Arab revolutions: Why West was caught off-guard

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1 Arab revolutions: Why West was caught off-guard In early November, Mondial interviewed Ziad Abdel Samad, Executive Director of the Arab NGO Network for Development (ANND, based in Beirut). ANND is a regional network of Arab NGOs active in the fields of social development, human rights, gender and the environment. Mr. Abdel Samad is also a member of the civil society organization (CSO) advisory committee to the UN Development Program Administrator. He is also a member of the International Council of the World Social Forum and the advisory council of the International Centre of Non-Profit Law. Mondial: Why do you think the international community, particularly western governments, were so unprepared for events in the Arab region this year? Ziad Abdel Samad - The culmination of popular mobilizations in the streets and the ability of the people in the region to demonstrate in large numbers and demand change were not expected. Before the peoples revolutions, analysts often considered that inevitable change in the region would possibly occur as a result of a combination of factors: shifts in the regional power balance, external political pressure, and more intensive internal pressure from civil society groups. The deterioration of political and living conditions including the lack of democracy and freedom, and low economic and social indicators, were also important factors. Mass popular mobilizations were sidelined as a probable factor of change. The ability of the people to reclaim their right to have a say in the governance of their countries, to defend their human rights and to hold those responsible accountable was not a popular consideration. While the pace and form by which change came about was unexpected, the achievements were an accumulation of the efforts and struggles of various societal factions and civil society groups, including non-governmental organizations (NGOs), labor unions, youth and women s movements, opposition political parties, and citizens active in various forms of social and political networks. It is worth noting that, since 2002, the region witnessed multiple forms of political dynamism, although within a limited framework and impact. Several Arab countries organized parliamentary elections, others organized local and presidential elections. This was paralleled with a certain level of increased dynamism among civil society groups and political movements, who monitored these processes or took part in them. Several official and civil initiatives and calls for reform were made, including the Sana Declaration in 2004, the Alexandria Bibliotheca Declaration in 2004, and the Declaration of the League of Arab States Summit in Tunisia in This emerging dynamism was interrupted in 2005 by the international 1

2 community s reaction to the Palestinian parliamentary elections, which led Hamas to win the majority. These elections were perceived as an alarming sign that Islamic parties were ready to take over power in other Arab countries open for democratic changes. This gave the ruling regimes strong arguments to convince their foreign partners, mainly the US and the EU, to compromise the demands for democratic reforms. Since 2008, several Arab countries specifically Egypt and Tunisia have been witnessing new forms of social resistance at the community level as well as in industries and factories. These were spurred by the economic and social pressures resulting from the series of global economic, energy, food, and climate crises. Among the factors that shaped the climactic mobilizations, was the role of educated youth who were marginalized and excluded from the economic and productive cycles of their countries. Overall, the popular mobilizations that Libya, Egypt and Tunisia witnessed, and towards which other Arab countries are heading, cannot be explained by a specific set of factors, but ought to be understood as a reflection of the amalgamation of various complementary elements that led to, or were conducive to, change. Mondial Are the transformations in Egypt and Tunisia sustainable? Ziad Abdel Samad The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt have precipitated processes of critical reflection on systems of political governance. Various stakeholders are part of this debate, including existing and new political parties, civil society organizations, labor unions, and groups representing a variety of youth voices in various types of organization. There has been much focus on issues such as constitutional reforms, electoral laws and procedures, the powers of the legislative and judicial branches, as well as dealing with authoritarian institutions such as security agencies, besides many other important steps towards new and democratic governance. Tunisians and Egyptians are increasingly looking beyond specific individuals as the source of their political and social crises and are instead starting to tackle the institutional reforms necessary to establish democracy, transparency, accountability and oversight, as well as to combat corruption. The process of change has started with the organizing of elections to the constitutional council in Tunisia, which is supposed to adopt a new constitution within one year and to launch further the political process. In Egypt, elections to both the parliament and the senate will take place later this month. These two chambers will have the responsibility to adopt a new constitution within one year and then to elect a new president. In Tunisia, a new president will be nominated by the council, while in Egypt the military council is functioning as the presidency until the election of a new president after the adoption of the new constitution. (Editor s note: recent events in Egypt are aimed at speeding up the process.) Thus the sustainability of these democratic reforms will rest on the ability to adopt new constitutions based on a new social contract and on a new basis for the relationship between the citizen and the state, rooted in the respect of rights, active participation, the existence of accountability mechanisms, and acknowledgement of mutual responsibilities. Working towards a new social contract requires national processes of democratic policy dialogue and institutional reforms that revive the concept of consent or agreement by the citizen to social arrangements and public policies that are based on justice. This relationship between responsible and active citizens, on the one hand, and accountable and democratic state institutions, on the other, is the complementary basis of a new social contract. 2

