CIVICUS recently participated in a workshop on Democratic Transition in the Arab Region: Shaping State-Civil Society relationships. The workshop, organised by Oxfam Novib, brought together representatives of CSOs and social movements and individual activists working towards democratic development in Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia and Yemen to share experiences and challenges in their national contexts with a view to forging common strategies for civil society to respond to pushback from governments and political elites against demands for democratic reform. Some key themes emerged from the conference.
First, the political vacuum created by the overthrow of authoritarian leaders in Egypt and Tunisia and steps towards democratisation in Morocco and Yemen has led to an increase in the influence and power of religious groups which poses a challenge to secular CSOs and groups working to promote and protect women’s rights. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that a large segment of the young population in the Middle East and North Africa region is increasingly being drawn toward religious conservatism.Second, political patronage and control by elites is still well entrenched. Outwardly, systems may appear to be in a state of reform, but real political change is elusive as foundations of the old systems run deep. In Yemen for instance, the president may have left but all of his cronies remain in place. In Morocco, the king has promised to act on demands to move from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy but there are still many doubts about his real intentions. In Egypt, the military maintains a stranglehold on power which has prevented change.
Third, young people are becoming increasingly impatient with the present state of affairs, as economic stagnation and joblessness are rife. Lack of economic opportunities and pervasive poverty need to be addressed urgently and are the leading cause of social unrest and disillusionment with the present state of affairs. There is also deep resentment against neo-liberal economic policies that are perceived to have failed to allow the benefits of national wealth to flow to all segments of society. Additionally, there is anxiety about the large amounts of debt owed to international financial institutions. Current economic policies and high national debt are the legacies of authoritarian leaders.
Civil society members from Georgia and Serbia who experienced earlier democratic transitions emphasised the need for international institutions to remain engaged in their support for civil society in the crucial period after the change in political systems. In Georgia, following the Rose Revolution, a number of civil society leaders joined the government and international support for civil society waned. The resultant shortage of both human and financial resources severely weakened civil society in Georgia. The Serbian experience after the removal of Slobodan Milosevic led to heightened expectations from people that prosperity would naturally follow. Nonetheless, the process of change is slow and often painstaking, requiring patience and sustained engagement from civil society.
CIVICUS shared its analysis regarding restrictions on CSOs and the heightened danger faced by groups working on democratic reform. Areas of concern are: anti-terrorist operations being used as a smokescreen by governments to clampdown on legitimate forms of political dissent; the increasing role of Brazil, China, India and Russia in international development cooperation, being countries with foreign policies on democratic freedoms ranging from nuanced through indifferent to actively hostile, compared with those of Western democracies which give more priority to democratic freedoms; and the enhanced ability of civil society to connect across borders and internationalise human rights issues, which itself is leading to pushback and reprisals by governments.
Some key strategies were identified to overcome challenges to democratic transitions in the region. These include the need to engage governments through regional and international bodies to foster legislation and policies supporting the exercise of human and democratic rights. It was also resolved to prioritise civic education to enable people to participate in democratic processes long denied to them by authoritarian leaders. Notably for CIVICUS, the need to connect regionally at the government, civil society and people to people level to share good practices on democratic reform was emphasised.
Mandeep Tiwana, Policy and Advocacy Manager, CIVICUS