Zora Hesova: Transferring transformation experience

Posted on July 2, 2012 by

As three North African countries enter upon paths of political change, Europe look for ways to lend support to democratisation processes in the South. This summer the European Union formulated strategies intended to support the democratisation processes through civil society capacity building, increased student and expert mobility and market openings. In addition to those general responses, Eastern European countries with fresh memories of their own revolutions envisaged both a specific and a timely strategy – the transfer of their recent transformation experiences.

Experience transfer is simple and straightforward enough and can make use of a large amount of scholarly and activist capacities. Yet bringing in a foreign experience is fraught with questions: in how far can it be relevant, how and to whom to transfer it and how to avoid lessons-giving. Since the early summer, the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs has supported a number of projects aiming at an experience transfer mainly towards Egypt, but also Tunisia and Libya and will continue to do so next year. First conclusions can be drawn from a series of experiences of experience sharing workshops organised with Egyptian activists throughout Egypt.

Transformation experience

The Arab spring bears striking resemblances to another wave of spontaneous popular protests that swept a dozen of decades-old authoritarian regimes in a matter of months. Eastern European year 1989 saw the end of one-party socialist systems, introduction of multipartism and democratic institutional framework and reforms on all levels of state administration.

A general parallel with post-revolutionary Egypt and Tunisia is certainly limited. In contrast with post-communist Europe, the Arab countries had undergone a systemic change from a post-colonial, socialist-leaning state towards a market economy well before the revolutions, they are connected in the global economy, feature a world-educated class and do not face a systemic reform. Yet they are handicapped by inefficient states, lower literacy and instruction levels, poverty and specific military history.

Important specific parallels may be nevertheless found. Eastern Europe was a large democratisation experiment with the backdrop of a long authoritarian past. Only a part of the Eastern bloc countries succeeded in eventually consolidating a democratic system: a dozen entered or plan to enter the EU while the other dozen fight with instability or new forms of authoritarianism. The successful transitions bear certain common features, especially concerning the design of democratic institutions, reforms of the state administration and methods of civic involvement. Certainly there is no single model of transformation but rather a series of institutional choices shaping the new democratic environment, practices aiming at a better effectiveness of state administration and inspiration as to methods toward realising civic rights and liberties.

Transformation sharing can be conducted on three levels: on the level of a (reformist) state administration, on a level of research bodies and among citizens involved in politics. Informing the reform project on a ministerial level might seem the most effective, but remains largely unavailable. In Egypt, especially, the transformation has barely started and it will take time before state agencies undertake reform. The elections will first lead to a parliament with the task of finding a consensus on a constitution and strike a power deal with the army. It is unclear whether in any time in the future a government will subscribe to a radical reformist agenda. Yet on all levels of society some measure of change is being realised, especially in the grey zone between state and private sector: in media, professional associations, trade unions, universities and also in the civil society at large. Those who lead change organise in political, professional and social groups. It is in this large area of civic activism that people look for information and models abroad.

Workshops on post-Communist democratic transformation

Between July and December 2011, the Prague-based Association for International Affairs (AMO) has realized two dozens of workshops about the Eastern European transformation experience directed at diverse groups of activists. The workshops took place in Cairo, Alexandria, in five cities in the Delta region and in Aswan. In addition, AMO organised training for independent Egyptian journalist in Prague with workshops dedicated to the Czech transformation experience.

The workshops were conducted by a dozen of Czechs activists and researchers who have practical experience with the imperfect working of democracy: with citizen participation, anti-corruption and democracy promotion initiatives, in constitutional law, election monitoring etc. In Cairo the audience was composed of researchers, activists and journalists, in Prague they were young journalists and in the rest of country the participants were activists currently working in political awareness campaigns. The mostly belonged to the April 6 movement, liberal political parties, branches of Egyptian political foundations, local civic NGO’s and trade unions. AMO has thus held substantial debates with around 300 Egyptian activists, leaders and journalists. Like our main partner, most of the audience were young, modernist men and women, yet in every session there were also participants with Islamic leaning.

As for content, the workshops focussed on three topics: the different phases of post-Communist transformation in Czechoslovakia (political, institutional, economic, legislative reforms), on the process of introducing the basics of democracy (constitutional process, division of power, local administration) on strategies of democratic engagement (anti-corruption, politics watch, political awareness).

The participants proved to be intensely interested in transition topics, highly articulate in their positions and opinions and in overt search of education. Even though most were young and new to politics and few had much factual knowledge of Central Europe, they were strikingly keen on discussing the details transformation processes as such. They were fully  open and even eager to look into ways in which a foreign experience might be made used in the Egyptian context. Either because the Czech Republic has no colonial past, or because the presenters were young and activists themselves or because the Egyptians are quite self-confident and avidly look out for anything that can be of use, the workshops were not in the slightest embarrassed by any sense of lessons-giving. The relevant points appeared to be following.

The discussions’ foremost topic was the institutional design of early stage transformation. The technicalities of the electoral law, the composition and working of constitutional committees, the transitional power structures and the definition of respective powers of democratic institutions had a lasting impact on the progress of transformation. Further were discussed the reforms of the various state agencies and institutions (police, army, public media, local government), their different problems, methods and the depth of their reforms and the identifiable mistakes made. A special attention was paid to the dealing with the authoritarian past: the place of the former nomenklatura in the democratic arena and also the sort those responsible for political repression. The question of religious parties and generally of ideological opposition to democracy also rose up. Finally, the discussions focussed on examples of citizen activism in the field of a democratic control of elected representatives, especially in matters of corruption.

The relevance of transformation sharing experience

The workshops represent only a first, short-term initiative in sharing transformation experience yet they can help answering the question: in how far is a foreign transformation experience relevant? The answer is that it can be of use on a very general and on very specific level there.

