Regional Seminar on «Freedom of Association and Participation. The Role of Civil Society in the Democratic Transition», Tunis, July 8-10, 2011
The Round Tables, conceived as spaces of debate on the prevailing situation and on the prospects, involved the points of view of representatives of two countries that underwent a revolutionary change (Tunisia et Egypt) and two that did not.
The First Round Table: Freedom of Association and of Expression.
“In Tunisia, a substantial change of the law on freedom of association is undergoing. The new law safeguarding freedom of association will draw its inspiration from UN Convention. It will come into force before the October 23rd elections”. Mr. Mokhtar Trifi, President of the Tunisian League for Human Rights.
« The annual Report of the Euro-Mediterranean Network for Human Rights on freedom of association in the Mediterranean region, although focusing on the recent past, shows the manifold interferences of political and administrative authorities with regard to the associations’ free activities, also in traditionally liberal-considered countries such as Morocco and Palestine. It is a trend also involving Israel, where the Knesset passed laws jeopardizing freedom of association. We hope that the change actually underway, such as the one in Tunisia, may positively impact on the freedom of association and of expression ». Mr. Thibaut Guillet, among the authors of the Report of the Euro-Mediterranean Network for Human Rights on freedom of association in the Mediterranean region.
« Our transitional path is characterized by « a war » between the revolutionary forces, striving to establish an anti-corruption and pro-transparency democratic process, and the anti-revolutionary forces persisting in trying to remain in power and to protect their interests and advantages (…). Such characteristic spreads over to the media field and « the war » continues between what is ancient and what is new, between traditional media and alternative media; the civic media, played a crucial role in triggering off the revolution and in this transitional process because the traditional media is not up to playing directly a positive role. In the field, the alternative civic media encounters many obstacles and is subjected to oppression. Notwithstanding the different « inconveniences », the alternative civic media achieved some success and gained ground. Information gets through and extends to the Internet so reaching a great many citizens, in addition to being also reported and utilized by the traditional media. Media pluralism and the existence of an alternative media are the only guarantee to achieve democratic institutions in Tunisia. The actual challenge is that of the Constituency’s upcoming elections. In lack of media pluralism they will be inevitably skewed as the connection between the latter a free media is evident. ». Mrs Sihem Bensedrine, President of the National Council for Freedoms in Tunisia.
« In Egypt a new law on the associations does not yet exist. But if previously all radio and television frequencies belonged to the government, now nobody has yet had the courage to start an independent television or radio channel. We should not wait for the legislative to intervene, we, ourselves, should pursue change”. Mr. Wael Abbas, journalist, blogger and Human Rights activist, Egypt.
« A word to my Tunisian friends: you have stirred up a dream for today’s in charge to pursue. In Morocco the struggle of parts of civil society, including the right movement in collaboration with civil and civic groups was rewarded with many accomplishments. Within the field of rights, it achieved the freeing of many political prisoners, the closing down of previously unknown prisons, and the coming about of the « Equality and reconciliation » initiative. As to women rights the movement was active and strong and played a crucial role in the preparation of a progressive Moudawana, favouring the Moroccan family. Within sex equality, the transverse principle of equality was established in many articles of the Moroccan Constitution, and it is part of the Commission of “equal opportunity and equality” ». Presently, the Moroccan civil society draws from the Tunisian and Egyptian models to raise the standard of the claims platform. The February 20 movement is proof of this, and the slogans rising from the streets match those of these two countries. In reaction to this protest movement, the government has readily aligned with the streets claims establishing a consultative Commission to reform the Constitution and have a referendum on July the 3rd. For the first time ever civil society actually takes part to the drafting of the Constitution. As to its main principles, the draft includes the participative democracy principle and the right of citizens to petition for reforms, namely laws amendments”. Mr. Abderrahim Chaid, Forum of Alternatives, Morocco.
