistically consistent.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views/positions of the MEI@ND.

Editor, MEI@ND: P R Kumaraswamy