Democratic shift to come from within, say Arab leaders

John R Bradley in Sanaa
The Indipendent

Arab leaders reached a broad consensus yesterday that democratic principles may "rescue" their own autocratic regimes, but strongly rejected the notion that democracy and freedom of expression can be imposed from outside.

Ali Abdullah Saleh, the Yemeni President, hailed democracy as a "rescue ship" as he addressed the biggest pro-democracy conference ever held in the Middle East.

"Democracy is the choice of the modern age for all people of the world and the rescue ship for political regimes," he told more than 600 delegates from 40 countries and international organisations - including the European Union, the Arab League, and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference - in Sanaa, the capital of Yemen.

The country, which introduced a multiparty parliamentary system in 1993, three years after unification, is the only Arab nation which can stake a claim to being a working democracy, despite being the most impoverished.

Emma Bonino, the former European commissioner for humanitarian affairs and a founder of the Italian NGO "No Peace Without Justice" - a co-sponsor of the Sanaa meet - said: "I believe no other country in the region would dare to host such a conference, especially now."

The Sanaa gathering, organised in the wake of the US-led invasion of Iraq and President George Bush's stated intention of promoting democratic change in the region, also came on the back of two reports from the United Nations Development Programme, which also co-sponsored the conference. The reports lambasted the region's dictators for a lack of political freedom, blanket press censorship, discouraging their people from exploring the world of ideas, repressing women and stunting research in science and development.

But Arab leaders warned that the impetus for change in the Middle East must come from inside their own society. Amr Moussa, secretary general of the Arab League, called for "democracy" to be viewed "as a process, not a decision imposed by others".

Kofi Annan, secretary general of the United Nations, said in a similar message to the delegates: "Democracy belongs to the people. It cannot be imposed from the outside."

One reason the Sanaa meet was almost universally welcomed was because it was an EU, rather than US, initiative. The US governmental delegation was very low key.

The oil-rich Gulf states of Kuwait, Qatar and Oman, which all sent high-level delegations, held themselves up as examples of Arab countries which are taking slow but concrete reform initiatives in the context of their cultural and religious heritage. All held at least partially free democratic elections last year, after decades of autocratic rule.

Opposition parties in Yemen largely dismissed the Sanaa conference as conforming to Arab governments' entrenched habit of talking more than acting.

One prominent opposition figure predicted: "When everyone goes back home, little action will follow."