« Which is the role of civil society in Syria in the ongoing change? Five typologies of associations and organizations are presently active in Syria. Associations working within the human rights field classified as opposing the dictatorship, a situation leading to another type of « danger »: the confusion between what is political and what is associative. This confusion has determined, on one hand, that political conflicts affect the associative movement and largely explain the existence of many associations affiliated to political parties, on the other hand, the regime’s increased oppression of such associations. Associations working in the fields of environment, women’s rights etc., were created starting from 2005 when Bachar allowed for some openness. The existence of this type of associations is connected to the regime in power or to persons in power. The non-governmental organizations, known as «Congos » are « Syrian associations for rural development» launched six years ago by the Syrian First Lady under the form of 1st association, then 2nd association. Later on, she had them merged into what we called « Al Amana Assouria lettanmia ». This organism is well ingrained in the Syrian society and had a positive impact on development and culture. The AL BOSTANE Association addresses the sick and the impoverished disabled throughout Syria and is connected to Ibrahim Al Makhtouf. Many among you know this man and of his power in Syria. The governmental trade unions are part of the Syrian associative fabric whether they want or not, although it is trade unions defending the rights of their members vis-à-vis the Government or the governmental policy towards their members. They are rather politicized trade unions, not civic or social. Charity associations are 652 in Syria. Despite their great number, they have a poor impact on the field, as they are rather obsequious to the regime and stand as its political showcase. When the protest movement was triggered off in Syria, it was brought about by young activists of the associative movement, namely from culture and human rights. As the movement went along, and expanded geographically, the need for mobilization in the public streets and squares also increased, hence the creation of specific committees, of coordination action groups and of the «Union of Syrian Coordination for the Revolution». Presently, the Syrian civil society problems concern the absence of trustworthy traditional “associations”. Hence, an inverted process: we mobilize, we fight and afterwards we organize and conceptualize. Moreover, the protest/revolutionary movement takes a “sub-national” direction, non civic, taking into consideration the geographical factor as well as the different locally democratic «structures» at the Turkish and the Iraqi borders. Various commissions were established (media, awareness-raising and organization, laws and new bills discussion, etc.). The Monitoring and HAKAIK Investigation Commission recently created already denounces some 1800 suffering, 17000 injured, and more than 30000 imprisoned. Furthermore, a most recent Commission was created to deny the regime’s announced reform project and to testify that it is rather a reform kit (elections, political parties …) aiming at curbing the revolution and at look after the regime’s image rather than actual «changes».
“The study carried out by the Arab Network on civil society in seven countries presents the main challenges facing these countries’ civil society when it tries to play a driving role in the democratic transition. Among such challenges it is important to underline the need to re-identify the notion of «civil society», presently required facing the “Arab revolutions”. This new identification leads us to wonder if political parties are part of civil society since, contrary to associations, they try to attain power. All Arab regimes have tried to contain the extending of the intervention domain of associations, even when allowing for their existence, and in so doing mirroring the non-modernist, non-civic, non- nationalist, oppressing and authoritative nature of these regimes. Another challenge is that of independence in decision-making and the attempt to survive within a legal framework proclaiming that associations are favourable to rather be dependent. Access to information sources is also a challenge as well as owning them in preparation to elaborate national strategies (health care and public water facilities for example). This information has long been surrounded by a great secrecy, or by data and statistics falsification. Again the challenge of «discrimination» utilized by regimes to control and weaken these organisms. The difficulty in finding the right balance between politics and the members of these organisms/associations. Furthermore there are challenges of a subjective nature pertaining to civil society itself. These are: the lack of democracy within associations, the failure in strengthening capacities and the lack of professionalism. Each time the Arab civil society tries to establish solidarity and exchange external relations with its regional, Mediterranean or International counterparts in network contexts, it faces the regimes’ confrontations. Nonetheless, it has capitalized a significant experience and various production, awarding it « a history » and its particular path. It has gained a important capital made of reflections and « conceptualizations » (Doha and Alexandria Papers), it has experienced exchange, support and solidarity forms with the Western civil society that are increasingly developing. The «freeing » of media, the freedom of expression are in favour of civil society, promote its acknowledgement, and disseminate its role and its different achievements. The «Arab revolutions» have strengthened the role of civil society in defending economic and civic rights » Mr. Salaheddine Jourchi, Presentation of the main results of a comparative study (seven countries) within the framework of legal environment.
Second Round Table : Content, means and forms of the participation of civil society to the democratic transition.
« Prior to the revolution we were part of a small minority of associations that have resisted the dictatorship within an association network. Associations are now faced with major challenges because, as the resistance period is ended, they have now to address problems arising from the present circumstances. Networking with other associations we have prepared a roadmap to tackle four main aspects of the revolution, namely the transitional justice, the issue of information, and of media, the issue of election (we are part of a main “construction site” acting as an election observatory) and the fight against corruption ». Mrs Radhia Bel Haj Zekri, President of the Tunisian Women Association for Research and Development (AFTURD).
«The democratic transition in Tunisia and in Egypt presents similarities with the European one of 1989. However, in Egypt the revolution has widened the platform of protagonists, but it also has complicated the necessary synthesis among impulses. Given the Egyptian society urge towards islamization and the consequent risk of women rights regression, it is crucial that all associations defending rights come together over this priority ». Mr. Mustafa Yousry, Civil Society Project Coordinator, Egypt.