First, the comparison of the different processes has proven to be a useful orientation tool when making sense of the Egyptian course of change. The participants insisted to discuss in details the called “transition period” in which they still see Egypt. Almost a year after the demise of a dictator, Egypt finds itself in far less advanced stage than Central European countries were in the wake of first democratic elections: the rule for the transition are not clearly set and are not democratic in their character; there is no consensus on the Egyptian state is to take; and Egypt’s military rulers are postponing the transfer of power to a civilian government. The contrast with Central Europe, where opposition leaders and dissidents seized institutions and made them work toward change at beginning of the transformation, is striking.

Generally speaking, shared transformation experience helps to set benchmarks to processes en cours and helps the setting of short term and long term goals. Yet precisely this is nothing less than difficult in the confusing Egyptian situation in which the so called Revolution toppled a long term dictator but did not result in any kind of deep transformation process yet. The formulation of transition goals and appropriate political demands appears to benefit greatly from the comparison with similar processes. The formulation of these aims needs realistic and coherent vision of how the change usually comes about and what is possible. The discussions delved into reforms of crucial institutions like state/public media and security ministries. Especially the radical break with the past enacted by the Central European management of those powerhouses was greatly appreciated by the participants as mark of the possible.

Finally, the experience of Central Europe shows the transformation as a series of processes, that is, as that which develops beyond the initial break with the authoritarian regime. The long view on change was one of the main messages of the workshops: change and accountable politics come through the painstaking process of modernisation of state apparatus and through ongoing work on state-and-citizen-relations. Even in a formally democratic setting, rights and liberties had to be won and the accountability of state institutions ensured by citizen demand and action. Democracy fosters corruption in its own way, the initial achievements of transition tend to be unstable and disillusion is to be expected. While unsettling, this view puts the achievements (or their lack) into perspective: it is a long process.

Obstacles to Egyptian democratic transition

This perspective was not new to the participants, all well aware of the challenges ahead. In their view, the elections are not a completion of the revolution but rather a beginning of a long term political change. The obstacles of a political kind lying ahead are multiple. Most often mentioned by participants were patterns of authoritarian and clientelist behaviour: continuing military rule, media control, voting patterns, and political passivity.

While proclaiming itself the “guardian of the revolution”, the military rule actually forestalled reform on the state level: the transitional process (electoral law, constitutional process) are fully in hands of the conservative military and no institution aiming at democracy promotion has been set that could be compared to the initial power sharing round tables between the Communist parties and the opposition or to the Tunisian revolution committee. The security apparatus continue to function in the old patterns. Repression and censorship have actually increased since the revolution. The discussants deplore the lack of media freedom and the overwhelming influence of the conformist state media.

The main change comes down to an effective multi-partism introduced after the revolution and the elections in progress that will create a chamber of representatives endowed with democratic legitimacy. Yet the electoral process especially was viewed with a great deal of scepticism. The voting patterns are all but democratic: people vote in exchange of promises of services or are motivated by identity (religious). There is no clear view on the role of political representatives (viewed as services channels rather than legislators), on the rules of electoral practice and generally on the role of the state. It was feared that election itself might yet not be a channel of democratic change.

The obstacle most often mentioned was political illiteracy or the lack of “political awareness” (al-wa’y as-syassy) among the general public, all too often unaware of the challenges of the ongoing process, the meaning, risks and benefits of “democracy” and general political passivity. Democratic values –pluralism, equality and enforceability of rights, accountability of politics and responsibility for one’s community – are far from being part of the political discourse. A related issue was the authoritarian reflexes still very much alive on many levels of society: in security forces, but also in political and managerial administration.

Tasks and opportunities ahead

As crucial to democratisation the participants singled out the field of political education and citizen participation in politics. Many were keen on getting inspired and learning from examples of successful democratic activism from abroad while often working on similar innovative initiatives of their own. They suggestions were, just before the elections, mostly general and limited to the electoral process itself. One question had dominated the discussions: What should be done? What kind of action would have most meaning and effect? While both transition types – the post-Communist and the Arab – are different and a direct transfer of experience impossible, their specific aspects do resemble enough so that a direct cooperation between practitioners of the both sides of the Mediterranean can have real effect. The specific experience and practice sharing in particular fields of citizen public activism appears to be a field in which foreign know-how can be usefully adapted (anti-corruption, citizen media, local democracy projects etc).

Behind the omnipresent question lies not only the search for meaningful action, but also fundamental but yet unaccomplished change: the meaning of politics and political action itself is taking new content. The participants showed a high degree of politisation – they were also chosen for their involvement in some kind of pre-electoral political activity. Most had politically profiled: either as members of a party or activists in presidential support campaigns or through their declared political tendency (liberal, socialist, Islamic). Many spelled their affiliation like a new form of identity. A number of them had changed political affiliation; others were starting local projects of their own or were creating activities in existing structures. They appeared to be looking for a role in the new pluralist landscape all the way while knowing that they were a minority. Participatory politics brings new demands: the need for definition of political community, common goals and action, the content of social improvement. Here also, the interaction with others active in their own countries brings practical inspiration and helps orientation in the new political arena.

Generally speaking, even if the democratic movement is still young, limited to a small number of activists, it appears to be widespread, decentralised and driven by original initiative. In Egypt this kind of politics is still new, prey to the different dimensions of the establishment and potentially sidelined by other types of more ideological political activism. Stories of intimidation by the authorities and of recuperation by the old political networks are numerous. On the other hand, while many are sceptical about the short term prospects of democracy in Egypt, the January revolution definitely opened a space for participation. This in turn unleashed a level of energy that cannot be contained but that actively looks to take forms.

Zora Hesová, AMO

Originally published at: civicpole.net