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Networks and an Arab Summer

Spring / Summer 2011 Features

Networks and an Arab Summer

The future of democracy in the Middle East and North Africa is with the unstructured, civic action networks that started ‘the troubles’ in the first place. Now they must become more sophisticated, and ‘up’ their game

The Arab Spring continues. In quick succession, the governments of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Syria have faced public demonstrations of varying magnitude and intensity. They have responded to this largely democratic impulse with a range of reactions, ranging from speedy resignations to violent crackdowns and, in some cases, concessions to the protesters – either in the form of support for the right to free expression or in new allotments of public funds to social services and public welfare programmes.

As distinct as are the histories, cultures and economic positions of each of the nations caught up in this remarkable wave of activism and resistance, the unifying elements that have engendered the metaphor of an ‘Arab Spring’ are simple and compelling: a demand for social justice, including free expression; and demands for accountable government, employment opportunities and improved public services. Beyond these ‘asks,’ the demonstrators appear to be driven by a collective perception that most of their governing regimes are, at best, stale anachronisms – governments that, for too long, have been unwilling to respond to generational, social change. Although the popular transformations surfaced with unpredictable speed and geographic breadth, their intensity suggests levels of dissatisfaction and oppression that have been latent for some time in the hearts and minds of citizens in the Arab world – and, arguably, in Iran, whose Green Revolution has been characterized by some as a precursor to the broader movement.

The live question in the mind of every observer is: what now? One of the crucial next steps in these transformations will be the consolidation and empowerment of Arab civil society – such that it may credibly become a driving force behind the realization of the reforms demanded by the protesters. In particular, such a consolidated and empowered Arab civil society would play a leading role in proposing, deliberating and affirming new, accountable institutions and transparent processes. Two things are essential for this to happen. First, there is an urgent need for civil society representatives in the established democracies to engage in focussed introspection about the shortcomings of their own systems, and in active, sustained outreach to counterparts in the transitional democracies. Second, there is a need for the development of an informal, ‘demand-based’ mechanism to allow for the transfer of democratic expertise between established and transitional democratic players at the level of civil society – a mechanism that would be based on the very same virtual social networks that were the force behind the breadth and intensity of the Arab demonstrations in the first place.

Two principal reasons explain why the timing is arguably right for such engagement at the level of civil society. First, after decades of centrist, often oppressive rule, civil society in the Arab world remains underdeveloped. The protesters in the streets largely represent a new generation of young, energetic citizens who – connected across national borders by Facebook, Twitter and other social media – emphatically demand that their voices be heard, and will not hesitate to put themselves in harm’s way to make this point. These same protesters may, however, lack the concrete, practical experience required to reconstruct and reform their respective civil societies into constructive forces that could support the evolution of transitional democracies. In short, the real, imminent danger would be a backsliding into earlier or – worse – more radical species of regime.

Second, the traditional, state-led paths of development assistance continue to suffer from a fragmentation of policy interests that would render a coordinated, multilateral effort challenging at best – if not wholly unsuccessful. The US, the EU and the Arab states themselves are all forced to weigh their respective strategic stakes in the region and historical alliances with individual regimes against the protesters’ demand for change. Specific challenges include the recognition of new regimes or political factions under international law, as well as the mandate and lead among the NATO members in Libya – now deeply engaged in the conflict, but constrained by limited legal and operational reach. In Iraq, which acquired the formal structures of a constitutional democracy and an openly elected parliament half a decade ago, the protests come at a time when the country faces the added dynamics of the pending US military draw-down and – at this time of writing – a still-incomplete executive branch. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Syria are each faced with distinct challenges related to economic status, strategic significance and ethno-political cleavages. In Saudi Arabia, the rapid disintegration of Western support for the Mubarak regime led King Abdullah to reallocate significant public resources to social services and public welfare programmes in an effort to quell – if not pre-empt – the protesters’ demands. The calculus appeared to be that, despite a long-standing alliance with the US, continued Western support for the Saudi regime may not be guaranteed if domestic protests were to gain in breadth and intensity. The protests in Bahrain and Syria, in turn, are situated in the broader context of Sunni-Shia (Arab-Persian) relations, resulting in an added layer of international attention and concern about the state-led crackdowns on protesters. In sum, multinational or bilateral state-led efforts to reconstruct or strengthen civil society in the transitional democracies would be at risk of being undermined both by a fragmentation of policy interests and by perceptions on the ground that such efforts would amount to illegitimate external interference.

In the face of these complexities, why might civil society organizations in developed democracies be well-positioned to offer tangible assistance in the short-term? Three related questions follow: Is democracy really the model sought by the demonstrators? And even if this is the case, would such an initiative not also be dismissed – as suggested above – by key stakeholders as illegitimate outside interference? Further, how could such an initiative work?

It remains too early to view the protest movements as a series of calls for full-fledged democracy, characterized by a robust human rights framework – including the rights of minorities and women – and a reasonable constitutional separation of powers, with appropriate checks and balances. Developments remain in a state of flux in many of the countries involved – particularly on the question of which new model of government might emerge. What has become clearer is that the demonstrators are voicing demands that – roughly speaking – fall onto the two axes developed by American democratic theorist Robert Dahl: they insist on greater inclusiveness of citizens in the processes of governing, and also on an improved ability to contest public decisions and policies. To some, this Dahlian logic may be tenuous, as the risk of backsliding remains high. In post-Mubarak Egypt, for example, recent news points to renewed violence between Copts and Muslims. In Iraq, amid continuing, sporadic attacks on public officials and institutions, accusations prevail that the Sunni community is insufficiently represented in government. Nevertheless, the projects on the streets of the Middle East and North Africa can be said to be of a democratizing nature; that is, the people are seeking to establish or reestablish a form of government that is more responsive to their rights, needs and interests.

There must be recognition that the protests of the Arab Spring are endogenous movements, the legitimacy and future sustainability of which will depend on the fact that they continue to be led by the very citizens of each country. As a general rule, therefore, the less uninvited external intervention – political, military or other – the better. Those who are in the streets, putting their lives at risk as they oppose government oppression, surely will not want to expend this kind of effort – fundamental to the very idea of (re)forming a polity – only to have a new model of government imposed on them from the outside. As such, there must be a shared understanding and appreciation that democracy is not a concept that can be intellectually or historically appropriated – let alone turned into an export product – by the liberal-constitutional West; that is, that whether we speak of ancient Greece, India, Latin America, Europe or North America, democracy has evolved through tumultuous, colourful histories, often associated with periods of violent struggle.

The demand for change that is sweeping across North Africa and the Middle East coincides with the advent of a certain malaise in Western democracies – particularly when it comes to government oversight and regulation, accountability and the capacity to achieve particular socio-economic outcomes. Some recent symptoms have included Enron, and have continued with the US sub-prime loans fiasco; the financial crisis; the Madoff scandal; the environmental impact of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill; the ongoing economic Eurosclerosis (Greece, Ireland, Portugal) and sluggishness of economic recovery; and the current US debt ceiling debate, coupled with continuing doubts about the ability of Western governments to engage constructively with the Middle East and to deal with the problem of Islamic extremism – doubts that have been tempered only feebly by the recent killing of Osama bin Laden. Western democracy may therefore hardly be a model that would readily be seen as a serious threat by the changing Arab world, and it surely is not one that has particularly inspired anyone in recent times. On the other hand, this very set of humbling experiences may lessen the perception that Western models or insights – no matter how well-intentioned – represent an imperialistic menace.

Instead of being pessimistic, then, one might look at current developments as a very unique confluence of opportunities. For citizens of North Africa and the Middle East, there is a historic opportunity to create a better future for themselves – one that they are currently seizing. For citizens of Western democracies, this is an opportunity to take a hard look at failures within their own systems of government, while working to overcome prejudices about, and fears of, the Arab world. To be sure, this second opportunity may prove to be somewhat elusive, because these fears are being perpetuated by the media’s continued focus on the dangers of Islamic terrorism – including fears that the heralded Arab Spring may issue in a new generation of extremists coming to power. Of course, such an outcome would be flatly unacceptable – both on the basis of the demonstrators’ stated aims and in the view of developed democracies. Indeed, its very possibility strengthens the case for civic engagement and the shoring-up of civil societies in the Middle East. And yet, thus far, fears such as these have essentially precluded a constructive dialogue with, or even a deeper understanding of, the generation of Arabs that has taken to the streets of Cairo, Daraa, or Taiz.

So what would the mechanism for proposed transnational civic engagement look like, and how could it work? What would the challenges be? This is not a proposal based on ethnicity, ideology, religion or politics – domestic or international. Rather, it is a process-driven idea that taps into the very mechanism that has been responsible for the acceleration and scope of the protest movements in the first place: the social network. The idea of network governance at the public international level is a compelling one. It was first famously elaborated by Anne-Marie Slaughter in A New World Order (Princeton, 2004), and one of its exemplary applications has been the PHARE programme of the EU, under which officials in EU accession candidates are ‘twinned’ through network mechanisms with officials in EU member states – officials who advise these accession candidates on an ongoing basis on particular administrative and executive issues.

