The Arab Reform Initiative’s workshop on "Authority and Opposition" at the sixth Doha Forum on Democracy, Development and Free Trade

The sixth Doha Forum on Democracy, Development and Free Trade was held from 11-13 April 2006. The topic of this year’s Forum was "Political Evolution and Reforms Issues in the Arab World." Hassan Al Ansari, the director of the Qatar Gulf Research Centre, a patron of the Sixth Doha Forum, stated that in light of the recent transformations witnessed in the Arab region, discussions at the Forum would center on the authority/opposition nexus, and means of enhancing the march of democratization and overseeing processes of change and the state of reform in the Arab World.

Forum workshops focused on 16 topics.

This year marked the first time that the term "development" was included in the title of the Forum. It was also the first public setting in which participants examined democracy in the Arab word though the framework of Authority and Opposition by addressing the concerned political forces directly. Yet issues discussed during previous forums were not sidelined, particularly the role of civil society institutions, women’s issues, the role of youth, and the importance of consolidating human rights and press freedoms.

The Arab Reform Initiative organised a workshop on "Authority and Opposition in the Arab World" on the second day of the Forum. The director of the Arab Reform Initiative, Bassma Kodmani, chaired the session, during which concepts, parallels, conditions and obstacles to the democratic process were discussed. Presentations were made by representatives of governing authorities and the main forces of political opposition in the Arab world. In addition, the floor was opened to all workshop participants, who filled a large conference room.

Dr. Kodmani presented the themes to be discussed in the session, and mentioned that invited speakers representing governmental authorities could not attend and that the presence of representatives from the opposition only was unintentional. The Secretary General of the Al-Ghad Party from Egypt, Nagui Al Ghatrifi noted that official efforts towards reform in the Arab world, particularly in Egypt, are not strong enough and have not demonstrated a genuine will for reforms. He noted that it was impossible for opposition movements to develop a social constituency in a context where emergency law continues to prevail and forbids the gathering of any small crowd.

Gamil Matar, director of the Arab Centre for Development and Future Research (ACDFR) in Egypt noted a deterioration in the relationship between authority and opposition and a regression of democracy across the world. He predicted that the recent increase in oil income would not act in favour of political liberalization. He described a complex triangular relationship between government, the opposition and outside forces. Ahmad Najib Chabbi, the secretary-general of the Tunisian Progressive Democratic Party and founding member of the 18 October Gathering, observed that the existing crisis in the relationship between official authorities and opposition movements is based primarily on the collapse of the legitimacy upon which any authority must be built. Also, there is no Islamic exceptionalism where democratic issues are concerned. Internal considerations determine the process of democratization in each country while external factors play a secondary role.

Hatem Abdel Kader, former member of the Palestinian Legislative Council and one of the leaders of Fatah’s "new guard" stressed the importance of Palestinian national unity and the need for the opposition to ensure constant participation from society. He identified the main obstacles that impeded the creation of a unified government after the legislative elections that brought Hamas to power and made it possible for this movement to form a government.

Dr. Ali Fayad, director of the Centre for Research and Documentation in Lebanon, emphasized the importance of building a new Arab political rationalism. This should help political forces to engage in the use of peaceful means in political struggles, adding that the real democratic transition in the Arab world can only be achieved if Islamist movements adopt democracy, even in a practical way. Finally, Professor George Joffe from Cambridge University also noted that democratic processes were in regression and preferred to talk about political participation rather than democracy.