New Forms of Democratic Citizenship in MENA


The Arab Spring opened a window of opportunity to revise democracy support in a direction that better reflects local interpretations of citizenship and rights, but external actors have yet to take full advantage of that opening, according to a new analysis.

The Arab Spring led the EU and United States to try to reshape democracy support in the Middle East and North Africa toward more local “ownership” of reform, argue analysts Emiliano Alessandri, Rosa Balfour, Nicolas Bouchet, and Richard Youngs. But this led to little innovation in the face of barriers to political change and shifting priorities. With prospects of democracy receding in many countries, the EU and United States must pay more attention to how local people see rights and citizenship — even if sensitive issues emerge. Support should aim for genuine policy dialogue on different concepts of democratic citizenship, using these as entry points for cooperation where high-level change is blocked, they write in a new Policy Brief for the German Marshall Fund:

Despite the rhetoric, democracy was in fact not the top U.S. priority even at the height of the uprisings or in the initial transition period, and the engagement was uneven. There was genuine diplomatic support and democracy assistance for Egypt and Tunisia, and an unprecedented attempt to work with elected Islamists that faded in Egypt as disillusion with the Muslim Brotherhood grew. Democracy NGOs such as the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), International Republican Institute, and National Democratic Institute were active but faced growing barriers, most notoriously in Egypt. By early 2013, the United States was moving back to prioritizing security and stability, focusing on core issues (the Arab-Israeli peace process, the Iran nuclear deal, terrorism and violent extremism), and restraining itself on democracy. ….

EU delegations have been empowered to reach out to local grassroots organizations. The EU adopted a stronger focus on democracy and human rights through the new Strategic Guidelines on Human Rights of 2012 and two subsequent implementing action plans. The new European Endowment for Democracy also started operating in 2013 and has since funded initiatives across the region.

It is clear that for the foreseeable future, political relations between Egypt, Morocco, and Tunisia, the EU and its member states, and the United States will continue to be driven by security and economic concerns, the analysts conclude:

Yet it is equally clear that citizens’ underlying grievances that ignited the Arab Spring cannot be addressed without political reform in the region. Western policy must not merely continue its democracy support, but make sure that such support is better nuanced and tailored to local needs. EU and U.S. approaches to reform must be more sophisticated in circumventing the many negative developments and obstacles that multiply in today’s MENA region. The unprecedented debates about citizenship in which Egyptians, Moroccans, and Tunisians have taken part since the Arab Spring have opened a window of opportunity to revise democracy support in a direction that better reflects local interpretations of citizenship and rights. External actors have yet to take full advantage of that opening.


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