After the Arab Spring

During the last three decades of the 20thCentury the number of democracies in the world almost doubled, from 44 to 86, according to Freedom House, a New York City think tank that researches and tracks democracy. This dramatic global trend coincided with and was reinforced by a global associational revolution, as thousands of NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) emerged in Asia, Latin America and Africa, even before the spread of the Internet. In the first decade of the new century, however, the number of democracies (87) barely increased at all.

The Arab Spring of 2011 ushered in a wave of optimism that the Internet would help turns the tide against autocrats everywhere. More pessimistic observers cautioned, however, that Arab countries generally have neither strong political institutions nor strong civil societies.
A year later, even the idea of democracy is under assault in the Middle East, a disturbing trend exemplified by the dissolution of the newly elected parliament in Egypt. Even the election of a president has been clouded by his affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood. Nor does civil society offer much hope for the Egyptian political future. Many of Egypt’s NGOs, unlike indigenous NGOs in the rest of the world, were financially dependent on the government and have struggled to assert their autonomy since Mubarak’s fall.
Meanwhile, in Asia, Africa and Latin America, it is not only the Internet that provides hope for the future of democracy. Although the development of civil society often strengthens democracy indirectly, NGOs with a specialized programmatic interest in promoting democracy have emerged recently in many countries. They are engaged in everything from monitoring elections to re-training police in human rights, from promoting public deliberation in local communities to pushing governments to become more accountable and transparent. These organizations combine imported democratic ideas with the recovery of traditional democratic practices, often common at the local level. They also understand that democratization is a long, hard slog that must encompass more than elections.
 
Importing Democracy: The Role of NGOs in South Africa, Tajikistan and Argentina, based on over 100 interviews, focuses on the work of these organizations in two struggling democracies (Argentina and South Africa) and one autocracy (Tajikistan). An appendix describes democratization NGOs in 15 other countries.
Given the lack of strong civil societies in the Middle East, it seems unlikely that the promise of the Arab Spring will be fulfilled, with the possible exception of Tunisia. However, in many other countries, the combination of democratization NGOs and online social networking offer powerful possibilities for advancing democracy.
  • I think that Access to Courts is the basis of democracy, the right from which all rights flow. I think that there won’t ever be real democracy unless the rights of pro se litigants are recognized. Even if you have a lawyer, you can’t necessarily trust him or her and they are supposed to be your agent, not your boss. So having a lawyer isn’t a substitute for pro se rights, it is a supplement.

    People need to be able to go to court to defend their own property and their own bodies. Look at the U.S., it cost over $100 K to go to court to redress your grievances– the ACLU and similar organizations get thousands of people writing for help for every case they take. You can get free legal help in the U.S. to get a divorce or if you are criminally prosecuted, but not to defend your property, your right to work, or your reputation.

    In Africa, they aren’t criminally prosecuting government officials who cut off people’s hands and there is no motivation for government officials to act decently. If victims in Africa could sue government officials for money, then the government officials would be motivated to respect other people’s rights.

    Even in the U.S. it is almost impossible to get a lawyer to sue a government official.

  • The Arab Spring came and went sadly the rights of women has not been addressed officially. Yet, women were in the front line asking for change and demanding the resignation of leaders, such as Mubarak. The more moderate wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, which had never gained legitimacy under the Nasser, el-Sadat or Mubarak government, as they were often put in jail, worked the street and enlisted popular support, by their generosity and promises of a better society. Women gave them a changed listened and hoped for better treatment and more freedom. Nawal el-Sadawi was there, she had been jailed, for her fight against body mutilation, she was fighting for women and their rights, so were younger women. Their dream was democracy and the right to travel without their husband’s permission, to be in charge of their own bodies. Now they are still waiting and trying to get included in the new constitution. Democracy on the ground needs to be a work from door to door, woman to women, to organize, the mobilize and to seek outside help. In Egypt at least, the women need to know the Sharia Law and know British or the Napoleonic code, they need to win by using the laws and the help of the scholars of el-Azar who are the official jurist. By knowing the law they will be able to make a difference this is how, women in Tunisia and Egypt were able to ban multiple marriages, based on Qur’an and Hadith and the Sharia. It is how female excision in parts of Egypt is no longer compulsory. Women are becoming jurist both secular and Islamic, and they look at the past the glory days of Islam to find strength and inspiration. One example is Aisha, the youngest wife of the Prophet Mohammed who was a lawyer after his death. Khadijah his first wife was a business woman, women inspiring other women and knowing their past has helped to get them into positions of negotiation. Democracy can exist in all parts of the world we just need to find out our lineage and culture as women and remember each time there was a revolution be it religious or secular women were there in the forefront, thinking and organizing. As soon as the revolution stabilizes women are sent home. Sad!