Arab civil society brings its message to Washington

Palestinian people also take the
streets. (Photo:
Issam Rimawi/APA)

A large group of Arab NGO Network for Development (ANND) members and partners is visiting Washington this week to express the positions and perspectives of civil society organizations from Middle East and North Africa on the United States foreign policy towards the region. Twelve activists and experts representing ten countries (Egypt, Tunisia, Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan, Morocco, Bahrain, Yemen, Sudan, and Iraq) are also seizing the opportunity to enhance spaces for the dialogue between Arab groups and US civic stakeholders and policy makers.

In an overview paper issued before the visit, the Arab organizations remarked the main concerns that are being addressed. The first one is “the centrality of recognizing the Palestinian rights to [the] democratic and development processes in the Arab region”, followed by “rebuilding the credibility of US foreign policy [and] expanding dialogue with various stakeholders”; “rethinking trade and investment relations”; “the need to remodel US development assistance”; and “rethinking debt of Arab countries to the United States.”

“There is a need to recognize and support the rights of the Palestinian people and their quest for a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a central condition to any progress towards political stability, sustained democratic practice, and sustainable development in the region,” reads the overview paper produced by the Arab organizations. “The lack of genuine constructive efforts on the Palestinian-Israeli peace process and the continued domination of the interests of security in dealing with the region contribute to undermining the credibility of US policy there.”

The Palestinian question is affecting the whole regional political process and is one of the main factors that are aggravating the situation, along with the uneven social-economic policies and the lack of legitimacy of the rulers, explained Allam Jarrar, Steering Committee member of the Palestinian NGO Network (PNGO), at a conference titled “The Civil Insurgents: The Arab Uprisings and Civil Society” held on Tuesday at the New America Foundation headquarters.

Despite US economic assistance, Palestinian economy will not improve without lifting Israeli siege and without addressing the issues of personal security, freedom of movement, and collective freedoms, added Jarrar.

The claim for human and political rights keeps its relevance in Egypt and Tunisia, countries were the uprisings toppled dictatorships, but the societies are paying more attention to other concerns, especially those referred to the economic reforms and equality.   

“The citizen whose rights are being addressed is the core to sustaining democratic practice in the region and achieving the aims of the revolutions,” Kinda Mohamadieh, programs director at the ANND, said at the conference. “If the US and the European Union want truly to assist in the democratic transformations in the region, they must redesign their economic partnerships,” she added, according to the report published on the Project on Middle East Democracy web site.

Mohamadieh explained that the economic crisis reflected a decay of political practices. “Changing economic partnerships” is a key step to focus on “the longer term transition,” while aid agreements related to finance shortages “would restrict the flexibility of the countries to choose different economic options” and would also “increase sovereign debt.” Job creation requires the rebuilding of “the agricultural, industrial, and service sectors […] instead of increasing the gross domestic product,” she warned.  

Tunisian journalist and activist Salah Al Jourchi, lead coordinator of research work for ANND, said that civil society organizations used to focus on human rights because of the oppression, but their interests have widened since the end of the old regimes. The current priorities are to change the “destructive” economic policies based on the production growth, to make sure that the government keeps its promise to hold elections within one year, and to establish a key role for the civil society in the development policies. Tunisian Islamists parties have succeeded in the elections because they had worked at the grassroots level, although the revolution has not a religious nature, but rather social and economic, explained Al Jourchi.

Abdulnabi Hasan Alekry, President of the Bahrain Transparency Society, remarked that, despite some disruptions in the revolutionary processes, the concepts of reform and change have become an obsession of the Arab masses. The problem that prevents the countries from achieving prosperity, he added, is the focus on a capitalist economic system.

Allam Jarrar concluded that the old economic models have failed, and Salah Al Jourchi suggested that the changes in the economic system should start with a redistribution of power among players in the global arena.


“Suggestions” to Washington

“In its quest to balance its foreign policy with security concerns, the US administration has often resorted to double standards in judging the Arab peoples’ uprisings and revolts. At times, the US has favored its security interests over calls for encouraging popular uprisings,” reads the statement issued by the civil society organizations before the visit to Washington.

But “the agenda of the US foreign policy in relation to security of energy sources, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and countering terrorism and radical Islamism is best served by openly and unequivocally supporting the peoples’ will, which will ultimately prevail in the face of oppressive regimes,” adds the paper. “Rebuilding the credibility of US foreign Policy towards the Arab Region necessitates deepening dialogue with all factions of the social and political spectrum, including with civil society organizations.”

The document also recommends rethinking the current economic relationship between the US and the region, because “he regression of economic and social indicators in the Arab countries -­ including rising unemployment and inequalities and a decrease in productive capacities -­ have unmasked disconnect between the design of trade and investment policies on the one hand and peoples’ rights on the other hand, including the right to development.”

On the other hand, “US development assistance to the Arab region has been closely linked with promoting foreign policy and strategic military goals, while not necessarily serving democracy, development, and human rights.”

The organizations also warned that “debts accumulated by defunct regimes have left people bearing the burden of paying from their very own pockets for illegitimate decisions and have limited the policy space available to exercise sovereign and democratic economic and social policy-making.”

“Debt relief could result in immediate support and expansion of public policy space in countries undergoing political and economic transitions. […] The United States’ support of a debt audit for the debts carried by each of Tunisia and Egypt is crucial, with the perspective of identifying and cancelling odious debts. Moreover, the United States is requested to support the Egyptian, Tunisian, and Libyan peoples’ efforts to recover national assets stolen by fallen dictators and siphoned off via European and American financial entities,” adds the statement.

Overview and suggestions for improving key areas in US foreign policy
towards the Arab region (in PDF format):
Project on Middle East Democracy: