POMED Notes: “The Arab Spring: Getting it Right”
On May 3rd, the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID) hosted its 13th Annual Conference entitled, “The Arab Spring: Getting it Right.” The conference featured a series of four panels, and a set of luncheon and concluding keynote addresses.
For full event notes, continue reading below or click here for the PDF.
Panel 1 – Getting it Right: Elements of Successful Democratic Transitions
The first panel of the 13th Annual CSID Conference was moderated by Daniel Brumberg of Georgetown University, and featured remarks by Jason Gluck of the U.S. Institute of Peace, Alfred Stefan of Columbia University, and Laith Kubba of the National Endowment for Democracy.
Gluck opened the discussion by focusing on issues related to constitutionalism. His central argument was that countries such as Egypt, Libya and Tunisia are currently experiencing varying challenges in drafting new constitutions largely because they didn’t seriously ask the question of how they were redrafting the constitution in the first place. He argued that while the process may be further along in Tunisia than elsewhere, the fact that the Constituent Assembly’s committees vote on the basis of majority and not consensus is problematic. Gluck also argued that the constitutional drafting process may matter more in the long run than the substance and content of the constitution itself. He stated that the constitutional drafting process is more of a political than legal exercise, and he asserted that the process has real impact on the real and perceived legitimacy of the outcome. He also argued constitutional drafting provides a short-lived opportunity to strengthen national unity and foster national reconciliation, but in order to achieve this potential a true national dialogue must be convened. Gluck emphasized the guiding principles of inclusion, public participation, and transparency, which ensure that the drafting process will legitimize the resulting constitution. Finally, he noted that too often time frames are based not on how much time is needed to draft the constitution properly, but instead on how quickly it can be done in order to shorten the transition period as much as possible.
Next, Al Stefan reflected on lessons from other democratic transitions which can be applied to the Arab world. He identified four elements which are necessary for successful democratic transitions: sufficient agreement on procedures to produce a new elected government and a constitution; a government formed from the result of a popular vote; independence of each branch of government from other actors (like the military or religious leaders); and authority for the government to generate new policies.
Stefan then focused his attention on Tunisia, which is the only Arab country in transition to have fulfilled these four necessary elements. He asserted that analysts must give special attention to Tunisia as it is overwhelmingly more likely to succeed than others, and given that if it fails it will have a much greater negative multiplier effect in the region than other countries. He noted that Tunisia is unique in that as early as 2003, the various opposition parties were meeting and seeking consensus, and they collectively signed the Call from Tunis document. This is a testament to the maturity of Tunisia’s political society, he said, even before the revolution, whereas Egypt may have a strong civil society, but not necessarily a strong political society. In his estimation civil society is often crucial in deconstructing authoritarian regimes, but political society is often best-suited to build the new government following regime change. Stefan emphasized the importance of the principle of twin tolerations, arguing that religious individuals respect democratic processes, and that no religious figures have any sort of special law-making abilities because all citizens are equal before the law.
Next, Laith Kubba opened his commentary by stating that the Arab Spring isn’t a single event, but rather a change in climate across the region. He then presented a series of indicators which can be used to see to what extent different countries in transition are “getting it right.” These indicators include the stance of the military and security apparatus after regime change, the state of the economy (whether we will see the emergence of more wealth makers or wealth takers and if a small elite exists which siphons off national wealth), and political and cultural formations (i.e. to what extent is politics practiced at local level). Kubba asserted that “we have to start from the reality that there is a serious deficit of democratic culture in Arab countries,” with regards to values and habits alike. He also encouraged observers to follow the developments of new groups of elites, as these elites will ultimately lead the new governments. Finally, he emphasized the need to build the capacity of these new elite to help those in power make the right decisions.
During the question and answer session, Gluck reiterated his position that the process of drafting new constitutions is paramount, and stated it is very important how marginalized parties are incorporated because if the process is fair even the “losers” will give legitimacy to the institutions created by the process. The question of international support for local civil society organizations was raised, to which Kubba responded that international response needs to be reshaped after the uprisings and that an aspect of a democratic culture deficit is the lack of a philanthropic culture. He added that it will be a healthy development when different stakeholders within these societies start funding their local democracy and human rights groups, so they don’t rely so heavily upon international support.
Panel 2- Arab Spring: Regional and Global Impacts
The second panel, chaired by Richard Martin of Emory University, featured remarks from Radwan Ziadeh of the Syrian National Council, Briam Grim of the Pew Research Center, Caryle Murphy of the Woodrow Wilson Center, and Aylin Unver Noi of Gedik University in Turkey.
Radwan Ziadeh began the second panel framing his remarks on how the international community should respond to the crisis in Syria by noting that Syrian activists have begun to compare their situation to that of Bosnia, which experienced years of daily massacres before the international community intervened. He also noted four points of comparison between the two situations: the hesitance of the international community to act; the political opposition’s irrelevance because they have unsuccessfully called for support from the international community; the similarity of the types of crimes; many of the international community actors during Bosnia’s strife remain relevant today (i.e. Annan and Clinton). Ziadeh stated they have been appealing leaders to understand these lessons and not make the same mistakes.
Ziadeh acknowledged the Security Council will be unable to successfully act in Syria because of Russia unchanging position. He also advised the international community not to waste time with initiatives like an observation mission of 300 individuals because it sends the signal that the international community is not taking the daily massacres in Syria seriously. He noted 137 countries agreed on the General Assembly resolution on Syria so this group of support provides legal coverage internationally and he suggested that other nations are waiting for the leadership of the U.S. before taking further action. In response to questions, Ziadeh noted the incongruence between what the international community is calling for (a detailed transition plan) and between the priority of Syrians on the ground (to first stop the killings).
Next, Brian Grim discussed restrictions on religion in the region as part of the context of the Arab Spring and its aftermath. Specifically, the initiative was a non-normative coding project which looked at a “government restrictions index” and a “social hostilities” index. The study found that there are many restrictions on religious practice throughout the MENA region that affect not only Jews and Christians but Muslims as well. The study also noted an increase in government restrictions on religion in the years leading up to the Arab uprisings. Finally, he emphasized the importance of constitutional protections for religious freedom and noted the significant role that anti-blasphemy and defamation laws play in perpetuating religious discrimination.
Caryle Murphy then provided an analysis of the internal and external developments of Saudi Arabia vis-à-vis the uprisings of its Arab neighbors. Externally, Saudi Arabia has lost its long-time ally in Hosni Mubarak and Egypt is now largely embroiled in its domestic struggles. Next she noted that nearby Bahrain continues to be in turmoil and the instability there will only worsen. Murphy then challenged the argument that Saudi Arabia is leading a “counter-revolution” against the uprisings, noting its support for the Syrian uprising (being the first country to remove its ambassador from Damascus) and its support for NATO intervention in Libya, although at the same time it sent troops in an attempt to contain the uprising in Bahrain. In this way, Saudi Arabia has developed more of an activist foreign policy since the uprisings began. Internally, Saudi Arabia has experienced social changes that have been fueled by the proliferation of satellite TV and internet. Murphy emphasized that Saudi youth are questioning political and religious authority and using technology to instigate social change. This was exemplified by a quote from a Saudi youth she interviewed, who stated that “Twitter is our parliament.” Still, she noted that Saudi youth right now are “evolutionary, not revolutionary,” pushing for steps toward reform and not radical change.
Aylin Unver Noi concluded the panel with her remarks on the effects of the Arab uprisings on regional alignments. She noted that since 2002, Turkish foreign policy has shifted focus to the Muslim world while still maintaining ties with the West. She said Turkey’s responses to the uprisings have been inconsistent because the events were unexpected. Noi then presented the possibility of a new regional alignment developing, which she referred to as the “Sunni resistance camp” which includes organizations and nations that are pro-Palestinian, but who also consider parties like the AKP in Turkey and Ennahda in Tunisia as role models. She noted although those who fall into this camp are pro-Palestinian, they are also democratically elected and they prefer cooperation with the West in order to alleviate their economic problems and deliver a better quality of life to their people. Finally, she noted that the Arab Spring has also affected the Kurdish minority in the region and may inspire them to demand for their rights.
