June 11, 2004 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 179

The Alexandria Declaration: Arab Reform - Vision and Implementation

June 11, 2004 | By Aluma Dankowitz*
Egypt | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 179

During March 12-14, 2004, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina (Alexandria Library) in Egypt held a conference titled "Arab Reform Issues: Vision and Implementation." The conference was organized under the auspices of Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak with the participation of several Arab civil society organizations and Arab intellectuals and writers.

The date of the conference was no accident. The conference was aimed at preceding the Arab League Summit which was set for late March (but was subsequently postponed until May 22-23), in order to present a picture of Egyptian initiatives on reform and thus perhaps to preempt aspects of the U.S.'s Greater Middle East Initiative, to be officially announced at the G-8 summit of June 8-10, that might prove undesirable to the Egyptian regime.

The conference concluded with the Alexandria Declaration , and the Arab media reacted to the declaration with both praise and criticism. It was praised as a "local legitimization of the reform process" [1] and as proof that " Arab societies have the maturity and historical experience that make them capable of actively participating in human civilization, dealing with their own problems, and reforming their internal situations." [2] The declaration's critics, while acknowledging the importance of expressing the needed reforms in writing, went on to say that there was "a link missing between the ideas and their implementation" [3] and that "the document would have done political reform a great service had it emphasized not the principles of democracy themselves, but the great chasm that separates these principles from the reality in which we live." [4]

During its session, the Arab League Summit (May 22-23) approved a reform document with principles identical to those of the Alexandria Declaration. However, this document fails to address the issue of mechanisms for implementation. Moreover, many of the Arab leaders were absent, and the summit's final documents were signed by these countries' foreign ministers.

The following is an executive summary of the Alexandria Declaration that emerged from the Bibliotheca Alexandrina conference, reactions to the declaration from the Arab media, a summary of the Arab League summit reform document, and a link to the full text of the Alexandria Declaration.

The Declaration: Executive Summary

The main arguments in the Arab world against the Greater Middle East Initiative focused on two main areas: first, that reform cannot be imposed on sovereign countries from without and that the special circumstances and specific developments of each individual country cannot be disregarded, and second, that because the Palestinian problem is an obstacle to reform, a solution to it must precede any reform.

The Alexandria Declaration addresses both of these arguments. First, without saying that it rejects external intervention in reform, it stresses that reform is an "urgent matter" that "stems from within Arab societies," and that a reform project "should allow addressing the individual situation of each country while fitting within a general framework that highlights features shared by Arab societies." The declaration also stresses that reform measures should be taken "within the framework of a partnership between governments and civil society."

Second, while the Alexandria Declaration does not stipulate that a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a precondition for reform measures, it states that "internal reform should not divert our attention from dealing with pressing regional issues on our agenda. At the forefront of these issues is a just solution for the Palestinian problem." The declaration's introduction goes on to condemn terrorism in all its forms, reject all modes of religious fanaticism, and address four main categories of reform - political, economic, social, and cultural - as well as proposals for monitoring and implementation mechanisms.

Political Reform

In the section on political reform, the declaration cites the need for "genuine democracy" which requires "freedom of expression in all its forms," "free, regular, centralized, and decentralized elections" and "the highest possible level of decentralization that would allow greater self-expression by local communities." It presents "a number of specific visions for political reform" starting with constitutional and legislative reform, to include "clear-cut separation of the legislative and executive powers," "rejuvenation of the forms of government to guarantee regular and peaceful transfers of power," "organizing free and periodic elections" and "abolishing arrest or detention as a result of free expression."

The declaration recommends institutional and structural reform in the executive, the legislative and the judiciary branches of government and in the media and the civil society associations by enforcing "full transparency, the selection of effective leadership, a defined term of office, and the effective enforcement of the 'rule of law.'

The conference also affirms "the need for the abolition of extra-judicial and emergency laws and extraordinary courts" and "an effective legislation to deal with terrorism without compromising civil liberties and political rights."

The declaration goes on to declare the freedom to establish political parties for all intellectual trends and civil political forces. It calls on all Arab countries to ratify international and Arab human rights agreements, and demands "freeing the press and media from all forms of governmental influences or hegemony," "allowing the establishment of civil society institutions by amending the legal framework that controls civil society" and "encouraging public opinion polls."

The NGOs attending the conference had expected President Mubarak to abolish emergency law in Egypt, which has been in force since he came to power in 1981. [5] So far, Mubarak has not done so, but Egyptian Information Minister Safwat Al-Sharif claimed that when the Egyptian parliament issues a law on terrorism, there will no longer be a need for emergency law. [6]

Economic Reform

In the section on economic reform, the declaration declares the need "to free the national economy and turn it efficiently in accordance with market mechanisms." In order to achieve structural reform, it proposes several measures, such as minimizing bureaucracy and increasing the efficiency of governmental [economic] authorities, encouraging privatization programs and passing laws that would obligate authorities producing economic data to make this data available and easily accessible."

The declaration points out necessary regional economic measures, such as organizing an Arab labor market, encouraging the establishment of big banking institutions, and activating Arab agreements. It describes necessary steps for increasing the Arab world's effectiveness within the international economy and for promoting investment. It recommends "addressing poverty in its multiple dimensions" and suggests ways of solving the problem of unemployment in the Arab world.

Social Reform

In the section on social reform, the declaration calls for "developing a pattern of family relationships that would help create an independent, distinct and free individual," "reviewing some of the values that continue to negatively affect Arab life such as submissiveness and obedience," "affirming the role of the media in re-building the values that support development and modernization" and "directing Arab societies towards acquiring, disseminating and producing knowledge." To ensure this, the declaration recommends changes in the educational system in the Arab countries, such as "coordinating the output of the educational system with the changing needs of the job market, economic growth, and the building of competitive capacities."

The declaration stresses the need to "focus on the empowerment of women, promoting their participation in the development of society and eliminating all forms of discrimination against them." It also states that it is necessary to formulate "a new social contract between the state and the citizen in Arab society."

Cultural Reform

In the section on cultural reform, the declaration calls for "inculcating rational and scientific thinking" and states that "any form of religious extremism that may exist in educational curricula, sermons in mosques and the official or private media must be completely eradicated." It encourages "the continuous revision and renewal of religious discourse" and asserts that the reform of the religious discourse "should be consistent with the spirit of science, rationality and the requisites of contemporary life."

The declaration sees cultural development as "the foundation for any development," and states that "the first step that must be taken towards any radical reform cannot succeed without spreading the culture of democracy through educational curricula and the media." It calls for "reforming and activating Arab cultural institutions," "canceling any form of censorship over intellectual and cultural activities," and "encouraging cultural interaction with the entire world." [7]

Arab Media Reactions to the Alexandria Declaration: Praise and Criticism


Egyptian Nobel Prize Laureate Nagib Mahfuz expressed his support for the Alexandria Declaration and explained that the most important thing is that it gives local legitimization to the reform process, saying, "It is no longer possible to describe reform as an external demand or as something imposed upon us." Mahfuz maintained that ignoring or postponing reform is akin to "playing with fire." [8]

Muhammad Barakat, columnist for the Egyptian weekly Aakher Sa'a, praised the conference and said: "The Alexandria conferees were able, within a period of three days, to discuss freely, in complete intellectual openness and comprehensive understanding, Arab reforms at the political, economic, social and cultural levels. Following an open and vigorous discussion, they were able to present a comprehensive panorama of reforms in the Arab world titled 'The Alexandria Declaration,' which also includes ideas about implementation. This proves that Arab societies have the maturity and historical experience that make them capable of actively participating in human civilization, dealing with their own problems, and reforming their internal situations…"

Barakat explained that the Alexandria conference, which was attended by intellectuals and experts from Arab civilian life, not officialdom, proves that "reforms have become an all-encompassing demand that reflects a true popular aspiration within the Arab nations, and not pronouncements issued by some governmental and official entities in order to absorb the flood of external initiatives and the demands for reforms and modernization." [9]

Muhyi Al-Din Al-Ladhiqani, columnist for the London-based Arabic daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat,wrote: "…With the release of the Alexandria Declaration … it seems that the locomotive of Arab reforms is ready to roll. Is it really so, or is it just a successful attempt to market a new illusion?...

"It has been established by now that most of the Arab regimes presently want some kind of sterilized reforms that will be least harmful to their interests. However, the intellectuals, researchers, and members of civilian and human rights organizations would not have preserved their credibility had they adopted such a harmless and sterilized version. The Alexandria Declaration contains clear and unambiguous demands for separation of power, free elections, using constitutions to restrict authoritarian rule, allowing the freedom to establish political parties, endorsing the principle of peaceful transfer of power, and even setting term limits for all politicians and public servants, regardless of their positions. Only an insane person would believe that an Arab summit could agree to such popular demands…

"Before you wonder what would remain of the grandiloquent statements in this document concerning the Arab civil society, I'll tell you: Much will remain, even if the leaders do not endorse a single syllable of it, because reforms … are not always imposed from above, and most important, in this civil demonstration there is the fact that it demonstrated an acknowledged style of peaceful political activism and showed that the Arab civil society has intellectual and informational fangs that could be used when needed, with or without politicians' consent.

"This document created a positive environment and a norm for what would be accepted or rejected in the future as far as social, cultural and economic practices and policies go. Prior to this document, none of the people's aspirations and dreams existed in writing, nor were they endorsed by 170 Arab figures who are active in politics, media, education, public interests, universities, and legal and economic organizations…

"The jewel in the crown of the document, which indicated that there will be insistence on its implementation no matter how long it takes, was the announcement of the establishment of the Forum for Arab Reforms which will be responsible for monitoring the flourishing works and activities of the Arab civil society… With the existence of an alert and active civil society and nearly free media, it will be difficult for falsehoods, brainwashing and lies [to succeed] and the people's oversight will be an accepted fact. This is not such a bad start in the 1,000-mile journey which other nations have taken before us, after becoming fed up - just like us - with autocracy, and they were successful in ridding themselves peacefully and with no violence of the phenomenon of immortal regimes and everlasting politicians." [10]


Criticism of the declaration came from former editor-in-chief of the London-based Arabic daily Al-Hayat, Jihad al-Khazen. He wrote that he sensed that the discussions dealt with "incontrovertible issues, akin to saying that health is better than illness and light is better than darkness… after all, is there anyone who opposes democracy, the rule of law, accountability, transparency, the rights of women, and the end of corruption?" He also stated that the conference's most important role was expressing in writing these "incontrovertible reforms," but added that there is "a link missing between the ideas and their implementation." [11]

Harsher criticism came from Egyptian intellectual Dr. Sa'id Al-Najjar, who died recently. In his final article, which appeared in the Egyptian opposition daily Al-Wafd,he expressed his disapproval of the Alexandria Declaration, writing that one flaw in the document was its failure to take into account the specific circumstances of each country. But his harshest criticism was: "Is there anything new in listing the principles of democracy? Is it enough for us to call for open and free elections, or should we say with all honesty - and without any twists and turns - that the parliamentary elections in Egypt were not free and were not open? So the question that must be asked here is: Will the elections remain under the control of the Ministry of the Interior? Or should we transfer them to the Ministry of Justice? Or consign them - as the case in India - to a committee independent of the executive branch that has all the authority it needs to oversee the election process from beginning to end?

"The document also discusses transfer of power. However, this is not the issue. The issue is that we do not have transfer of power, and that President Hosni Mubarak - with all due respect - has been occupying the presidential seat for over 22 years - and when he completes his present term, which is his fourth, he will have spent 24 years as president of the republic. And if he submits his candidacy for a fifth term, it means that he will be in power for thirty years. This contradicts the simplest tenets of democracy… and has led to the stagnation of political life, the atrophy of political parties, and widespread negativism towards public endeavor.

"The document would have done the political reform a great service had it emphasized not the principles of democracy themselves, but the great chasm that separates these principles from the reality in which we live." [12]

Epilogue: The Arab Summit Reform Document

The Arab summit, which took place in Tunisia from May 22 to 23, 2004, addressed the proposed reforms in the absence of the leaders of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Bahrain, Iraq, Yemen, Sudan, Kuwait, and the Palestinian Authority. These countries were represented by their prime ministers or foreign ministers. Of the 13 Arab leaders who participated in the summit, only eight attended the closing session, and the documents were signed by the foreign ministers and not by the heads of state.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak walked out of the summit and was not present at the summary meeting, after the rejection of his proposal to establish a body within the Arab League for discussing reform matters with the international community and dealing with the Greater Middle East Initiative. His proposal also included a stipulation that coordination and consultation on reform matters would be carried out by the Arab League, on two levels: among the Arab leaders, and among the Arab foreign ministers. These would take place in coordination with the Arab League secretary-general.

Likewise, the proposal stated that it was important for the discussion with international parties to "be conducted in accordance with the priorities of the Arab countries and their primary political problems, with the Palestinian problem the number-one priority."

Some of the countries expressed apprehension that "the proposal is aiming to establish a body to monitor the reforms and oversee their progress, exactly like the U.S. is trying to force on us." But Egyptian sources explained that Mubarak was not proposing a "monitoring body," but a framework "for discussion within the Arab League."

After lengthy discussion, Tunisia, which was leading the summit, rejected Mubarak's proposal, saying that the conference should settle for what had been agreed upon in the summit's preparatory meetings.

The summit endorsed a reform document urging Arab League members to continue political, economic, social and cultural development efforts in order to develop Arab societies based on their free will [i.e. without foreign intervention], their cultural and religious values, and the unique capabilities and circumstances of each country. The document calls for strengthening the foundations of democracy and Shura (consultative process), and expanding public participation in political decision-making. The document also calls for equality among citizens; upholding human rights and freedom of expression as defined by Arab and international conventions; and women's participation in political, economic, social and cultural processes. Further, it encourages the establishment of an Arab common market and improvements in education.

The reform document published by the summit links the resolution of the problems in the region to advancing the reform process. Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa said that the document "makes the reforms parallel to the solution of the primarily problems." The document states that "it is important to deal seriously with the various essential problems of the region and to find solutions for them, as a just resolution of these problems will reinforce the sense of peace and security and will strengthen the efforts of peoples of the regions to overcome the challenges and the consequences of the colonial era, reinforce the process of democratization and the defense of Arab human rights, and will strengthen their application."

The document calls for a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict based on the Arab Peace Initiative and the U.N. resolutions, to make the region free of weapons of mass destruction, and to cooperate with the international community in the struggle against terror in all its forms "while differentiating between the condemned terrorism and the legitimate right of the peoples to struggle against occupation." [13]

To read the full text of the Alexandria Declaration, visit:

* Aluma Dankowitz is Director of MEMRI's Reform Project.

[1] Al-Ahram (Egypt), March 25, 2004.

[2] Aakher Sa'a (Egypt), March 24, 2004.

[3] Al-Hayat (London), March 17, 2004.

[4] Al-Wafd (Egypt), April 25, 2004.

[5] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), March 12, 2004.

[6] Al-Hayat (London), March 12, 2004.


[8] Al-Ahram (Egypt), March 25, 2004.

[9] Aakher Sa'a (Egypt), March 24, 2004.

[10] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), March 22, 2004

[11] Al-Hayat (London), March 17, 2004.

[12] Al-Wafd (Egypt), A pril 25, 2004.

[13] Al-Hayat (London), May 24, 2004.

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