BEIRUT, Lebanon - It has become a ritual at major gatherings of world leaders: Dissidents hold "shadow" meetings to press for change and demand a greater say in their governments' decisions.
In the Arab world, where political power is often inherited and free speech is seen as a threat, such a public challenge to government authority has been unheard of.
Yet for the first time, a coalition of Arab human rights groups and nongovernmental organizations met in Beirut in advance of this week's Arab League summit. The activists hope to take advantage of the international spotlight on the most anticipated Arab summit in years. They plan to lobby government leaders to allow greater civil liberties, remove restrictions on the press and free speech, and move toward free elections.
Like their government leaders, the dissidents are focused on the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Palestinian uprising. But the activists argue that victims of government repression in many Arab countries share a plight similar to Palestinians living under Israeli rule.
"We can't fight for the rights of Palestinians without being free and democratic in our own countries," said Ziad Abdel-Samad, executive director of the Arab Network for Development, a Lebanese group that organized the alternative summit. "We need to have democratic governments that will encourage social development, fight corruption and allow a freedom of expression."
The Arab world, home to more than 250 million people in 22 countries, is the region that has been least touched by democratic reforms in the 1980s and '90s. Not a single Arab leader today was elected in a free and fair election.
This lack of democracy has fueled a sense of disappointment among many Arabs that they are members of societies in which Arab unity has been only a dream. Oil did not bring prosperity, 50 years of war with Israel did not bring victory and political reforms that swept the world did not bring democracy to the Arab "nation."
Abdel-Samad said the group plans to issue a statement today urging Arab leaders to ensure that "the right of return" for more than 3 million Palestinians displaced by the creation of Israel in 1948 is included in any final peace plan adopted by the Arab summit.
"Arab rulers must listen to their societies and not give away the Palestinians' right of return," Abdel-Samad said. "We might not succeed in influencing them this time, but this is a long-term process. We plan to have a presence at every summit from now on."
Analysts say the fact that the alternative meeting took place at all is a sign that there is a deep longing for democratic reforms and greater civil liberties in the Arab world, but they caution that Arab governments are very slow in responding to popular movements.