May 30, 2011 5:38 pm
The effects of the unrest gripping much of the Arab world are being felt even in the United Arab Emirates.
Anwar Mohammed Gargash, chairman of the UAE’s national election committee, says he expects a sharp increase in turnout in elections for the Federal National Council, which are due to be held after Ramadan in August. In 2006 fewer than 8,000 voted; this time officials hope 80,000 will turn out.
“Creating meaningful participation is a necessity, not a sideshow,” says Mr Gargash, minister for FNC affairs.
The FNC was formed with the birth of the UAE in 1971. But the rulers of the seven emirates, which now have a national population of 1m, allowed only very limited elections for the council in 2006 and described it as a consultative body. Only half of the FNC is elected, and the remainder appointed by the government, which also names the voters in each emirates’ electoral college.
The council has proved itself to be largely ineffectual and its proceedings attract little attention.
Mr Gargash says political modernisation is coming but admits it will occur in a gradual way that suits the “country’s temper”.
In February, the government announced an increase in the number of voters in the electoral college. This increase reflected pressures created by the uprisings elsewhere in the region, say analysts.
“That’s the impact of the logic of the moment,” says Abdulkhaleq Abdullah, a political scientist at UAE University. “This country has always been good in keeping up and even being ahead of those kind of demands. [The authorities] don’t want to be surprised when this demand [for democratisation] has become very popular.”
Yet calls for quicker change have prompted a clampdown by the authorities. Last month Ahmed Mansoor, a blogger, and four other activists were arrested after they organised a petition calling for greater political liberalisation. The government also dissolved the boards of two professional associations, one of jurists and one of teachers, which had participated in the petitions.
“Calling for a parliament with legislative powers was probably a demand too far,” says Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a Gulf specialist at the London School of Economics.
Many Emiratis showed little sympathy for the activists, accusing them of being traitors or sympathisers with Iran. Some of that anger came from the activists’ decision to go public with their calls, viewed by many as disrespectful to a government that remains popular, says Mishaal al-Gergawi, a local commentator.
Mr Mansoor’s description of subsidies handed out by the crown prince as “bribes” during a television interview hit a particular nerve, Mr Gergawi says.
“We’re not used to this kind of confrontation between leadership and society,” he says. “As a culture in the UAE, we’re pretty young in many ways. We haven’t had a lot of experiences of political discourse.”
Mouza al-Hanaei, a 21- year-old political science student from Al-Ain, Abu Dhabi’s second city, says her friends and family are torn about the importance of the upcoming elections. Although she herself does not think the FNC can accomplish much, she is more engaged than her father.
“Some, they care about it, and some say: ‘What can we do?’” says Ms al-Hanaei.
In questions to Mr Gargash after a speech to mainly female students at a university in Al-Ain, some audience members pushed him on the pace and depth of the planned reforms.
“There will be always that in what you’re doing. People will say: ‘Well, why can’t it be a little bit wider, why can’t it be a little bit faster?’ ” Mr Gargash said afterwards. “There is a certain dynamic between how fast you can go and how fast we think is
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