North Africa, West Asia

Getting transition right

Gathering in Salzburg, Austria looks at improving diversity and inclusion in the post-revolution MENA region.

Louise Hallman
16 December 2013

The photo of Coptic Christians protecting Muslims as they prayed in Tahrir Square was one of the most striking images of the Egyptian revolution, and the Arab Spring at large. It is all the more striking now given the level of violence directed at both the Christian minority and the Muslim majority populations in Egypt in the past two years.

The so-called “Arab Spring”, which started nearly two years ago and is arguably still ongoing, showed how exclusion – from decision-making processes, economic opportunity, social equality – leads people to create new channels to proclaim their rights.

That photo illustrated what could be achieved when diverse voices come together.

But since the heady days of 2011, which saw several decades-old dictatorships across the region toppled in mere months of each other as whole swathes of society – men and women, old and young, Christian and Muslim – took to the streets to demand greater human rights and social equity, the early optimism has waned.

Tunisia struggles still with the economic problems that led to Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation. Fractious fighting has continued in Yemen, in whose north sectarianism is taking hold, whilst in the south, a feeling of betrayal has led to increased separatist sentiment. The new establishment is now “sharing the sweets among themselves” making ordinary Yemenis question what–if any–real progress has been made. In Libya, the once united sectors of society have lost their common purpose now that Gaddafi is gone. Despite successful elections, the General National Congress remains elusive, with the lack of constituency offices stopping citizens from accessing their elected representatives. “If you want something done, you’d better have a militia,” seems to be a common view. Powerful militias are now essentially holding Libya to ransom. In Egypt, a culture of retribution has taken hold. A developing group mentality – both of the majority and minorities – has led to a dehumanization of marginalized sections of society, in turn leading to increased violence coupled with an avoidance of personal responsibility.

As Belabbes Benkredda, founder of the Munathara Initiative, stated at an event held last week in Salzburg, Austria: “The Arab Spring is on life-support.”

The idyllic environs of Schloss Leopoldskron, Salzburg, Austria might seem an unlikely place to bring forty-five Middle East and North Africa-based civil society actors to discuss the state of the region, but as home to Salzburg Global Seminar – an organization formed in the wake of World War II to help bridge the intellectual divides in Europe and now with the mission of helping to “solve issues of global concern” – it provided the ideal place from November 1 to 5 for these activists, academics, donors and budding politicians to retreat, take stock and formulate plans of how to make their countries more inclusive and accepting of their long-established diverse communities.

“Death has become the new normal,” declared one participant bleakly on the first day of the seminar ‘Getting transition right: a rights-based approach towards diversity and inclusivity’, held by Salzburg Global and supported by the Arab Human Rights Fund.

Indeed, so far violence has been the most evident driver of change in the region, but engaging civil society is key to getting this democratic progress back on track. And whilst human security is a major concern of many people living in the region (“How can we even talk about minority rights when the right to life for all is not guaranteed in such violent societies?” asked an Egyptian participant), tackling inclusion and diversity is a crucial part of ensuring this security.

“Discrimination and exclusion doesn’t just make people’s lives a hassle, it ends in bloodshed,” stated H.A. Hellyer, Middle East and pluralism expert and speaker at the event, reflecting on the violence that has swept across Egypt, proving that it is not only minorities in the country that face exclusion and marginalization; the fast changing political climate can see one large section of the political landscape in power one day, only to be overthrown and vilified the next.  

Salzburg Global Seminar

H.A. Hellyer/Salzburg Global Seminar. All rights reserved.

Most of the participants in Salzburg this month came from newly established post-revolution civil society groups. Thousands of such groups have sprung up since the overthrow of Mubarak et al. The new NGOs now have a great role to play in delivering fairer, more inclusive change, embracing of all the diverse peoples and communities that exist across the MENA region.

Salzburg Global specializes in bringing together small, but diverse, groups of people together at its exclusive retreat at the foot of the Austrian Alps. Here, away from the distraction of their daily lives, this specially selected group of “Salzburg Global Fellows”, through a combination of lectures, plenary discussions and intensive group work, as well as meal times together and “fire-side chats”, are tasked with finding innovative solutions to complex problems.

After a weekend of discussions covering topics such as the role of Sharia and international human rights law; the importance of civil society engagement in policy making; the variety of diversity – and the subsequent discrimination – in the region; the changes in public perceptions and values regarding different marginalized groups; the value of quantitative research projects like the Bertelsmann Transformative Index; and most importantly, where funding can be found to help civil society actors tackle these issues, the Fellows formed working groups around the four focus countries of Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen.

Concrete proposals came out of their in-depth discussions: raising the age for marriage in Yemen to 18 to end child marriages and giving young women better opportunities by keeping them in schools longer; engaging law students in Tunisia to travel across the rural interior to make people, especially women, more aware of their rights and how to hold their newly elected representatives to account; building capacity of Libyan civil society groups to better enhance and expand the expression of diversity through media training workshops; and establishing some form of transitional justice mechanism to stop a growing culture of retribution further taking hold in Egypt. Each group called for measures to be written into their countries’ new constitutions to bring in quotas and affirmative action for the benefit of those traditionally excluded from the political elite such as women, young people and minorities, as well the removal of constitutional barriers for non-Muslims and other minorities to stand for president.

Salzburg Global Seminar

Salzburg Global Seminar. All rights reserved.

The civil society actors who took part in the five-day event will certainly have their work cut out for them as they return home. The revolutions started nearly two years ago, and whilst the dictators might have been removed from Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen, the hard work of building inclusive and diverse democratic societies will not be over any time soon.

As Rihab Elhaj, president of the New Libya Foundation, said during the seminar, the political will for human rights exists today, but Libya lacks political mechanisms for implementation.

Even if this political will is starting to emerge, inclusion and diversity advocacy groups must still overcome the widespread public impression that inclusion and diversity – and human rights at large – are external imports and not indigenous ideals. This view persists despite such revolutionary slogans as, “bread, freedom, dignity”. Civil society actors need to find a new language to galvanize support for inclusion and diversity, and inspire people in the same way as the chants of early days of the revolution did, to regain the “spirit of Tahrir”.

In-country taskforces are now being established by the Salzburg Global Fellows, with networks of collaboration and knowledge sharing springing up across borders, fuelled by their shared time in Salzburg. Follow-on events are in the works, led by Salzburg Global Seminar and the Arab Human Rights Fund.

Diversity has always existed in the Middle East; despite the earlier prevalence of Arab nationalism, the region has never been homogenous. These diverse voices jointly clambered for change in the region, but they are not all currently engaged in the process. The 45 participants of the Salzburg Global program are just a small part of trying to change that.

Until diversity within these societies is recognized, accepted and valued – be that of women, religious minorities, the long-politically-excluded youth, tribal and rural groups – the social fabric will remain fragile and the transition to democracy will be less secure.

The security situation across the Middle East and North Africa might be shaky at best, and deadly at worst, but as one Fellow declared during the event: “We might be in a mess, but it’s a fortunate mess.”

Salzburg Global Seminar

Salzburg Global Seminar. All rights reserved.

You can read more about the session ‘Getting Transition Right: A Rights-Based Approach Towards Diversity and Inclusivity’ on the Salzburg Global Seminar website:

A full report from the session will be published in February 2014.

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