Creating the means for government and civic groups to communicate and cooperate is essential to ensuring that good ideas are scalable across societies and durable over time, says the Final Report of the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Strategy Task Force, launched today. The region’s governments should create avenues for soliciting citizen input, whether in the form of public hearings, town hall meetings, or via social media, it notes, citing the case of how civic groups thwarted conflict in Tunisia:
The struggle for democracy and fundamental rights has come to a standstill or suffered setbacks in many Arab countries. But since its 2011 revolution, Tunisia has seen a democratic transition supported by a vibrant civic sector. While still fragile, the case of Tunisia demonstrates how active cooperation among civic groups can help secure peaceful political progress, even in the face of terrorist violence. An essential factor for the success of Tunisia’s 2014 elections was the effort made by the country’s National Dialogue Quartet. The Quartet was formed in the summer of 2013, when the democratization process was in danger of collapsing as a result of political assassinations and widespread social unrest. It established an alternative, peaceful political process at a time when the country was on the brink of civil war.
The region’s positive “green shoots” of change are not limited to the wealthy countries of the Gulf, the report adds:
The civic energy displayed by citizens is ever more evident in places such as Tunisia, Egypt, and Jordan, even if there is less government money—or, in some cases, little political will—to support it. Tunisia has a vibrant civic space that includes independent trade unions, a newly free press, and respected women’s organizations. As the 2015 award of the Nobel Peace Prize to four Tunisian civic groups attests, its civil society played a decisive role in keeping Tunisia’s transition to democracy peaceful and on track. Women’s groups also thwarted attempts by Salafists to impose more conservative religious restrictions across society, such as legally mandating the wearing of the hijab.
Having identified governance, rather than borders, as the more significant problem in the region, it is important to understand why states that seemed so stable for so long collapsed with such speed in 2011, the report notes:
While the events of the Arab Spring may have seemed sudden, in reality, the region’s governance problems built up over decades, and were the result of a social contract that did not evolve along with the demands of a changing world. Throughout the twentieth century, this social contract took on different forms in different countries in the region, and blended sources of legitimacy that the West might find unfamiliar. In the absence of robust democracies, leaders in the Middle East drew their authority from other sources, often in combination. Some relied upon monarchical legitimacy or traditions of tribal leadership. Others found support through nationalism or revolutionary credentials.
The report’s working group members included Laith Kubba – Senior Director for Middle East and North Africa, National Endowment for Democracy; Leslie Campbell – Senior Associate; Regional Director for Middle East and North Africa, National Democratic Institute; Larry Diamond – Senior Fellow, Hoover Institution, Stanford University; and Amy Hawthorne – Deputy Director for Research, Project on Middle East Democracy.