The Hudson Institute: Markets, Civil Society, and Democratic Change in the Middle East
October 2, 2013
Civil Society and Reform in the Middle East
Husain Haqqani– Senior Fellow and Director for South & Central Programs, Hudson Institute
Carl Gersham-National Endowment for Democracy
Dr. Ihsan Yilmaz-Associate Professor of Political Science, Fatih University, Istanbul, Turkey
Sam Tadros-Research Fellow, Hudson Institute for Religious Freedom
Tamara Wittes-Director of the Saban Center for Near East Policy, Brookings Institute
It has been almost three years since a wave of social movements, referred to as the “Arab Spring,” struck down entrenched authoritarian regimes throughout the Middle East and North Africa, such as in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. However, since these popular uprisings occurred western nations have been somewhat disappointed by the pace at which Arab countries, particularly Egypt, are managing to adopt democratic and inclusive governments. The recent removal of President Morsi in Egypt- a move today’s speakers at the Hudson Institute referred to as a “coup”-has been particularly disheartening to those who hoped the region would be able to swiftly and stably adopt democratic government and values. In order to address these concerns the Hudson Institute assembled a panel of varied experts to discuss why the transition process is taking as long as it is, focusing on the important role that civil institutions can and should play in forming new democratic governments and open, secular, societies.
All the panelists agreed that the transition to democracy will be a slow process- one certain to take years. Although there are already civil institutions in the area facilitating that process- Mr. Gersham called attention to the Network of Democrats in the Arab World– the majority of the population has had no experience living in a democratic society and do not understand the values and civic duties that are required to establish one. Dr. Yilmaz used his home country, Turkey, as an example of a society that took decades to adopt democratic and secular principles. In Turkey civil societies were crucial in overcoming the initial distrust that parts of the population had in adopting a western style, multi-party, political system, that gave representation to people of all faiths and ethnicities. According to Dr.Yilmaz, in Turkey, the fears and conspiracy theories propagated by conservative and traditionalist groups were perhaps the toughest obstacles to overcome; yet the establishment of open markets and interaction with European neighbors, facilitated by civil institutions, have prevailed in convincing the majority of the population to adopt more inclusive and democratic principles.
While talking about modern day Egypt, Mr.Tadros echoed Dr. Yilmaz by emphasizing the challenges conspiracy theories and rhetoric from traditionalist movements pose to the establishment of a modern democratic society. He blamed these conspiracy theories for building a sense of distrust for the outside world- a sentiment that Egyptians are being exploited and manipulated by international global powers- that makes building new international relations almost impossible. The only solution he sees to this is for Egyptian civil institutions to challenge these perceptions starting at the local level. Local challenges to the status quo initiated removal of Mubarak’s regime and so too have the capacity to progress the desire for a new unified, inclusive, and democratic government. This process will take time, as it requires introducing ideas and values completely foreign to a majority of the population. Mr.Tadros pointed out that there isn’t an Egyptian equivalent to America’s founding fathers, who outlined the political and ethical tenants on which American society is based upon. It is now up to Egyptians to explore and identify the values on which their new society will be built upon, the process of recognizing these values must be organic.
The role that the US and other Western powers can play in the development of Arab democracies has been highly debated. Ms.Wittes pointed out that western countries have a natural desire to sponsor civil institutions since they play such a big role in defining our own nation. She asserted that civil institutions are instrumental in keeping governments in check; they provide a space for citizens to discuss and debate government policy, and for the exchange of ideas and opinions. However, despite the benefits that they play in our own society, Dr.Yilmaz and Mr.Tadros were wary of Western attempts to use funding as a tool to ease democratic transition abroad. Dr.Yilmaz stressed that Turkey achieved its position today only because its transition was largely through independent, internal developments; he argued that, though Turkey endured many hardships during its transition to democracy, it grew and learned true democratic values by navigating on its own. Mr.Tadros agreed, suggesting that excess funding from the West largely teaches Arab institutions how to get started, how to procure funding; it doesn’t teach them the values that they must embody and champion. It was concluded that the process of establishing democracies, open markets, and inclusive societies in the Middle East is still a work in progress; but change is occurring, the people of region are learning, and through coming together and uniting around common values can succeed in the future.