Roundtables on Civil Society Organisations' Strategic Planning for Democratic Reform

Summary report - Amman, 17-19 June 2007

At the invitation of Al-Kawakibi Democracy Transition Center, and with the partnership of the Council for a Community of Democracies, No Peace Without Justice, the Royal Institute for Inter-Faith Studies, the Arab Institute for Human Rights, and the Moroccan Organization for Human Rights, a regional meeting was held on 17-19 June 2007 in Amman, Jordan, in order to discuss the civil society organizations’ strategies to promote democratic reform.
The three-day meeting, which was attended by 40 participants representing 16 countries, was held under the overall theme of “civil society organizations’ strategic Planning for democratic reform”. Participants engaged in extensive discussions over fundamental issues, and took part in a series of practical activities held on the sidelines of the meeting. They assessed the international and regional initiatives launched to promote democracy in the region, and put forward a number of relevant recommendations in order to achieve the objectives underlying these initiatives.  On the other hand, participants held a series of forums addressing the issues of democracy and human security, development, peace and democratic transition, and freedom of expression and association. They also discussed a number of practical ideas, particularly the establishment of the Arab Citizenship Movement and the founding of Al-Kawakibi Chair for Democratic Transition Studies.
Alongside the representatives of supporting organizations, participants in the meeting included a select group of representatives of NGOs and universities from the Middle-East and North Africa.
Prince Al-Hassan Bin Talal, President of the Board of Trustees of Al-Kawakibi Democracy Transition Center, delivered the opening address where he underlined the necessity to address the question of democratic transition as part of a more comprehensive vision of the issues of human security in the region, particularly those related to sustainable development, establishment of peace, women’s liberation, and cultural promotion.
1 – Roundtables
The meeting was organized in the form of a series of roundtables addressing various issues pertaining to democratic transition, in its local and regional context, for the countries of the region.
1-1 Roundtable: International and Regional Initiatives to Promote Democracy in the Arab Region
Participants expressed their satisfaction with the increasing number of international and regional initiatives launched with a view to promoting democracy in the region. However, they pointed out the lack or absence of coordination among these initiatives, and the scattered efforts of civil society organizations which sometimes split up when dealing with them.
Participants discussed the following initiatives:

  • The Forum for the Future, which will hold its fourth session in Yemen in late 2007;
  • The Arab Democracy Foundation, whose establishment was announced in Doha in late May 2007, with the support of the Qatari Government;
  • The Foundation for the Future, established in the wake of the Second Forum for the Future held in Bahrain in 2006;
  • The Community of Democracies Movement, which will hold its fourth conference in Bamako, Mali, in late 2007.

Participants raised questions concerning the concrete materialization of these initiatives and the effective implementation of the related recommendations, and also concerning the follow-up mechanisms, and the extent to which civil society forces have actually benefited from these initiatives to serve democratic transition in the region.
With regard to the above-mentioned initiatives, participants highlighted the following positive points:

  • The conferences held in recent years on the promotion of democracy have managed to draw attention to the issue of democratic transition in the region.
  • They have also attracted wide participation, on the part of civil society forces, in the processes and dynamics they have created around them, and provided an additional framework to strengthen relations and increase coordination.
  • They have offered the representatives of the Governments of the region and civil society forces an important opportunity for meeting and dialogue, which was unlikely to happen in the past.
  • The initiative of establishing the Arab Democracy Foundation provided a regional mechanism to support civil society organizations in the region with Arab funds and capacities; thus pulling the rug from under the feet of those who were using the question of foreign financing as a stratagem to level attacks against local democratic forces.

On the other hand, participants called attention to the following negative points:

  • Local governments have managed to absorb pressure for democratic liberation, and are endeavoring to empty the above-mentioned conferences and forums of their content.
  • The recommendations emanating from the above-mentioned forums were not effectively materialized, in addition to the persisting absence of “accumulation”, which led civil society organizations to concentrate more on conferences and initiatives at the expense of field action.
  • There is little or no coordination between these initiatives, which resulted in scattered forces and capacities.

Some of the initiatives have remained dependent on governmental policies in the region and on their specific agendas.
Participants put forward the following recommendations to strengthen the impact of these initiatives on the Arab democratic promotion movement:

  • The necessity to focus on specific issues and on few and applicable recommendations whose degree of implementation can be measured.
  • The necessity to coordinate the various initiatives in order to ensure “accumulation” and avoid duplication. In this context, a recommendation was made for preparing a strategic document to be established by civil society components, which would serve as a framework for the above-mentioned initiatives, and would set priorities and define the follow-up and impact-measuring mechanisms.
  • The necessity to institutionalize the work of the above-mentioned initiatives and to involve civil society forces in these initiatives, in order to make sure action will be sustained and will not be related to circumstantial factors. This can be achieved through establishing permanent secretariats ensuring continuous action and follow-up.
  • The necessity to involve civil society forces in the process of setting funding priorities for democratic promotion projects, and to take into consideration their opinions when assessing the impact of those projects.

