Transitioning Dictatorship to Democracy: Workshops in Best Practices and Insight Sharing
The Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, Georgetown University and the Turkish Prime Ministry’s Office of Public Diplomacy
On October 6-7, 2011, the Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding and the Turkish Prime Minister’s Office of Public Diplomacy co-hosted a conference in Istanbul, Turkey to discuss the prospects for democratic transitions after this year’s historic Arab uprisings. The conference, titled “Transitioning Dictatorship to Democracy: Workshops in Best Practices & Insight Sharing,” brought together leading figures from the Arab Spring, including Egyptian, Tunisian, and Palestinian activists, politicians, and scholars. They were joined by a diverse array of participants from Turkey, Europe, and the United States.
Recent events in the Arab world have ushered in a new era in the history of the Middle East. Spreading to several major countries in a short period of time, they have exposed the fragility of oppressive regimes and shattered the existing myths about Arab and Muslim societies. Beset by political and economic problems, Arab masses have taken upon themselves to chart a new course for their societies.
Transitioning to democracy, however, is a work in progress and will require a concerted effort by all stakeholders. While the compatibility of Islam and democracy has been largely resolved, the practical challenges of establishing a functioning democracy after decades of authoritarianism in countries like Egypt and Tunisia shape the existing political processes. In addition, entrenched elites, military and security forces, economic difficulties, poverty, debt, corruption and illiteracy remain major problems.
The meeting’s aim was to assess the current situation in the Arab world, set new goals for the future, and identify the ways to get there. The workshops drew on the expertise and experience of political and social actors from different backgrounds to discuss best practices and lessons learned. Rather than being an intellectual exercise, the discussions focused on practical outcomes and concrete recommendations. The workshops also provided space to listen to the ongoing challenges in Tunisia and Egypt and the future of the unfolding political processes in those countries.
Led by ACMCU Founding Director and University Professor, John L. Esposito, and Ibrahim Kalin, Chief Advisor to the Prime Minister of Turkey, the conference opened with a discussion about the implications of the historic anti-government movements in the Middle East. The events of 2011 have shattered myths about the Arab world, disproving the “conventional wisdom” that Arabs do not want democracy, and indeed inspiring others around the world to take to the streets to demand change. The nearly 60-person conference featured Rashid Ghannoushi from Tunisia’s Al-Nahda Party, Egyptian presidential candidate Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, as well as representatives from Egypt’s Freedom & Justice Party, local NGOs, and Turkish media. Other participants included youth activists, civil society leaders, journalists, and political analysts from around the world.
As with any major transition, the process of establishing democracy in formerly authoritarian societies will take time. With this in mind, participants discussed how to make these transitions possible in a manner that is both timely and long-lasting. In addition to the practical steps required to make such seismic political and social changes, the sessions addressed larger questions about the consequences of the Arab Spring. What do these major shifts mean for issues of secularism, democracy, and Islam? What are the implications for regional and global politics, and how can we establish a new paradigm for the way Western governments deal with the region?
The initial discussions centered on the question of “Where are we now?” analyzing conditions on the ground in post-uprising countries. The subsequent sessions outlined a set of goals for the new economic and political orders to emerge in the next five to ten years. In these sessions, members of Egyptian NGOs and political parties traded insights with their Tunisian counterparts. While participants agreed that it would take many years for democracy to actually take root in these societies, they insisted that the transition itself must begin immediately. If real incremental changes are not made quickly, they argued, citizens will lose faith in the spirit of revolution.
Later, participants from the EU and the US weighed in on the role, if any, of Western governments in the reshaping of these new Arab states. Many of those present felt that the West, and the United States in particular, represented a less significant force today than in years past, evidenced in part by their delayed support for the uprisings. Regardless of the specific contributions from the West – whether financial, political, or otherwise – participants affirmed the importance of having the local citizenry claim ownership of their own political future.
Following the first day’s sessions, participants attended a dinner where they heard separate remarks from Turkish MP Omer Celik and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. Celik spoke of the democratic values espoused by the Turkish ruling party, AKP, and argued that while they are Muslim in religion, they do not consider themselves political “Islamists.” In Davutoglu’s remarks, he praised the model of pluralism and multicultural in classical Islamic societies and expressed a similar vision for the future of the Middle East.
In the final sessions of the conference, speakers advanced a set of realistic goals and recommendations to help overcome the social, economic, and political challenges currently plaguing the Arab world’s post-revolution countries. Participants proposed ideas to help create a link between regular people’s daily needs and the high-minded revolutionary ideals of “freedom, justice, and dignity.” Recent polls have found that the primary concerns of average citizens in Egypt and elsewhere included safety and security, but even more importantly, economic stability. As a point of comparison, members of Egypt and Tunisia’s newly-active political parties discussed the success of Turkey’s AK Party, which has maintained popular support due largely to its revitalization of Turkey’s economy.
While speakers acknowledged a number of ongoing challenges, including the continued state of emergency law and military tribunals in Egypt, they remained optimistic about the prospects for the future. There was a general sense that the upcoming elections in Tunisia and Egypt would be free and fair, setting the stage for a new era in Middle East politics.
News Coverage (English-language):
October 4, 2011
Hurriyet Daily News: Arab Spring to be debated in Istanbul
October 6, 2011
Today’s Zaman: Two-day workshop on Arab Spring kicks off in İstanbul
October 7, 2011
Dunya: Two-day workshop on Arab spring kicks off in Istanbul
October 7, 2011
Today’s Zaman: Ghannushi: Turkey is a model that merges Islam and democracy
October 19, 2011
New York Times: Rachid al-Ghannouchi Imagines a Democratic Future for Tunisia by Anthony Shadid
October 22, 2011
Huffington Post: Egypt Eight Months Later: Transitioning from Dictatorship to Democracy? by John L. Esposito
November 7, 2011
Huffington Post: Is Egypt's Arab Spring in Danger of Being Hijacked? by John L. Esposito