Luncheon Keynote: Future Prospects for Islam and Democracy After the Arab Spring: The Example of Tunisia
The luncheon keynote speeches began with Meherzia Laabidi, Vice President of Tunisia’s Constituent Assembly. Her remarks emphasized Tunisia’s long and rich history of a tolerant and open brand of Islam which encouraged scholarship, women’s rights, and innovative progress. She noted that in 2005, a social contract to unite Tunisians was drafted which respected their diversity and acknowledged their Arab Islamic identity while still promoting religious freedom and women’s rights. In reference to Ennahda’s recent decision not to explicitly include a reference to Sharia in the new constitution, she stated that Sharia is already an acknowledged sources of our laws so there is no need to mention it, whereas there is a need to explicitly emphasize the inherent dignity, equality and rights of all, and to implement Islamic virtues in daily life
Laabidi then stated that Tunisians should let their Islamic values meet human values, and she articulated their desire to create a constitution which reflects Tunisia’s reconciliation of its roots and traditional values with its openness to the world and its contributions to human civilization as a whole
Next, Mouldi Riahi, a leader of the Ettakatol party in the National Constituent Assembly, explained the position of Ettakatol and why his party chose to form a coalition government with Ennahda. Riahi mentioned that since its inception almost 20 years ago, Ettakatol has always strived to cooperate with Tunisia’s diverse political actors and strives to play the role of facilitator between different actors. They also participated in the dialogue between various opposition factions in 2005 which formed a strong basis for the cross-party cooperation seen during the transition period. Finally, he affirmed the importance of a strong civil society that monitors the government’s performance and ensures that the government successfully works to fulfill the goals of the revolution
Then Ziad Doulati, another Constituent Assembly member from the Ennahda, emphasized the party’s nature as the first Islamist movement in the Arab world to call for human rights and pluralism since its inception. He also emphasized that after the elections al-Nahda immediately declared the general principles of general amnesty and of transitional justice to help widen the sphere of those participating in building a new Tunisia, which explains why they did not call for revenge and even work to include members of Ben Ali’s cadre in the process. Finally, he emphasized the pressing nature of the poverty and unemployment challenges facing Tunisia
The final member of the Tunisian delegation, Badredine Abdelkafi, the member of the National Constituent Assembly responsible for relations with civil society, emphasized the role of civil society in the transition, including its role in monitoring the performance of the government. He expressed their intention to fully engage with the broadest swath of civil society in order to ensure that the constitution is written in a way that encompasses the broadest spectrum of society
Panel 3- Getting It Right II: Islam and Democratic Transitions
The third conference panel, moderated by Asma Afsaruddin of Indiana University, featured remarks by John Voll of Georgetown University, Jocelyne Cesari of the National Defense University, Jon Kurtz of Mercy Corps, David Warren of the University of Manchester, and Shadi Mokhtari of American University
First, John Voll discussed Islam and democracy in the context of moving beyond old debates. He emphasized that because the realities are dramatically change, the terminology and conceptualizations that we use to describe those realities also must change. Voll noted that with the uprisings there has been the politicization of civil society accompanied by the “populization” of political society, ushering in a new era of politics that features new actors and new tools for mobilization. He noted the significant amount of female participation in recent uprisings, and argued that there lies challenge not in making the revolutions more inclusive of women, but in making the male elite recognize that the revolutions are already gender-inclusive
Next, Jocelyn Cesari argued that Islam has also been redefined as part of state institutions themselves. Cesari asserted that the process of building national identity around Islam is a modern phenomenon, and that even in secular contexts like Tunisia, Islam is still defined as the state religion. She pointed to the phenomenon of clerics becoming civil servants, fatwas becoming elements of political discourse, and the nationalization religious institutions, as evidence that the politicization of Islam was well under way long before Islamist parties began assuming power this year
Following this, John Kurtz presented the results of a Mercy Corps research initiative which examined the drivers and outcomes of youth engagement in the MENA region. The study examined the degree to civic engagement affected youth political engagement, social capital, and employability. The findings indicated that as levels of civic engagement increased, the clearest correlation led to increased political activity. The explanation for this relationship was the idea of political self-efficacy, which supposes that through various forms of civil engagement young people consistently gain confidence in their ability to influence bigger political changes
Then, David Warren presented his paper examining Yusuf Al-Qaradawi’s “fiqh of citizenship” idea, which centered on his interpretation of the drafting of the Constitution of Medina as a model for an Islam-rooted conception of common citizenship based on not on religious identity but rather on geographic proximity. This precedent comes from his interpretation that this Constitution was a purely political arrangement and it referred to both the Muslims and the Jews of Medina as being equal and united. Warren emphasized that a distinction must be made between a state founded upon an Islamic character and a state for Muslims. In addition, he emphasized that one of Qaradawi’s main contributions to this field was his conceptualization of the state of Muslim minorities living in the West as being parallel to the state of non-Muslim minorities living in the Muslim world. This conceptualization equates the two situations and provides a strong justification for the protection of religious minorities’ rights and their equal citizenship.
Finally, Shadi Mokhtari presented her analysis of several human rights trends that have developed since the eruption of the Arab Spring. Since the uprisings, the human rights discourse has evolved in several positive ways. For example, one finds that protest movements across the region invoke the language of human rights, and that many social and economic rights are being conceived of as fundamental human rights. There has also been an “unsettling of the East-West geography of human rights,” upending the traditional West-teaches-the-East model of human rights and opening the space for actors in the region to have agency and to define their human rights agendas themselves. In conclusion, Mokhtari asserted that the Arab uprisings are not only embracing the human rights discourse but are also making fundamental contributions to the overall framework
Panel 4 – Challenges Faced by Specific Countries
The fourth panel, chaired by Abulwahab Alkebsi of the Center for International Private Enterprise, included presentations from Anwar Haddam of the Movement for Liberty and Social Justice (Algeria), Marija Marovic of the Balkan Center for the Middle East, Seth Rau of Tufts University, and Daniel Serwer of Johns Hopkins University
Anwar Haddam noted the upending of the Algeria Spring two decades ago whose achievements were derailed by a military coup, and reminded the audience that although some dictators may have been moved from power, the deeply-rooted systems of dictatorships remain. He focused his analysis on possibilities for reforming the civilian-military relationship, which is something Algeria has struggled with over the last 50 years
Marija Marovic continued in the same vein by discussing the challenge of security sector reform in Egypt. She noted that in many post-revolution settings, the military is reluctant to allow a democratic transition because it seeks to maintain its special privileges and it may fear the possibility of prosecution. Marovic underscored the necessity of civilian rule during transitions and noted that armies are generally inept at ruling a country not only because they are not trained to do so, but because there is no feedback mechanism. She noted that is it difficult to give specific recommendations for successful security sector reform to Egypt right now because the situation is so unpredictable. That said, she emphasized the need for civil and political society actors to build expertise on issues of security sector reform so they can successfully prioritize the steps which need to be taken, particularly because civil society actors will often mistake security sector reform with transitional justice. Finally, she suggested that successful reform is a complex, generational effort and a deeply political process, and that outside actors like the U.S. can play a role in supporting this process by including components in its assistance programs which support reforms
Seth Rau then discussed challenges and opportunities related to Tunisia’s economic reform, emphasizing that economic recovery is the best way to solidify the structure of the state. He noted the need to expand economic development opportunities to regions outside of the capital, and argued that simplifying the process of businesses gaining access to land rights would help fuel economic development in certain regions. Next, he underscored the necessity of greater foreign multinational investment in infrastructure development in the interior regions to fuel economic growth. Rau stated that there is great potential for the expansion of an Internet Communication Technology industry in Tunisia, given that the entire country has 3G wireless service. He also emphasized the positive economic benefits that would come from negotiating with the labor unions more, and from diversifying Tunisia’s trade portfolio (as 75% of its trade is currently with the EU
Finally, Daniel Serwer analyzed some of the ongoing challenges related to stopping the crisis in Syria, and noted the complex nature of any diplomatic decision for intervention. For example, he argued that if the U.S. chooses to militarily intervene in Syria, then the entire U.S. diplomatic process with Iran will disappear overnight, and this could increase the possibility of more wide-scale conflict in the future. Given the complicated regional environment, Serwer argued that this threat of the possible spillover effects is a serious consideration being taken by U.S. policymakers. He also noted that Syria has an extensively developed security state, and dismantling this is a delicate and long-term process that the U.S. would have difficulty performing.
Concluding Keynote Addresses
Three esteemed guests - Ambassador Mohamed Salah Tekaya, Tunisian Ambassador to the United States, Ambassador William Taylor, head of the State Department’s Office of Middle East Transitions, and Carl Gershman, President of the National Endowment for Democracy, were invited to conclude the conference
Ambassador Tekaya emphasized that the prospect for successful democratic transitions in nations like Tunisia are indeed bright, and pointed to several achievements Tunisia has already made. He noted the challenge of meeting the very high expectations of the Tunisian people for rapid reform and the challenge of the sensitivity surrounding the food and energy subsidies that weigh heavily on the national budget. The Ambassador emphasized that Tunisia will mobilize its own resources to the maximum extent, but that it also counts on its friends and partners to support it and contribute to its success during this formative period
Next, Ambassador William Taylor affirmed that the transitions provide the opportunity for true advancement and that the U.S. will continue to provide support to help with their success. He pointed to current short-term initiatives his office has undertaken to support Tunisia, such as a cash transfer and a loan guarantee to help Tunisia balance its budget. The office plans to establish an enterprise fund, funded by the U.S. government but governed by a purely private sector board of both Tunisians and Americans), that will make small investments to encourage entrepreneurship. He also noted that the U.S. is providing some support for Libya’s forthcoming elections next month.
Finally, Carl Gershman noted the extraordinary changes that have taken place, contending that democracy is now the only form of political legitimacy that is acceptable in Arab societies. Gershman emphasized the necessity of Tunisia’s success so that it can provide an example of Arab democracy to the region. He also underscored the importance of U.S. support for negotiation and political settlements to the crisis in Bahrain, and noted that while the most urgent priority in Syria is stopping the killing, work must also continue on finding a political solution to the crisis. Furthermore, he argued that the U.S. should stay the course and continue to provide structured support the transitions in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and elsewhere over the long haul, resisting the tendency to rush in with support only over the short term