1-2 Programmatic Roundtables
Participants took note of the consensus developed in the Middle-East region on democracy as the most appropriate system of government. Political movements, be they Islamist, nationalist or leftist, are now competing, in their literature, to embrace the notion of democracy. Even despotic regimes are now adopting a discourse that extols democracy and considers it as a project for implementation, despite the opportunistic character of this discourse, which does not match reality, and postpones the democracy project to an undefined future.
Despite this verbal consensus and the slight progress achieved in the process of democratic transition in few countries of the region, the list of tasks for establishing democracy in the region is still long, and the gains accomplished so far are not up to the expectations of the peoples of the region, and are much below modern international standards and requirements.
Participants emphasized the importance of connecting the issue of democratic transition to fundamental human rights which are exposed to large-scale violations in the region where political violence, occupation and poverty reign. In this context, participants adopted the idea of establishing a close connection between the issue of democracy and the human security and sustainable development paradigms.
1-2-1 Freedom of Association and Expression: Renewed Risks
Participants reaffirmed the fact that the current priority issue, as regards the promotion of Arab democratic transition, consists in consolidating freedom of association and expression which is facing renewed dangers, as local authorities seek to further suppress this freedom through various means involving essentially legal restraints.
Participants also noted that a number of Arab Governments have, in recent years, adopted constitutional amendments under the pretext of making reforms. Most of the time, however, these amendments constitute a form of backlash. In this context, participants called for re-drafting Arab constitutions toward highlighting rights and liberties, as well as the mechanisms for respecting them, and the way to limit power.
1-2-2 Democracy and Sustainable Development: Part of a whole
Participants underscored the necessity to establish connection between democratic transition and sustainable development. In fact, promoting democracy becomes difficult with the persistence of material, scientific and cultural poverty. It is, therefore, necessary to establish a balanced vision that gives priority to the public interest and rationalizes the use of natural and human resources. Participants also noted that establishing a connection between democracy and development does not mean accepting “market dictatorship”. For true democracy rejects all forms of dictatorship. Participants recommended granting due attention and absolute priority to the issue of corruption. They called for launching educative programs and establishing legal measures to combat corruption in their countries. They also stressed the need to set up civil institutions specialized in the fight against corruption in each country, and to establish regional cooperation networks in this field.
1-2-3 A local practice that does not prevent integration within world movements
Participants recommended an optimum preparation for Arab NGOs participation in the Fourth Ministerial Conference of the Community of Democracies to be held in Mali at the end of this year. They asserted that this participation does not have a circumstantial importance, but is rather an expression of the necessity for the Arab democratic movement to achieve integration within the world movement for freedom; thus promoting relations of solidarity and cooperation, and benefiting from other experiences in solving common issues.
While it is important to emphasize local contexts when addressing the issue of democracy in the Middle East and North Africa, it is nonetheless necessary to pay due attention to the common issues posed at the international level. In this context, participants raised a number of common issues with Africa, including women’s human rights, conflicts and wars, freedom of expression, promoting democratic experiences, and poverty eradication.
1-2-4 Peace, security and democracy
Participants stressed the connection between peace and democracy. In fact, the persistence of occupation and violence, in its various forms, does not facilitate the process of democratic transition. This connection, however, is not conditioned. It is true that the establishment of democracy does facilitate the establishment of peace, but the absence of democracy does not justify the persistence of occupation in the region, nor waging wars in it. Democracy in the region must be connected with a strategy for establishing just peace, as well as with the acceptance of the other, and the elimination of all forms of discrimination based on religion, race or gender.
Terrorism is indeed a real scourge that threatens the countries and peoples of the region. However, the war on terrorism has now become one of the aspects of a savage modern globalization that has contributed to the globalization of terrorism, and impeded the promotion of liberties. Governments are now using this phenomenon as a pretext to impose a declared or undeclared state of emergency. In this respect, participants emphasized the necessity to adopt comprehensive strategies for the fight against terrorism, by tackling its root causes, and by adopting political, cultural and educational means, in addition to the security means.
It is the fight against terrorism, which requires the establishment of democracy, and not the other way around. In this context, participants expressed their willingness to contribute to such an approach, and recommended the establishment of early warning centers to monitor the phenomena of political violence in all its forms. Currently, 30% of the world’s political violence is practiced in the Arab region, which accounts for only 6% of the world’s population.
1-2-5 Free elections and the election culture
Participants stressed the importance of generalizing free elections, as a means to materialize the citizens’ will regard issues of public concern. In light of the latest developments in the region, participants called on regional and international forces to respect the results of elections, no matter who wins these elections. They also recommended generalizing electoral education programs, providing training in election monitoring, and instilling the election culture.
Participants asserted that one of the fundamental elements to judge the democratic nature of any political system is whether it offers the possibility for power alternation through free elections. They pointed out, in this regard, that the striking majority of Arab States do not provide for this possibility.
1-2-6 The necessity to benefit from the media revolution
The Arab democratic movement is benefiting from the media revolution in a limited way. In this context, participants pointed out that Arab democrats do not have the necessary expertise to benefit from the mass media, and that there are technical and political obstacles which prevent them from developing their manner of dealing with the media, the most important of which being the limited ability to have access to truthful information, the limited and belated use of available information, and the lack of competence in this field. Moreover, democratic parties and organizations do not include media departments, and their leaders and cadres are not qualified in terms of media discourse techniques. In this regard, participants stressed the need for democratic forces in the region to make up for these shortcomings and to give priority to the consolidation of their informational capacities in a professional and technical way; thus expanding their capacity to influence the public and events.
2 – Practical suggestions to be followed up
To go beyond mere descriptions and abstract recommendations, participants discussed a number of practical programs, and exchanged viewpoints concerning their implementation.
2.1. Calling for establishing a large movement for citizenship 
A call was launched for establishing the Arab democratic trend as a social movement that transcends sector-based and ideological divisions, and seeks to bring together divided parties, as part of a collective building process that benefits from the small gains accomplished here and there.
To achieve this objective, a plan of action was proposed, involving the implementation of the following steps:

  • An alliance shall be established, involving organizations, political parties and personalities from the region, to work for building an Arab democratic movement.
  • This alliance shall set up a charter for Arab democratic action, which will serve as a common ground binding on all signatories. The charter shall set forth the rules and values of democratic action, and define a set of common objectives to be implemented.
  • The alliance shall establish a Logo for the Arab movement for citizenship.
  • A large campaign shall be launched, among wide segments of the active forces of society, for signing the charter and adopting the Logo.
  • A conference shall be organized every other year to address issues pertaining to the organization and growth of the movement.

It is important to point out that such an action should not, however, target only the classical actors, such as NGOs and political parties; it should rather cover wider segments, including intellectuals, artists, local and national authorities, and traditional civil, religious and social institutions. Their position regarding their primordial causes should be enhanced, even though they are involved essentially in local, narrow issues.
Participants decided to call for convening a strategic planning meeting to be held in November 2007 in Morocco, in order to establish a program of action for the building of the movement.
2.2. Education for Democracy: Announcing the establishment of Al-Kawakibi Chair for Democratic Transition Studies.
As part of education for democracy, the establishment of Al-Kawakibi Chair for Democratic Transition Studies was announced. A number of representatives of civil society organizations and universities participating in the meeting signed a preliminary agreement in this regard.
Al-Kawakibi Democracy Transition Center has already undertaken a preparatory work to provide an institutionalized education space in order to facilitate the transfer and management of knowledge of democratic transition stages. The Chair aims at creating an elite of actors specialized in democratic transition, through providing learning material in various fields related to democratic transition, in such a way as to reflect the dialectical relationship between democracy, human rights, development and peace.
The proposed education methodology is essentially based on transferring international expertise in the field of democratic transition, relying on an international faculty from different continents, in addition to taking direct cognizance of the expertise of the Chair’s guests, including experts and prominent figures from civil society and political bodies.
Participants welcomed the establishment of the Chair, and expressed their willingness to contribute to implementing its future programs.
3 – Launching theZaytuna (Olive Tree) Silver Award for Excellence in Democratic Action”
Launching the “Zaytuna (Olive Tree) Silver Award for Excellence in Democratic Action” was one of the important events of the meeting. This unique initiative constitutes a moral recognition of the role assumed by Arab personalities and institutions in the dissemination of democracy, while enduring various forms of pressure and dangers, and offering precious sacrifices.
This act of honoring is indeed a token of recognition for those who are serving their people’s causes, and a contribution to highlighting models of commitment to the cause of democracy vis-à-vis public opinion, and countering the state of neglect or discrediting to which they are exposed as part of plans established by Arab authoritarian institutions.
HRH Prince Al-Hassan Bin Talal, President of the Board of Trustees of Al-Kawakibi Democracy Transition Center, awarded the Prize to a number of personalities and institutions. Of these, particular mention can be made of Dr. Saad-Eddin Ibrahim, President of Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies from Egypt, Dr. Tayeb Baccouche, President of the Arab Institute for Human Rights from Tunisia, Mrs. Amina Bouayach, President of the Moroccan Organization for Human Rights from Morocco, Mr. Ali Djerri, Chairman of the Board of Al-Khabar newspaper from Algeria, Mr. Ezz-Eddin Asbahi, President of Taiz-based Human Rights Information and Training Center from Yemen, and Ms. Emma Bonino, prominent human rights activist and Minister in the current Italian Government. A committee will be set up to select each year candidates for the prize.