Voices from the field: Change has started and it will never go back

Rowena McNaughton interviews human rights activist and director of Arab NGO Network for Development, Ziad Abdel Samad.
As citizens of Tunisia and Egypt successfully demand an end to totalitarian leadership, veteran human rights activist in the Arab region, Ziad Abdel Samad, says the events have already been a catalyst for widespread democratic change in the Arab region and there is no going back.

Q1. What broader implications does the stepping down of leaders in Tunisia and Egypt have for the Middle Eastern region?

It’s very important to note that something very important is happening in the region. Changes in Tunisia have had an impact, but it’s the changes in Egypt which have had a greater influence, simply because Egypt carries a lot of weight in terms of regional geo-politics.
Also, now civil society is more confident of its power and, of course, its capacity to enforce change. This will also affect the vision and role of Arab civil society in general. In the last decade there has been a lot of oppression on CS in general but now we see CS has the power and can mobilise and society can feel this power - they can take control.  More power will affect the vision of CS in other countries.

From my perspective, a lot has already changed in the region. But we have to bear in mind we are in a very challenging situation and the process has not ended yet. We have to remember the process is ongoing. For democratic change, an important step has been achieved by imposing the resignation of the president, but we now have to keep on going and we must keep up the pressure and ensure sustainability of the changes and that the right changes are made to the constitution, electoral law,….there needs to be a lot of effort and time and we can not let the process slow down.
I believe the changes in Egypt will lead to change in other countries in the (Arab) region even if it does not change the people in power. Regional and foreign policies will be revised as well. Even if the main objective of the revolution has been focusing on social and economic justice and political freedom and liberties, there are going to have to be changes in long-held global affiliations.
Now all leaders (in the region) will have to reconsider their policies as they are aware and feel the threats. They will have to start improving policies - particularly social and economic, and will have to open space for political participation, including for civil society.

Q2. Are you seeing any changes happen?

A. Yes. In many countries measures are taken to slow down the popular anger from the social and economic conditions and from the lack of political liberties and freedom as well. Like in Syria just two days ago, Facebook was allowed for the first time in three years. In Kuwait and in Bahrain, the government has started distributing money and food aid for each family. In Jordan the king changed the government and issued a decree to subsidise gasoline during the cold season. Even in Yemen, the president has released many statements and declared that he would not run for the presidency in the next election and will not allow  transition of power to his son .. However all these are changes that came before the beginning of the protest.
In Bahrain, although the situation is tense, protests started last week. In Yemen they started protesting as well. Under the pressure of popular movement the process will now go faster and further.

However the situation in many Arab countries is not the same as in Egypt. In Egypt the political situation and the society is more coherent, Divides are more social based not religious and tribal which are harder to move. In countries like Yemen the tribal system can be used to protect power since they can always use tribal divides to weaken popular pressure. The same in Bahrain, the confessional divide can be used to protect the king.

Q3. Do you see a process of democratisation occurring in any other MENA countries?

A. We can see changes at different levels. Even in the countries where the leaders pretend not be affected, they have to take serious measures in order to prevent uprisings. Changes will take place even if they do not reach the final end by changing the regime or people in power.  The process has started and while it can face challenges, it will never go back. We can call it a new era – a better one.

Q4. What role do you foresee Arab civil society organisations playing in the future democratisation of Arab states?

A. It’s very important to observe that CS was the main actor of change. They played a very important role, making people aware of their rights. During the uprising they played an important role and were the most important player, providing all the needed logistical support for the protestors and coordination among the various groups.
CS has been the actor and agent for change; they prepared the environment since 2004 and even before, they showed a capacity to mobilise and to coordinate, which are its two main roles. They can lobby and exert more pressure on the decision makers.
In the future it will be the same process: keeping up the same awareness, ensuring that people are aware of the challenges, coordinating different actors in society and keeping up the pressure to keep the pace and the process ongoing.

We’ve had an important success story…now CS is more confident, it is stronger, and the experience from Egypt is amazing. Especially the coordination they did between the demands of the popular masses in the streets and the margin given to the “wisdom committee” who was negotiating with the regime.  Now (CS) discovered a different role and capacity for what they can do. I think this is also true for all CS in the region.

Q5. How can the international community, and in particular international civil society, support Arab civil society in this next process of democratisation?

A. Firstly, their support is very important in addressing global governance and influencing local government, particularly those with a big impact on the global decision making process, such as the European Union and United States. It’s also important that international CS continues to stand in solidarity with CS in the MENA region, pressuring their governments to stop supporting the authoritarian and oppressive regimes. The support must be proactive. Before the uprising the EU and the US strongly supported the dictatorships, but now after the fall they are hesitant and trying to impose their own conditions, while they have to fully support the will and the choices of the people, and they have to accept it, whatever it will be.

Secondly, international CS support to local CS is needed at a structural level: capacity building, political vision, exchange of experiences, etc.
Thirdly what we need from the international community is to stop misleading propaganda about Islam and not promote Islamo-phobia anymore. The uprising in Egypt showed that Islamic movements are part of the popular movement and they are not dominating or controlling the movement. We have to accept differences and to respect everybody’s beliefs. People in power used to show that alternatives are Islamic movements in order to get the support from the foreign community, but  the past events in Egypt proved that this argument is not true. We’d rather support the democratic and secular alternatives among civil society.