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With a cascade of events in recent months, 2005 seems to be shaping up as a watershed year for Middle Eastern political reform.

But what has actually changed and why? And what will the likely outcomes be? While it is true that the US-led invasion of Iraq has dramatically changed the lay of the land in the Middle East, concluding that democracy is spreading in the region is a little premature. Focusing on regional contexts and examining local people produces more accurate explanations for what is taking place.

Shortly after New Year on 9 January, voters in the Palestinian Authority elected Mahmoud Abbas as president in what observers deemed to be a free and fair election, in contrast to the 1996 election of Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat. This was marred by accusations of voting irregularities and a lack of candidates. More importantly, Abbas crowned his election victory by urging prime minister Ahmed Qureia to appoint a moderate cabinet staffed more by technocrats than Fatah ideologues.

Palestinian Authority elections were followed three weeks later by Iraqi ones. Having been marginalised from political power first by the Ottoman Empire, then by the short-lived Hashimi monarchy in the 1930s and then finally for the duration of Saddam Hussein’s regime, elected representatives from Iraq’s Shia population now gingerly hold the reins of government.

The following week on 10 February Saudi Arabians began electing 592 seats in 178 municipal councils in 13 provinces. These elections, which continued on 3 March and will end on 21 April, are a significant break with the kingdom’s past policy of directly appointing council representatives.

Not more than two weeks later on 26 February, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak announced election reforms that allow for the first contested presidential elections since he took office in 1981. Mubarak will now stand against opposition candidates rather than holding a “yes” or “no” referendum as he has done in the past.

Just two days later on 28 February Lebanese Prime Minister Omar Karami resigned and dissolved his government in the face of popular protests over Syria’s domination of Lebanese politics. Continuing protests secured Syrian commitment to withdraw its troops from the country.

But if something so clearly seems to be afoot, what is causing this sea change? Rather than one catalyst, close examination shows that events were driven by independent occurrences that largely coincidentally coalesced around the beginning of 2005.

The unforeseeable 11 November 2004 death of Yasser Arafat brought about the 9 January elections in the Palestinian Authority. Transition plans – including a fixed three-month period between the death of the chairman and elections – were drafted with the Palestinian Authority’s creation in 1995.

In Saudi Arabia, a profound sense that something is awry in the kingdom, more than any external force, instigated discussions regarding electing members to municipal councils in 2003. Had elections gone according to schedule, they would have been held during 2004.

Likewise, the Egyptian constitution requires a presidential election or referendum every six years. Regardless of their opacity and corruptness, elections have gone ahead in 1987, 1993, and 1999. With elections scheduled for September 2005, opposition to Mubarak was growing throughout 2003 and 2004, only to become especially intense with public protests in the fall of 2004, three months before US President Bush singled out Mubarak’s authoritarian regime on 2 February 2005.

In Lebanon, opposition to President Emile Lahoud’s pro-Syrian government’s was also growing in the autumn of 2004. It increased markedly after Lahoud drove through a constitutional amendment extending his term by three years in September 2004. Anti-Syrian Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri immediately resigned. Hariri’s unexpected 14 February assassination provoked more anti-Syrian opposition and brought them into the streets.

Despite these dramatic changes, though, many things remain the same. In Iraq elections have done little to quell pervasive violence and the government has yet to establish its legitimacy with Iraq’s Sunni population. In the Palestinian Authority, in addition to Qureia himself, Fatah old guard members have retained key posts in Quriea’s cabinet, including Nabil Shaath as Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Information. Likewise, Hamas and Islamic Jihad whose militias function outside regular Palestinian security services still only act in coordination with the Palestinian Authority when it suits their objectives.

In Saudi Arabia, voting was restricted to men and they only voted for 50% of municipal council seats – the remaining 50% will be appointed by the palace. Similar restraints undermine Mubarak’s reforms in Egypt. State Security Emergency Courts, launched in 1981 following the assassination of President Anwar Sadat, continue to try political cases and significantly discourage popular political expression. In fact, prominent opposition parliamentarian Ayman Nour was arrested less than 48 hours after Mubarak announced his reforms. Changes in Lebanon are equally chimerical – pro-Syrian president Emile Lahoud re-nominated Omar Karami as prime minister only ten days after his resignation and Syrian troops and intelligence officers still remain in Lebanon despite cosmetic redeployment to the Bekaa Valley.

Events are happening so quickly in the Middle East that it is very difficult to gauge their short-term impact. It is too soon to tell how long the Iraqi government will maintain its “legitimacy” honeymoon or whether the democratic process will be repeated in the future. Abbas’s government is still jeopardized by Hamas and Islamic Jihad who can disrupt his efforts to hold further talks with Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon.

In Egypt, Mubarak is nearly guaranteed to be re-elected in September and will likely continue grooming his son Gamal Mubarak to succeed him over the course of the 2005-2011 term. Saudi Arabia’s democratization will slow considerably as the leadership works out how best to manage the municipal councils’ elected members. Despite recent hubbub about the “cedar revolution” in Lebanon, political and military status-quo is likely to prevail until possible May 2005 elections.

Ironically, long-term analysis may be easier to undertake. There is ample precedent showing that even the slightest reform in an authoritarian regime can have significant effects. Even though today’s limited reforms may have negligible impact in the short term and may reinforce authoritarian regimes by diverting international pressure for more democratisation, they will ultimately contribute to more extensive political change. That change, though, is still in the offing.

Dr Geoff Porter is an analyst in Middle Eastern affairs at consultants Eurasia Group

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