Democratization and Conflict in the Arab World: Challenges, opportunities and dangers- We were there!

by Wael Abdel Hamid, Arab Spring Series // Published May 31, 2011


On May 4 , the United States Institute of Peace (USIP)in Washington, D.C. hosted an exceptional conference,  organized with Georgetown University, entitled “Democratization and Conflict in the Arab World: Challenges, opportunities and dangers”. The aim of the conference was “to offer concrete, policy-relevant insights that will be of benefit to political leaders in the Arab world, as well as to policy makers and activists in the United States working in the areas of human rights, democratic change and the rule of law”.  

With this mission statement in mind, I can easily affirm that the conference was a success. The conference room was crowded and the audience was captivated by a large panel of different speakers, each having their own backgrounds and their own views on the questions. Diversity was the key to success. 

The day was divided in four parts with two intermissions in the morning and two in the afternoon. The earlier panels addressed questions relating to the youth, the media, and their respective roles in the Arab Spring movement. The afternoon panels tackled the topics of challenges faced by revolutionary societies and the complications arisen by events such as security and danger. The morning and afternoon panels were separated by a lunch break in which we had the opportunity to hear from Michael Posner, the Assistant  Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. Posner highlighted some fascinating elements of the US’ policy toward the human rights situation in the Middle East.

As FairVote representative, I was compelled to ask a question concerning electoral reforms in these newly democratized societies. With time running out, I had to pose a precise question. After some thought, I asked the afternoon panel, "How important are electoral reforms in a post revolution era and are these new democracies considered the introduction of Proportional Representation?" 

The most capable panelist to answer my question was Samer Shehata, an Egyptian professor at Georgetown University and one of the writers of a New York Times piece that had caught FairVote's attention a few months ago. Since Egypt is undergoing massive changes following the ousting of Mubarak and a new process of nation-building (just like Tunisia which is already using proportional voting (PR)), Shehata, an expert on Egyptian politics, was the best expert to answer the question while using Egypt as a case study. 

According to Shehata, electoral reforms are at the roots of a successful transition because dictators manipulate the electoral system to serve their own interests.  As far as Egypt is concerned, PR is at the center of the discussion concerning the drafting of a new constitution (necessary before the September elections). Shehata argued that PR is very likely to be adopted in the Egyptian legislative and Shura (high council) elections, but he also expressed some doubts in its successful application in the upcoming elections because the amount of time available between now and September might not be adequate enough to institute PR fully.

The introduction of PR into the Egyptian electoral system was confirmed by one of the main figures of the political landscape, Mohamed El Baradei in the Egyptian press, few days after the conference. His organization, the National Association for Change and the campaign “Egyptian for Free and Fair Elections” submitted a document to the SCAF (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) which has been ruling the country since March 2011 and the interim government stressing the importance of PR for Shura Council and parliamentary elections. El Baradei asks 80% of the seats to be contested using PR and 20% using the current system of a single-winner voting system for independent candidates.   

For more on the conference, visit For more on my writings about the Arab Spring movement, see my recent articles on Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen