Few would question the importance of civil society’s role in the events of the Arab Spring, especially in Tunisia and Egypt. Non-state actors were a catalyst for change, particularly as they were vocal in calling for more democratic participation, for government accountability and for a legal framework ensuring the respect of human rights. However, now that transitions away from authoritarian rule have been set in motion (to different degrees), in many instances Arab civil society faces the difficult task to put forward a new, enduring, development agenda.
This is all but an easy quest, and certainly one that will bring to the fore diverging views on the basic tenets of democracy, government role in economic planning, religious and civil liberties, women’s and minorities’ rights, and much more. Thanks to dialogue in international civil society fora some common ground is emerging: the bottom line for civil society organisations in the Arab world seems to be the need to strive for a new social contract based on the respect of human rights and civil liberties.
According to the Arab NGO Network for Development, ‘’the region faces now a historical chance to reinstate the concepts of the state and its relations with governance and the citizen’’. If such questioning of the current relationship between the state and the individuals gains ground, the legacy of the Arab Spring could indeed be a positive one. A recent conference held in Beirut reasserted this. The event, organised by the Arab NGO Network for Development and the EUROMED Civil Society consortium, brought together a number of Arab CSOs and Brussels-based stakeholders. Arab civil society representatives were stressing the importance of laying the foundations for a new paradigm, a process entailing the promotion of social cohesion. While civil society organisations know that this will not be a walk in the park, they place many hopes on the gradual construction of a cohesive society built around democratic principles. This would enhance the mutual trust of individuals and groups, a factor that glues society together – also commonly referred to as “social capital”.
After decades of authoritarian rule, the emerging debate on state-society relations and constitutional reforms is thus a golden opportunity to propose a new development paradigm. However, this will require changes going beyond the ABC of democratic transitions, such as the formal establishment of new constitutional settings, a clear separation of powers, a system of checks and balances, and the like.
A recurrent argument of South Mediterranean CSOs is that the persistence of the current cleavage between non-state and state actors poses serious threats to development prospects in more than one Arab country. In reaction to this, the EU recently adopted a Civil Society Facility to support its Southern Neighbourhood, and allocated 11 million EUR for the period 2011-2013 (on top of other instruments already financing civil society organisations in the region, such as the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights, the Instrument for Stability, and others). The rationale behind the initiative is to support a civil society in construction, and enable it to engage in greater dialogue with local governments. If trade unions, youth movements, women groups and the other non-state actors lack the support of government actors (and religious milieus), their efforts will be in vain. A recent report of the EU Delegation to Tunisia confirmed this and the need for support by highlighting the necessity of deeper links between the civil society and the state apparatus, and the damages their parallel agendas cause to collective ambitions.
For the EU, the Civil Society Facility is a way to focus funding on giving continuity to dialogue between civil society and governments, as well as on strengthening CSOs themselves. While Southern Mediterranean NGOs largely welcome the principle of the Facility, they must be aware of the scale of the challenges ahead: instilling the idea of a new social contract to become the future development paradigm entails a change that is first and foremost of a cultural nature. From a European perspective, the unfolding debate on constitutional reforms in countries like Tunisia and Egypt might be an initial test to a renewed state-citizens relationship.
Nicola Tissi is Research Assistant at ECDPM’s Africa’s Change Dynamics Programme.
This blog post features the author’s personal views and does not represent the view of ECDPM.