Zora Hesova: The Arab Spring and Central Europe

Posted on August 3, 2012 by

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Not everybody in North Africa knows that the phrase “Arab Spring” is inspired by the Prague Spring of 1968. For Czech and Slovaks, the connection is obvious. It stands for liberalisation driven by citizens, from below, who demand popular sovereignty in the face of an authoritarian regime. But to what extent have the Arab states started a process similar to fall of Communism in Central Europe? Do the V4 countries have a role to play in today’s Spring? And is the Arab Spring in any way reflected in Central Europe?

Foto: Creative Commons/ Alaily

Arab Spring: Just a Metaphor?

The first year in the three countries that embarked on a transition path – Tunisia, Egypt and Libya – has largely confirmed the parallels to the fall of Communism. Decades-old authoritarian regimes were ousted. It is now unthinkable to muzzle the press and oppress the streets. When censorship and political pressure occurs, privately owned media, together with Internet activists, push back. People have stopped fearing the police and “the system”. Youth, women, liberals, and religious fundamentalists debate on the streets, on television, and on the Internet. The old state-party system is over. The creation of multiparty systems was the first major political reform. Tunisia, Egypt and Libya held free and mostly fair elections within a year of the demise of the old regime. As expected, the long-suppressed and politically clean Islamist opposition movements won major parts of the vote. Throughout the campaigns and once they assumed power, in Tunisia and in Egypt, they behaved pragmatically and were committed to the democratic process, even as the old structures attempted to protect their privileges.

Different historical period

But there are certainly substantial differences between 1989 and 2012, as I learned from the experience of working with reformist Arab organizations. Unlike the post-communist states that in 1990 faced sweeping systemic reform, the new Arab governments are not pressured by a similar sea change. Both Egypt and Tunisia have a decade of liberal reforms behind them. While significant parts of their economies are still governed by an inefficient public sector, they possess the know-how, interest groups and sufficient international contacts to enhance economic reforms. Thus, they mostly do more of the old, perhaps with increased focus on achieving social justice.

It will be a long time, however, before political liberalism takes hold in those conservative societies. The role of conservative religious parties that dominated elections in Tunisia and Egypt put the question of cultural authenticity in the center of political discussion, obfuscating the need for institutional reforms. Consequently, Islamic populism might play a similarly destabilising role as nationalist populism played in Central Europe.

Moreover, political institutions and most parties are still governed by old authoritarian reflexes, are hampered by entrenched elites and face populist pressures. Institutional reform and administrative overhaul, the most pressing and the most difficult part of the task, have not yet started, not even in Tunisia, which has thus far been a transition frontrunner. A year and a half after the revolution, it is clear that radical and quick reforms, similar to those the V4 countries experienced, are not coming. Rather, we are witnessing a slower pace governed by complex soul searching and punctuated by social and political crises, a process that will continue until the new party system stabilises and a consensus on governance emerges, much along the lines of transition in the Balkans.

Change bottom up

Another major difference between 1989 and 2011 concerns the level of organization of civil society. The availability of information and contacts through electronic media and a relative openness has empowered today’s North Africans in ways unavailable to Central Europeans two decades ago.

The great energising effect of the uprisings has inspired political and social change from the bottom up. On all levels of society, some measure of change is being realised, especially in institutions that inhabit the grey zone between state and private sector: media, professional associations, trade unions, universities and civil society. From Tunis to Port Said, every city has seen the creation of citizen groups working in the fields of voter education, alternative media, culture, architecture of public spaces, women’s empowerment, and other issues.  In Tunisia, the liberal camp succeeded in imposing the preservation of women’s rights on the dominant Islamic party.

Those who lead change organise in political, professional and social groups. They are connected to groups from outside the region and look there for models and strategies. Many of those groups and networks are organised in and financed from Europe and the United States.

Assisting the transformation

It is precisely in this area of civic activism that Europe in general and Central Europe in particular finds a specific role in supporting the transition to democracy. Eastern Europe was a large experiment in democratisation. Only some of the former Eastern bloc countries succeeded in eventually adopting wholly democratic systems. The successful transitions bear certain common features, especially the design of democratic institutions, reforms of state administration and methods of civic involvement.

Sharing of lessons from transformation can be conducted on three levels: 1) between reformist state administrations; 2) between research and education institutes; and 3) at the grassroot level, between politically aware citizens. Anchoring a reform project on a governmental level might seem the most effective, but remains largely unavailable. Dozens of projects involving Polish, Czech and Slovakian groups have been implemented. Financed with government grants, Central European NGOs have organized a number of workshops in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya on civil society empowerment, democratic institutions, and security sector reform. The activists from North Africa repeatedly reiterate the need for simple sharing of experience. “We have a serious problem of violence,” said Lybian reformer Adel Fitouri, at a meeting at the Czech Embassy. “We need models of conflict resolution and institution building.” After attending a EUROPEUM workshop in Prague, Roaa Gharib from Cairo’s Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression said: “In the old Egyptian civil society model we were in reality a cover for political opposition. If we are to achieve reforms, civil society needs to professionalise and start acting like a partner to the state, much like in the Czech Republic.” Central European countries are found to be generally well situated to offer partnerships, as they lack political agendas or a colonial past and thus they can easily talk about “lessons learned” without seeming paternalistic.

The Arab Spring in Eastern Europe

Unlike in 1989, the partnership in question is not a one-way street. Web-based citizen initiatives and crowdsourcing projects have made and continue to make a difference in North Africa – and increasingly in Europe too.

Today’s civic groups move in an open space. Citizen-based initiatives for better governance increasingly cross borders, make nationality less relevant as cooperative projects develop. At a technology sharing workshop in Vilnius,  Tariq Nesh-Nash, an electronic activist from Morocco, summed it like this: “We have the same struggles, and the Arab Spring brought us together. Access to the Internet as a human right is an Estonian idea on which I now work on with both Arabs and Europeans.”

Published as The Arab Spring and Central European Seasons in the Visegrad Revue (visegradrevue.eu)

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