Legislation is the bedrock of any civilized society and, when we look at the reform of legislation, the Middle East is no different from the rest of the international community. In order to facilitate and advance political reforms, and improve the governance structures of the state, regional governments have been considering ways of using legislation as a facilitator in the reform process. A number of states have already begun scrutinizing several aspects of their national laws, and in particular those relating to political parties, parliamentary and constitutional institutions, the media, and the role of women in civil society, as the prelude to the introduction of much wider reforms in the political arena, broadly defined. The fact that the atmosphere in the region was now ripe for the introduction of reform-oriented legislation was highlighted by a large gathering of activists in the Arab world in Lebanon in March 2004. Members of 50 civil society organizations from across the Arab world gathered in Beirut for a conference on reform and human rights. The gathering, organized by the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies and Lebanon’s Association for the Defense of Rights and Liberties, issued a final declaration in the form of a letter to Arab rulers. The letter asserts the right of Arab citizens to live under representative government and to enjoy constitutional guarantees of freedom of thought, belief, and association, political pluralism, and minority rights. Equally importantly, it also called for term limits for executive office and for the full equality of men and women. The letter also demanded an end to extra-judicial procedures,emergency laws, and torture. What emerged from the gathering contains the many key elements of discussion pertaining to the role that legislation, and reform introduced through legislation, could play at this important juncture in the region’s history.

Until recently, much of the focus on the process of reform has been on the larger countries: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Morocco, and to an extent on non-Arab Iran and Turkey. In reality, several smaller Arab states have been showing strong support for legislative reform in the context of implementing wider changes in the political and legal frameworks of their countries. Kuwait, Jordan and Qatar, for example, have already embarked on this road. Jordan has already seen a royal committee recommendation amendment to the electoral and political party laws. The strategy outlined also included loosening state control over the media, creating a ‘youth parliament’, and improving the judicial system. Compulsory voting might be introduced to ensure wider political participation. These progressive changes have since been overshadowed by the terror attacks in the country and the state’s real concern with security and the massive influx of Iraqi nationals. But in Kuwait,despite the on-going conflict next door in Iraq, the reform process, has, if anything,accelerated since the early 2000 s.

Legislation is the most appropriate tool for delineating boundaries between the state and the individual, between the state and civil society. In the Arab world, where the state has been the dominant political and socio-economic actor as well as the main employer for nearly half a century, legislation is the only means through which new rules and boundaries can be introduced. Legislation is needed for identifying individual rights and freedoms, as well as responsibilities. It is also needed for the setting of the freedoms and responsibilities of the state. Legislative reform therefore plays a central role in constitutional matters. Qatar’s leader, Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, announced in June 2004, for example, that the country’s new constitution, approved by popular vote in an April 2003 referendum, will come into effect on 8 June 2005. The constitution has established a 45-member parliament (the Shura Council), with limited legislative powers. Qataris are due to vote for its 30 elected members.


Read full text here  The reform agenda in the Arab world


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