POMED Notes: “The Civil Insurgents: The Arab Uprisings and Civil Society”
On Tuesday, the new America Foundation hosted a conference titled “The Civil Insurgents: The Arab Uprisings and Civil Society.” The discussion was focused on the role of civil society in the Arab Spring and in the future of the Arab states. The conference was moderated by Leila Hilal, co-director of the New America Foundation Middle East Task Force. The panelists were Abulnabi Hasan Alkery, President of the Bahrain Transparency Society, Allam Jarrar, steering committee member of the Palestinian NGO Network, Kinda Mohamadieh, programs director at the Arab NGO Network for Development (ANND) and Salah al-Jourchi a Tunisian journalist, writer and human rights activist.
For the full text of the notes, continue reading below or click here for the PDF.
Kinda Mohamadieh began the discussion by talking about the centrality of economic and social transformation during this time and the decay of the ability of self-sustainability in countries, such as with agriculture and services. She noted that the economic crisis reflected a decay of political practices, which were intertwined with political and economic leadership and mentioned that this conversation must be at the center when discussing the revolutions. She continued by saying that he citizen whose rights are being addressed is the core to sustaining democratic practice in the region and achieving the aims of the revolutions. If the U.S. and E.U. want to truly assist in democratic transformation in the region, they must redesign their economic partnerships.
Leila Hilal asked how trade liberalization has helped or harmed the revolutions. Abulnabi Hasan Alekry said that revolutions are not straightforward and mentioned there were disruptions, but what is important is the concept of reform and the change in society as now the masses are obsessed with change. In response to Hilal’s question about the situation in Bahrain, Alekry says the regime wants to paint the opposition in Bahrain as being sectarian, which he does not believe to be true. Rather, Bahrain is a failing state because of the regime and says there is no national identity in the country.
Leila Hilal asked about the question of neo-liberal economics and how it has affected the Arab world and mentioned that Palestine is a major recipient of U.S. economic assistance. Allam Jarar said that despite this economic assistance, Palestine’s economy cannot be improved without lifting Israel’s enclosure policy. Israel, he said, has separated Palestine into three geographical areas and that before the problem of development can be addressed, the issue of personal security, freedom of movement, and collective freedoms must first be addressed. He also noted that the Palestinian question is affecting the whole paradigm in the region and is one of three factors that are aggravating the situation in the region. The other two factors are uneven social-economic policies and the lack of legitimacy of the rulers in the region.
Hilal mentioned that the revolution in Tunisia is clearly defined in the public realm by a lack of economic opportunity and asked if there should be a return to neo-liberalism. Salah al-Jourchi noted that dictatorships can continue to cause havoc even after they are toppled and mentioned this is the case in Tunisia. He said that in some cases Tunisians must rebuild some things from scratch, such as security, but said that freedom of the press and expression has been achieved. When asked to name priorities for civil society reform, he said changing policies of economic growth that are destructive, the government must stick to its promise to hold elections within a year, and civil society must have a key role in developing policies.
Leila Hilal asked what kind of reforms are realistic and mentioned two complicating factors; that the U.S. approaches the region strictly from geo-political interests and the immediacy of economic issues. Kinda Mohamadieh said that they should not lose sight of the longer term transition and stressed that changing economic partnerships are key. She mentioned her opposition to aid agreements for finance shortages, as they would restrict the flexibility of countries to choose different economic options in the future and they would also increase sovereign debt. In response to a query on job creation, Mohamadieh said that the agricultural, industrial, and service sectors need to be rebuilt in the Arab countries instead of focusing on increasing Gross Domestic Product. She noted that there needs to be invest in these sectors and expressed worries that new political actors will only focus on short term economic policies.
During the Q&A session, al-Jourchi maintained that civil society wants to build a balance between governing forces and people. He said that human rights used to be the focus of civil society because of government oppression, but now the interests of civil society have widened. He noted Islamists have succeeded because they have worked at the grassroots level, but believes the revolution in Tunisia was not religious, but rather social and economic. He said the red line is human rights. Mohammdieh noted that the failure of the global economy has an effect everywhere. She advocated for a rethinking of global economic policy and said economic policies need to be addressed with government support, which will allow the private sector to thrive.
Leila Hilal asked about issues of developing the skills of the population for economic prosperity to end the session. Abdulnabi Hasan Alekry said he believed the problem is the focus on a capitalist economic system. Salah al-Jourchi said that many people do not understand what is happening in the Arab world and that there needs to be a change in the economic system starting with a redistribution of power among players in the global arena. When asked if there is a middle ground between socialism and capitalism, Allam Jarrar said old economic growth models had failed and stressed the U.S. must change how it practices its foreign policy based only on geo-political considerations.