Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Democracy Saudi Arabia style

A New York Times article announcing the delay of local elections in Saudi Arabia for two years gives us some insight as to what is considered "democracy" east of the Jordan river:
"I consider the decision a delay in a reform process that we were supposed to believe really began when we started this process of elections," said Hatoun Al Fasi, assistant professor of women's history at King Saud University. Just five days earlier, a group of activists eager for a more representative form of government sent a letter to King Abdullah and other members of the royal family. They called for the royal family to allow for an elected parliament with legislative authority, term limits for royals in appointed posts and to have someone outside the royal family be appointed as prime minister.
Without saying directly, the signatories had called for creation of a constitutional monarchy — including public accountability — a prospect the royal family has demonstrated it is adamantly opposed to and views as a threat.
"Elections are essential but the decision makers do not recognize the right of the people to be represented by someone other than Al Saud," said Walee Sami Aboul Kheir, a lawyer and one of 77 people to sign the letter. He was referring to the royal family.
"The political decision makers do not want elections," he added. "They held the elections before just to show the United States that elections would bring Islamists, who are organized and have a bloc."
When the government announced its plans to allow limited, nationwide elections for local councils, it was billed as part of an overall plan to edge this conservative, tradition bound nation toward a more open system. The first election, held in 2005, allowed men -- not women -- to vote for half the representatives to 178 municipal councils. The other half were appointed. Then Crown Prince Abdullah, now the king, had packaged the elections as part of a broader agenda that included a formalized national dialogue.
Taken together, King Abdullah's program suggested an interest in fostering public participation in a process that had been the exclusive province of the royal family. But from the very start, the councils proved more of a disappointment, fueling apathy more than interest.
"The whole experience was a failure," said Hamed al Qahtani, an architect who lives in the eastern province of Damam. "The council has no legislative or executive powers, all they can do is make proposals that get shelved."
The decision to delay the second council elections, which had been scheduled for this year, was expected. The government said the delay would give time for it to write a specific law for municipal elections with the aim of opening the process even more. There had been some discussion in the past of allowing women to vote, though that was not stated as a reason for the delay.
It seems there is division of labor - some of the people participate in the elections, while the royal family continues to make the decisions. As for women voting -- that's a long way off.
Ami Isseroff

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