3 This, in turn, entails a comprehensive process of reforms on the political as well as the economic, social, and cultural fronts. Both revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt have demonstrated the inter-linkages between the political, the economic and the social. These revolutions, along with revolutionary movements in other Arab countries like Libya, Yemen, Syria, and Bahrain were triggered by factors of economic and social exclusion and quickly built up towards mass mobilizations behind political demands. Currently there is a popular demand both in Tunisia and in Egypt to include in the new constitutions economic, social and cultural rights as well as political and civil rights. Mondial What are the prospects for Libya overcoming the divisions of civil war and moving toward a democratic development? On balance, is Libyan civil society moving in the right direction? Ziad Abdel Samad The Libyan people are facing many challenges, the first being the ability to unify the various military factions that emerged during the struggle with the former regime into one national army and thus collect all the weapons currently spread among the society. There is also the challenge of extending sovereignty over the whole country and its national resources. The country s unity relies on these. Moreover, the Libyan transitional authority faces the challenge of providing basic needs to Libyan citizens. It is therefore necessary to secure humanitarian and medical aid. This should include housing and reconstruction as well. The process for institution building and reconstruction should be carried out immediately. Foreign investment companies, especially in the fields of oil extraction and refining, energy, and public institution building, should take into account respect for national and local interests as an important factor for sustainability and trust building. It is imperative to start building the legal framework, including the adoption of a new constitution and laws to protect various rights including the right to assembly, of expression and access to information. Mondial With respect to Syria, is the combination of civil society mobilization and sanctions and political engagement with the Syrian National Council from outside the country, a sufficient recipe for democratic change? Ziad Abdel Samad The situation in Syria is taking dramatic turns where the ruling circle doesn t seem to be willing to leave or to introduce serious reforms. It is escalating oppression and totally ignoring the popular demands supported by the Arab and international communities. In exchange, the Syrian people are determined to revolt against the dictatorship, the lack of freedom and democracy and to claim their social and economic rights. The revolution in Syria is widespread, both geographically and in number of participants. There are efforts to coordinate among the different groups of Syrian opposition; 1. the internal opposition which is based on two main constituents: (a) the traditional political movements including the leftist, progressive, liberal and Islamic groups; and (b) the emerging popular coordination committees rooted in different cities, towns and villages which mainly represent civil society, youth and 3

4 independent people. 2. the opposition outside the country, represented by the national council aiming at supporting the revolution and mobilizing the international community. Most lately, during a meeting of the Arab Council of Ministers of Foreign Affairs in Cairo, a delegation representing the internal opposition was intended to meet with the secretary general of the League of Arab States to ask for a postponement of any escalating decisions and provide an additional opportunity for dialogue in order to allay concerns related to the fear of choices leading to foreign military intervention. Yet, a group of Syrians pretending to represent the outside opposition opposed the delegation and prevented them from entering the building to meet with the SG. This group later demanded that the League of Arab States increase pressure on the regime and ask for foreign support, including the possibility of military intervention. This incident indicates the existing contradictions among the various Syrian opposition forces, which unfortunately sometimes take undemocratic means. But it also reflects the existing concerns among the Syrian people who are suspended between two difficult choices: escalating oppression exerted by the regime, on the one hand, and foreign intervention which could lead to mass destruction, on the other. It is worth mentioning that the situations in Yemen and Bahrain, where people are struggling for freedom and democracy and improved living conditions, are deteriorating. Popular protests started eight months ago and the regimes are not willing to listen. Civil society in the region and worldwide should express solidarity and support by all means. Mondial From an ANND perspective, what are the immediate challenges for civil society organizations in the region? Ziad Abdel Samad For a long time, civil society organizations in the Arab region have faced many restrictions and violations of their freedom of association and expression, and their independence. The civil society sector was systematically being destroyed by the regimes in power, seeking to restrict the emergence of any strong and effective opposition movements. The developments in the region have reinforced the role of civil society and social movements as key stakeholders in enriching and preserving the continuous struggle for democracy and freedom. The revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia signal a new era for the role of civil society organizations and their standing in relation to political power and to public policy making, in general. Yet, the old status quo still prevails in other Arab countries where civil society organizations are still facing restrictions and repression. During the current transition period, civil society faces the challenge of protecting the changes and reforms acquired so far and preventing a retreat from the process of democratic change. Civil society groups face the challenge of shifting from a defensive position to a more proactive role in public life. They have a major role in ensuring that reforms integrate concepts of justice, human rights, nondiscrimination, and equality. Civil society organizations also have a major role in questioning the economic and social policies that were implemented under previous regimes, and promoting alternatives based on inclusiveness, non- 4

5 discrimination, justice, and respect of human rights. In this regard, civil society groups should be aware of the influence of foreign interference in shaping economic and social frameworks. It is imperative to stress that economic and social conditions will not improve unless there is a deep revision of the previous models and policies implemented. It is thus necessary to adopt a new development paradigm that is inclusive, just and rights based. While cooperation with international actors, such as the international financial institutions and other donors and countries, ought to be welcomed, such cooperation must be based on clear national development agendas and should prioritize principles of democratic national ownership, mutual accountability, and strong partnership. These principles are part of the Paris Action Plan and Accra Declaration [on aid effectiveness] that the international community agreed to. Civil society must increasingly work beyond the urban centres where activities and interventions have been concentrated up to now, thus addressing rural and peripheral areas. They should also focus their support on voices and communities that are often marginalized from the policy and law-making processes, such as women and young activists. Besides national spaces of engagement, the ability to nurture regional spaces of exchange, thinking, cooperation, and solidarity also promises significant added value. The spread of uprisings across the Arab region, carrying the same demands for dignity, rights, and freedom, reasserts the regional dimension of the identities and a sense of belonging for the citizens of the region. 5

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