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Report on LIBG forum on prospects for liberalism in North Africa

April 9, 2011 4:23 PM

Prospects for democracy and liberalism hang in the balance across the Arab world, with progress in some countries but the likelihood of bloodshed in others as the wave of popular revolts continues, LIBG's forum on North Africa heard.

It was addressed by Robert Woodthorpe Browne, a member of the Liberal International bureau.

He has been closely involved in working with the Arab Liberal Network since the 'Arab spring' began in Tunisia in December.

Sadly, the other scheduled speaker, Tunisian political expert Sonia Bessamra, was not granted a visa by the British government to travel from Paris.

Robert, who is also chair of the Liberal Democrats' international relations committee, took the meeting through what is happening country-by-country.

Tunisia

The Arab Liberal Network has a member here, the Parti Social Liberal, because the Ben Ali dictatorship to an extent tolerated opposition parties.

The PSL has five MPs and three senators and in the past could operate "but not be too noisy, and could criticise the government but only if this was thought to be constructively", Robert said.

Its problem now is that this past makes Tunisians see it as collaborationist at a time when people are looking to new political parties and want to get rid of everything associated with the old regime.

Domestic politics has now opened up with some 50 parties having been created, including Islamist ones, and there are 11 parties that say they are liberal, some of them splinters from the PSL.

Liberal help from outside is largely being channelled through the Friedrich Naumann Stiftung, which is associated with Germany's Free Democratic Party, and the European Union has offered to fund supervised elections.

Robert was optimistic about Tunisia, pointing out that it is a country with a large middle class and a well-educated people.

But he said the FNF had called for an equivalent of the Marshall Plan for North Africa because the root of recent discontent was economic, rather than politics

"It was headed by technologically literate people who talk to each other, many young people and women involved, and they have to feel that ultimately they are better off for having had their revolution," he said.

Egypt

Like Tunisia, the former dictatorship in Egypt tolerated some opposition parties, and indeed Liberal International was able to hold its 2009 congress in Cairo as guests of the Democratic Front Party.

The Al-Ghad, run by the former presidential candidate Ayman Nour, is also an LI observer member.

A constitutional reform referendum produced a 'yes' vote meaning elections are likely in the summer. Liberals argued for a 'no' vote as they fear a summer poll will leave them little time to organise viable parties, leaving the field to the Muslim Brotherhood and descendents of the dictatorships' National Democratic Party.

Robert said it was unclear how well the Muslim Brotherhood would do though the consensus was that it would take about one-third of the vote, but with the army still the final arbiter of the country it may choose not to contest the presidency since it might not be 'allowed' to win.

Islamist influence has grown because of the large number of Egyptians who work in Saudi Arabia. Robert pointed out that it was rare to see veiled women in Cairo 20 years ago, but common now.

Morocco

Morocco has two full LI members, the Union Constitutionelle and the Mouvement Populiare, both of which are represented in parliament.

Robert said the demonstrations in Morocco has far been huge in size but peaceful and were directed not against the widely respected king but in favour of economic and political reform.

He said these rallies had been led by young people, who distrust all political parties and do not want to engage with them, as they see them as 'the enemy'.

While there was no great movement against the king he would have to offer substantial concessions.

Algeria

Surprisingly, the FNF's North Africa base is in Algiers, since this is a country with no liberal parties, although a group of MPs who consider themselves to be liberals is talking to LI.

The last free elections were 20 years ago, when the Islamist FIS party won, leading to military intervention to prevent this. Robert speculated that this history would make it unlikely that the current government would hold free elections.

Libya

There are no known liberal parties in Libya. Robert pointed out that the West had been able to mount air strikes in support of the rebels only because it was invited to do so by the Arab League and African Union, so giving the intervention 'cover'.

He said no one in LI, or, he thought, elsewhere, knew anything of the rebels' political complexion and said Libya remained an essentially tribal society where power rested on alliances between them.

Syria

There are some individual Arab Liberal Network members in Syria but the complicating factor in the country is that the current dictatorship rests on the Alawite community, which accounts for only about 14% of the population.

The regime has given some protection to Christians and other minorities but were it to give up power it fears it would face revenge for past repression from the Sunni majority.

President Assad was expected to make concessions when he addressed the nation in late March but failed to do so, possibly because he is the public face of an establishment that fears a bloody fate were it to relinquish power.

Robert said Syria was though in some respects quite well placed economically, benefiting from a large and well-educated expatriate community in both North and South America and a substantial mercantile class.

Yemen

Yemen is tribal like Libya and without any liberal presence, with many groups and tribes armed and prepared to support whoever pays them most lavishly.

One oddity is that a socialist party still exists, left over from the Marxist dictatorship that ruled the former South Yemen until 1990 and which still backs secession.

Saudi Arabia is likely to be worried about Yemen and whether events there might provoke disturbances at home, Robert said.

Jordan

There are individual Arab Liberal Network members in Jordan, but the main obstacle to the regime granting any real democracy is that 60% of the population is Palestinian, not Jordanian. The government is uncertain of their loyalties were they to gain full civil rights.

The other 40% comprises a largely tribal society loyal to the king.

Relations with Israel

Robert had recently visited Israel in his LI capacity as a guest of BICOM and said it should be in Israel's long term interest to make treaties with neighbours that were democracies, rather then with dictatorships who might prove transient.

He speculated that Israel would prefer the current Ba'ath government to remain in power in Syria, since the likely alternative would be Islamist, and that the entry of Hezbollah into Lebanon's government would see Israel threaten violence against Christiana and Sunni areas unless those communities were able and willing to hold Hezbollah in check.

Israeli politicians were nervous about the situation in Egypt but reassured by its army's reliance on the USA for equipment and money and by the fact that no party yet talked about abrogating peace treaties between the two countries.