On the fall of the wall of fear
Fully extracting the “lessons learned” from the popular uprisings or reform processes in the Arab countries will require the passage of more time, particularly if we want to distinguish between different experiences, and compare their causes and forms. Likewise, talking about the uprisings’ proponents requires prudence, in view of the twisted and thorny paths these various groups and individuals have taken, and which may result in many detours in the days and years ahead.
However, a first reading of the historical events of the last few months—especially in Tunisia and Egypt—can guide us to a few conclusions:
1) The launching of the revolutionary movements very much required an emotional spark and acute excitement. This allowed the constraints of self-censorship and internalized, normalized fear to be smashed, liberating the individual and society from the symbolic weight of authoritarian institutions.
2) Taking to the public squares, which previously had been used largely to celebrate the governing regimes, was instrumental in throwing off the influence of the former systems. For the first time in decades a political bridge between the public and private spaces was established, and citizens crossed this first with defiance, and then with a sense of liberation.
3) The people are able to peacefully hold out in the streets and persevere, refusing to be turned away from their objectives, as long as they feel there is an opportunity on the horizon for even greater accomplishments, as long as they perceive that the machinery of repression has lost the initiative, or in cases when that machinery has lost the ability to react with violence in the face of an enormous popular presence.
4) Information-age tactics and globalized tools of communication play a critical political role in the present moment. Satellites circulate images live, while websites and blogs carry information, news and emotion. Security apparatuses are not strong enough to suppress these influences as a whole. Social networking websites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have become effective tools for mobilization. Mobile phones with cameras and SMS have been transformed into weapons of paramount importance, making it difficult to control or arrest the bearers. Instantaneous transmission generates immediate cross-border sympathy with the events, without the delays necessary during uprisings in the past.
5) Regimes fearing contagion in their own countries are forced to announce measures and reforms in order to contain popular anger and avoid similar scenarios.
6) The popular sense of humor becomes an empowering political factor that publically deconstructs the “serious” character of the patriarchal and repressive authorities after long being only a private refuge to hide one’s frustrations and fears from the public “reality.”
7) Urbanization proves to be one major factor in the consolidation of large-scale popular (and especially youth) mobilization, in the sense that living in one territorial continuity (which differs from rural or desert conditions) allows contacts to develop, word of events to spread immediately, and direct interaction to take place.
However, the course of events in the near future remains unclear, and a number of questions remain unanswered:
1) Will we witness processes of “rapid” democratic transformation, producing elected authorities according to new electoral laws, governing with a separation of powers and a respect for the constitution and the rule of law? Or are we facing a transitional phase that may drag on, with possible changes in the balance of power, leaving the army or elements of the old political elite to play central roles?
2) What role is to be played in the future by the Muslim Brotherhood, particularly in Egypt, and what will the profound changes underway mean if the Brotherhood gains enough support to provoke anxiety among some of their partners in the popular uprisings, let alone among actors outside the region? Will models inspired by the Turkish experience be adopted, or are we still facing more conservative political cultures?
3) How will the secular parties and the new social movements emerging from the street activism develop alliances and political agendas allowing them to play important roles in the transitional period and prepare for the first free elections?
4) What foreign policy positions will the new and emerging governments adopt? What impact will the new national dynamics have on regional relations and political environments?
We address below the issue of European Union support for the promotion of democracy and the rule of law in Arab countries, especially in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Algeria and Morocco. However, the preceding questions and observations require us to consider the issue squarely within the new emerging context and its serious challenges.
The following thoughts are an attempt to do precisely this. They are divided into three sets of policies: the first is related to institutional capacity building, the second to economic cooperation, and the third to support for civil society causes and initiatives.
Among the most important challenges facing Arab countries today is the reconstruction of democratic institutions able to ensure the separation of powers, the independence of the judiciary and the professionalism of the police and security apparatus.
What the European Union could do in these domains is hence related to:
• Providing expertise to committees drafting new electoral laws in such a way as to establish free elections and a fair representation of political forces in each country. Such laws will strengthen the legitimacy of parliaments, and will give the legislative authority the popular credibility necessary to assert itself as an important state institution, and to play the crucial roles that parliaments should play in democracies.
