In this context it’s empowering to hear the voices of recent history from elsewhere in the world and fascinating among them is Dewi Fortuna Anwar from the Vice President’s Office in Indonesia. She is steeped in her country’s history of independence, democracy, and dictatorship.
“There is no inevitability that once a country is democratic it will remain democratic,” she said to an audience of nearly 100 people gathered in Rabat representing Egyptian, Jordanian, Lebanese, Moroccan, Tunisian, Palestinian and Yemeni teams. They represented largely civil society organizations all struggling to carve out a space for their voices and views in their countries and within whatever season it is that now defines the Arab Spring one year on. Sure the blossoms are showing in Rabat but the mood across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is more somber than a year ago. Alongside the group in Rabat are private sector representatives and a handful of government officials; their goal at this four day conference to learn more about how better citizens engage the state and bridge the tremendous divide that ultimately saw the collapse of several regimes recently.
Dewi is a wonderful guide. The lessons she has drawn point to three essentials: “You need a conducive international and regional environment; you need a strong political will at the national level, an enabling environment; and you need engaged, willing and able citizens.” What concerns our group is largely the latter, how to build, grow and inform those citizens. Dewi cautions that Indonesia’s nascent democracy in the ‘50s failed because while the citizens were engaged, their deep division made a space for the military to come in. Indonesia grew from strength to strength, an Asian economic tiger. But its powerful economic pillar was not balanced by social and political strengths and when the ’97 financial crisis imploded the economic pillar, the legitimacy of the state collapsed.
But democracy is not just free elections and a system of accountability, says Dewi. “What is it accountable for?” She describes the energy of young protestors in her country or the People’s Power movement of the Philippines as the ramming force breaking down the door. “But what do you do when you’re inside.”
This rings such a loud bell in MENA: many are inside, but what now? To this end the citizens gathered in Rabat, organized by the World Bank and CARE Egypt as the institutional host for ANSA-Arab World, are learning about how to nurture the flame of citizen action in their countries; how to hold officials accountable; how to help people understand their citizenship roles and rights and how to organize towards a national understanding of the relationship between governed and governor. This is not organizing for another protest but organizing for the long-term social compact.
Roberto Saba, a law professor from Argentina and a former activist with civil rights groups, shared from his country the long and messy process of what it takes to learn to be effective citizens. “Military governments are very effective at destroying social fabric,” he said. It took a decade of building civil society, stumbling along the way, understanding corruption and forming a coalition for transparency. When the crisis of the early 2000’s hit, civil organizations were more evolved, prepared and when President Kirchner was elected with very weak support, he turned to civil society and asked, “what do you want?”
“If we weren’t prepared, we would have lost that moment,” said Roberto. It took over a decade to get there. In MENA now, this work is beginning, for the long haul.