The proposed civic action networks – as they could be called – would be even less structured than the transgovernmental networks implemented by the EU. In its simplest form, the core element of a civic action network would be a voluntarily established, virtual presence of a civil society group, with a particular, verifiable – but geographically unlimited – location and area of knowledge or expertise, openly accessible via electronic media. Once accessed on a demand basis by counterparts in North Africa and the Middle East, this virtual presence becomes a network – a channel for bi-directional information flow. The networks would have the aim of providing or contributing pragmatic solutions to specific problems and challenges related to the consolidation of civil society. In short, they would be issue-specific fora for a robust, results-oriented exchange between civic leaders in established and transitional democracies alike; a voluntary tire-kicking of ideas, as it were.

One of the key features of the civic action network would be that it would operate alongside, but independently, of the nation-state; that is, independently of international or domestic public policy initiatives and formal state action. This degree of independence would: give individual networks the requisite flexibility to respond concretely and pragmatically on an ‘as-needed’ basis, rather than being embedded in a broader public policy framework; allow the networks – as mechanisms that are entirely voluntary on both the supply and demand sides – immediately to dismiss criticisms of uninvited political interference or ‘meddling;’ and, finally, constitute a modality with which the protesters – originally brought together by Facebook and Twitter – are already thoroughly familiar, and the potential effectiveness of which they understand.

Examples of possible civic action networks abound, and may include labour advocacy groups; independent human rights monitors; consumer advocacy groups, including independent financial watchdogs; professional or academic organizations (barristers, scientists, professors, physicians, optometrists); sports clubs; women’s organizations; community foundations; as well as charities and advocacy groups for the disabled and socially disadvantaged. Moreover, it is not assumed that the direction of information flows through these civic action networks would necessarily be one-way – that is, from mature Western democracies to nations in the Middle East and North Africa. It is just as easy to imagine that an Iraqi civil society group would share, through a civic action network, information and new expertise with a group of Egyptian citizens wishing to achieve a similar goal, as it is to conceive of a French or Canadian association providing insights on past experience to a group of Libyan civic organizers.

There are, of course, numerous questions and challenges embedded in the details of this proposal that would need to be identified and addressed. What would be the concrete incentives of individual suppliers of ideas to offer virtual platforms, and for users to actually participate in such networks on an iterative basis? What would be the funding requirements and parameters – if any – and how could funding channels best be protected against allegations of indirect interference or bias? Would it be best for these networks to be established individually? Should they be organized and potentially indexed within broader umbrella categories or even informal organizations that could stipulate guiding principles, or would this stifle their flexibility and independence? And how can we avoid potentially conflicting objectives or aims between these networks and other civil society initiatives – as well as initiatives pursued through more formal domestic or international channels?

The primary incentive for participation in the civic action networks flows from the fact that the Arab world is experiencing an unprecedented opening – a democratic impulse that should be welcomed and supported. More concretely, there would be the simple recognition by a civil society group that it could be of help: “We heard about what you are trying to do, and we know about this stuff. Would you like us to tell you how we solved the issue?” Within this dynamic, the above questions would become eminently soluble by future participants in the civic action networks – particularly as the scope of the overall objective would, almost by definition, allow for sufficient time and conceptual space for solutions to be found.

Precise, detailed and comprehensive ‘prescription’ of processes and outcomes is here subordinated to endogenous social experimentation – including trial-and-error approaches – in the transformation and consolidation of civil societies. This leaves the West with a heightened understanding of the verity that, irrespective of geographic theatre, the path of democracy is always a work in progress, and never an end-state. It demands from the West – humbled by recent shortcomings – an increased sense of civic awareness and responsibility. And in the East, today’s demonstrations – including the violent struggles that continue in Libya and Syria – are only the first open steps toward tomorrow’s achievable change. The challenges are formidable, and most are yet to be identified in concrete terms – let alone be overcome. Indeed, this may be the strongest incentive of all for a coming together: a recognition that much of the hard work remains ahead, and that those who died in the streets, in the pursuit of democratic ideals, should not have died in vain.


Sven Spengemann is the Senior Constitutional Officer of the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) (on sabbatical leave from July to December 2011). The opinions expressed in this article are strictly those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect or correspond to the views, positions or policies of the UN.

(Illustration: Henrik Drescher)

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