«« In analyzing the analogies in the democratic transition of Spain and that of the Arab countries, I want to mention the freedom of association and of expression, the new electoral laws, the constitutional amendments, that are actual common ground between the post-Franco Spain and the Tunisian and Egyptian situations. However, I have some concerns that the Western world, as it has done in other occasions, does not acknowledge these analogies, also neglecting the impulse towards freedom and democracy expressed by the Arab world». Mr. Ivan Martin, Professor, University of Complutense, Madrid.
« The study on the role civil societies in the Maghreb Countries that we carried out revealed the influencing role of faith-based associations especially in Morocco, Mauritania and in Tunisia. It is more difficult gain a regional dimension with regard to socio-economic and human rights associations. I fear the western model of associationism may lead to the exclusion of certain subjects». Mr. Ammar Djeffal, Director of the «Maghrebine Studies » Laboratory, University of Algiers.
«In the light of the Arab Spring, the most important element to underline is the appeal of young Palestinians to a stronger political and social unity in their country. This Seminar strengthens the bond between Palestinians and the Euro-Mediterranean civil society». Mr. Allam Jarrar, Palestinian NGO Network, Occupied Palestinian Territories. .
Third Round Table: The needs of civil society to promote the democratic transition and the Euromed’s different forms of support to the democratic processes.
“UGTT, as representing workers, has a specificity within civil society. Democracy in Tunisia is still very fragile and youngsters need to become the guarantors of development and participative democracy in view of a greater social justice. The EU is a political and economic partner that according to its social model may support the Tunisian social model, though retaining its specificities. The trade union leadership supports the youngsters and counts on them to contribute to the democratic transition. This is a task we share with other organizations of civil society, though retaining that UGTT is the main economic and social partner ». Mr. Mohamed S’himi, UGTT Deputy General Secretary.
« I would like to draw your attention on the future of the wide associative world in Tunisia. Actually many of the newly founded associations are not free, nor independent. We have to strive to reclaim them so that they can offer their contribution to the democratic transition”. Mr. Zyed Krichen, Journalist, Tunisia.
“What role for the European Union, for its institutions and its mechanisms vis-à-vis the radical change of revolutions in the Arab world? The European policy, more so with the Union for the Mediterranean, vis-à-vis terrorism and migration issues has privileged stability. Today, given the grave economic crisis, it doubts itself. And yet, the ongoing changes in the Arab world require very different policies and particularly new methodologies. It is inconceivable that within this new scenario decisions are solely taken in Brussels”. Mrs Giovanna Tanzarella, Representative of the Seydoux Foundation, France.
“Regarding the relation between change and reforms my concern is that if changes are not followed through, regimes may possibly resume power. Both political reform and social justice must be achieved at the same time. In this new framework, the European Union should revise the priorities of the National Action Plans in consultation with civil societies, institutionalizing this relation, whereas the Union for the Mediterranean should be part of the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership framework”. Mr. Ziad Abdel Samad, Director of the Arab NGO Network for Development (ANND), Lebanon.
« It is with great satisfaction that I greet the establishment of the Euro-Mediterranean Social Forum whose early position papers mention shared social and trade union rights. The creation of the Forum does not signify a marginalization of civil society associations. Actually, it is necessary to create new synergies between trade union organizations and civil society associations. Such synergy is more than ever urgent as revolutions did not present just one protagonist capable of replacing the ancient regimes. Also it is urgent that the International institutions, starting with the European Union, carry out interventions capable of facing the actual social emergency especially in Tunisia and in Egypt. Also it is important that associations of the South start funding themselves». Mr. Mustapha Tlili, Director of the Regional Office for the Arab Countries of the International Trade Union Confederation.
“A democratization process is also undergoing in Jordan. Presently, the associations count up to some 3000. These last months, many protests, marches and strikes were organized in the Country. They were events bordering lawfulness. However, society’s movements presented un great gap. Recently even though some legislative and constitutional changes have taken place, an adequate political change is still lacking. Mr. Nizam Assaf, Director of the Amman Center for Human Rights Studies (ACHRS), Jordan.
« Tunisia has to face new challenges in a very short time. Expectations towards Tunisia are high, but the Country may rely on the support of the European Union and certainly of the European Economic and Social Committee. Employers and trade union organizations both have major responsibilities during the transition process. If they start working together with civil society to support the Country’s economic and social development, this process will take place smoothly: a new deal to relaunch and reform Tunisia. In this instance, the European Economic and Social Committee may offer support to civil society organizations in terms of social dialogue, consensus building, and in many other socio-economic issues». Mrs Marie Zvolska, Economic and Social Committee, European Union.