• Helping to bring together judges and legal advisors to draft new legislation promoting the independence of the judiciary. If confidence between citizens and the legal system is to be rebuilt, it must be shown that this system can be efficient and independent, and that the rule of law can be restored by means of its various bodies.
• Training the police and security corps on the basis of loyalty to state institutions and constitutional political principles. The roles of the police and the security forces in Arab societies must be changed. Old roles were based primarily on loyalty to regimes and the enforcement of authoritarian policies, culture and practices. Changing this security-services culture and developing human rights education programs within the police and security academies—as well as creating legal consequences for violations of these rights—would help citizens overcome their old perceptions of the police and security apparatus, and would force the apparatus itself to respect laws and rights in its operations.
These three things are critical: restoring confidence in the parliament as a representative political and legislative body, in the judiciary as an independent institution protecting the rule of law, and in the police and security forces as defenders of the state, the public order and the stability of the society. Taken together, they would lead to a radical change in the public’s understanding of politics, and of the roles of the various authorities as they deal with or represent citizens. Accomplishing these goals would also influence the work of the executive authorities, making them accountable to parliaments and creating a more balanced relationship between the branches of power.
Economic cooperation and transparency
In societies characterized by young populations, and by a need to create hundreds of thousands of new jobs every year in order to absorb new workforce entrants, efforts to reshape economic policies and restructure the various economic sectors are of extreme importance. For this reason, the development of new frameworks for economic cooperation with public and private sector organizations should be a priority, not only for the direct benefits that such cooperation would provide, but also in the interest of long-run stability and prosperity in the societies concerned.
Incentives, joint projects, vocational training and specialized initiatives could be designed, and investments developing the national economies and enlarging their social bases could be made. This would diminish immigration pressures, social tensions and poverty, and would allow for the emergence of more dynamic economic sectors.
Geographic decentralization of projects in the “recipient countries” (in order to create job opportunities in different cities and regions), diversification of activities across a number of productive sectors, and above all transparency and corporate social responsibility should replace old practices, in which short-term profits motivated many of the economic actors on both sides of the mediterranean, allowing corruption and clientelism to reduce the positive impact of projects and funds.
Economic cooperation goes beyond direct (or short-term) impact. It is related to security, immigration, ethics and long-term partnerships that can encourage creativity, human development and trust.
Monitoring such cooperative frameworks on both sides would lead to a more efficient management of resources, and to a culture of social responsibility that is highly needed in this new chapter of regional relationships.
Civil society, women’s rights and human rights monitoring
The Arab spring has been characterized by the active participation of women and civil society actors. It is thus important to support these actors, and to establish – in cooperation with them – oversight bodies that can monitor, promote and respect democratic and human rights values and principles. To this end, the European Union could develop programs to strengthen:
• Civil society institutions, through training programs and the sharing of expertise in lobbying, campaigning and alliance-building in defense of local, professional or national interests. This is of crucial importance in a phase during which new laws and constitutional amendments will be written and passed, and elections will be taking place.
• Women’s rights, through helping women’s movements (and other movements working on gender issues) to develop agendas for reforms preventing the exclusion or marginalization of women. Such agendas would be in line with the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) agreement that most Arab countries have signed (but none has fully respected), and would include mechanisms for follow-up and evaluation. The Arab spring is about justice, freedom and dignity, and women should not be forgotten in the emerging political processes.
• Monitoring of democracy and human rights, through supporting the establishment of independent bodies, as well as agreements between state and civil society actors to make annual measurements or evaluations of public discourses and practices, laws, media programming, security services activities, women’s participation, and other societal indicators. These oversight bodies could play important roles in monitoring and then recommending policies and measures in the post-revolutionary or post-reform transitional phases.
Finally, the European Union should engage in significant efforts aimed at supporting the democratic transitions and avoiding any “setbacks” during transitional phases. The EU and the Arab countries – especially those of North Africa – should seize the historical opportunity now presented to build new partnerships, establish confidence, and do away with clichés and misperceptions within their societies. This would open the way for more effective cooperation on many levels, and would gradually eliminate the bitterness that has long characterized relationships between the various capitals within this vital space that is the Mediterranean basin and its diverse geopolitical units.
To read the full publication on Europe and North Africa by the Bertlesmann foundation, in which the text was published, click here.