May 23, 2012
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

The Arab Spring: Getting it Right

While the results of the uprisings of the Arab Spring are still uncertain, the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy dedicated its 13th Annual Conference, which was held in Arlington (VA) on May 3, to discussing the challenges of democratization in the Middle East and North Africa and the main opportunities for progress and democratic consolidation. The event had was co-sponsored by Georgetown University’s Democracy and Governance Program and counted with the participation of some of our esteemed professors, such as program director Daniel Brumberg. A delegation from the Tunisian National Constituent Assembly was also present.

Professor Brumberg, a senior advisor at USIP, moderated the first panel, “Elements of Successful Democratic Transitions”. He warned that “bringing down a regime may be a victory that doesn’t bring victories” if systemic reforms across a wide spectrum of political and social life are not correctly addressed. For that to happen, it is imperative that political consensus –a necessary part of democratic consolidation– is built at the same time.

The next panelist, Jason Gluck, the director of USIP’s Constitution-Making Program, presented his analysis on the processes taking place in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, highlighting some of the mistakes that might be made along the way. Basically, he believes that these countries must ask the “why” question when trying to create new democratic Constitutions. That is not always happening. He said Egypt, for example, is engrossed in matters of sequencing — discussing whether the Constitutional Reform or the elections should come first– when the real question the country should be asking is what are the fundamental principles that will drive the democratic process and how to build consensus around them.

The distinguished Alfred Stepan, professor of Government at Columbia University, continued the discussion by examining these processes in light of “his definition of successful democratic transitions, which are constituted by four requirements: first, there must exist sufficient agreement on the procedures to elect a representative government and write a Constitution; second, that government must have been elected via a free and popular vote, and seen as such by major political players; third, the government must not have to share power with any unelected groups or individuals (such as the military or religious leaders); and fourth, the government must have ultimate power in generating new policies”. He suggested that only Tunisia achieved all four so far. (Later at the conference, the Tunisian delegation made a presentation on the constitution writing process the country is undergoing.)

The last panelist, MENA director at the National Endowment for Democracy dr. Laith Kubba, stressed that “all these nations, ultimately, have to be led by a new elite, be it by a more enabled youth generation in political parties or in social institutions.” To get there, creating and supporting independent think tanks will be important, he says.

In the second panel, experts discussed regional impacts of the Arab Spring. Radwan Ziadeh, of the Syrian National Council and a visiting scholar at Harvard University, started by drawing a comparison between the conflict that is currently affecting Syria and the Bosnian war. His parallel was made around four characteristics that he thinks are common to both situations: “the positions of the international community, the decreasing support for the Syrian Opposition Council and the increase in support for military defectors, the types of killing and violence being used, and politicians carrying over from the Clinton to the Obama Administration”. Carol Murphy, from the Woodrow Wilson Center, presented the view from the Gulf, particularly Saudi Arabia. According to her, Saudis are hesitant: “Now it is sometimes said that Riyadh is leading a counter-revolution to the Arab Awakening… I don’t see that. I would say that it is much more accurate to describe Saudi Arabia as aiding or trying to manage the Arab Awakening.”

The rest of the conference focused on the revolution in Tunisia, the interface between Islam and democratization, and issues of specific countries. A discussion about how can the US and the International community help the Arab Spring closed the event.

For those who are interested, a more detailed account can be read online here.


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Founded in 2004, Democracy and Society is a biannual print journal published by the Center for Democracy and Civil Society at Georgetown University. The D&S Blog provides web-only content, including special reports and investigative series, on issues relating to democracy and development.

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