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The Arab World’s Democratic Transition Has Kicked Off In Sarajevo

Above photo: Conclusion of the ‘Democratic Transition in the Arab World: roadmap’ conference on October 8, 2023. @ARCFOfficial/X.

It is ironic that a conference on democracy in the Arab world could not be held in the capital of any Arab country.

It is ironic that a conference on democracy in the Arab world could not be held in the capital of any Arab country, and was instead held in the capital of a politically-unstable Balkan state that itself remains vulnerable to separatist and ethnic intrigues.

According to the Arab Council, its landmark conference “Democratic Transition in the Arab World: Roadmap” was held in the Bosnian city of Sarajevo because they “couldn’t locate any Arab capital willing to host a conference on the future of democracy in the region” and were unable to find “a single Arab city where advocates for democracy from various Arab countries and the Arab diaspora could gather without concerns about visas, entry denials or government pressure.”

The council chose Sarajevo “because of its significant symbolism as a city that endured war, conflicts and devastation, and transformed into a symbol of recovery, coexistence and cultural and religious diversity.” That history, it said, offers “us, as Arab elites living in the midst of conflict, valuable lessons about post-conflict situations, [and] how to establish peace, reconciliation, transitional justice and nation-building.”

The conference was essentially built on the premise of the decline of the Arab Spring revolutions that erupted 12 years ago, a process which saw the deterioration and regression of the affected counties – Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and partly Libya – into authoritarianism and dictatorship.

As the efforts to “turn the page on despotism and corruption and establish true democracy, citizenship and good governance remain relatively ineffective in the face of regime violence and coordination between these regimes,” as well the continuation of “support of regional and international powers to maintain the status quo and prevent the spread of a new wave of liberation,” the conference aimed to bring democratic opposition forces together, “coordinate their efforts, and collaborate to understand these challenges and develop strategies and policies” to counter their relevant regimes.

Rather than being one of the many gatherings that address matters in the short term, this conference had the specific goal of outlining “a roadmap for democratic struggle in Arab countries in the coming decades,” and to establish what would be the nucleus of an “Arab Democratic Network” to advance the struggle for the Arab world’s freedom under rule of law and sound democratic institutions.

The event was opened by the Arab Council’s founders and leaders – Moncef Marzouki, Ayman Nur and Tawakkol Karman – who spoke on the past struggles of democracy in the Arab world, especially their own experiences, and on the challenges that it would face in the years to come.

Marzouki was President of Tunisia from 2011 to 2014. He began by stating that democrats in the Arab world must learn from all past mistakes and look to the future. It is already 10 years late, he stressed, warning that those involved in the struggle must ensure that they are honest, and re-evaluate the mistakes and solutions.

Arab dictators and their regimes are by their nature outdated, said Marzouki, as they operate by the predominant ideology of the 19th century and the methods of the 20th century, assumed to be a reference to the idea of innate rulership and the practice of mechanised political suppression. He emphasised the importance of Arabs being part of a global democratic order, in that they could form their own network amid the struggle for wider global democratisation.

In those efforts, we must prepare for the new stage of revolution, in this case the gathering and presence of a cultural, academic and intellectual Arab elite at the conference in order to crystallise democratic thought.

Democracy in the heart of the Arab world [Egypt] is falsified

Ayman Nur, the former Egyptian MP and 2005 presidential candidate, set the tone of the Arab Spring’s decline by recalling that he belongs to a generation in which the Arab world experienced many defeats – both militarily and politically – but that Egypt’s military gains in the 1973 war against Israel gave people a rare feeling of victory. He recounted his efforts in the 2005 election in Egypt and his subsequent imprisonment, maintaining that elections in the country resemble a drama or play and that contemporary opposition candidates still have many strange conditions imposed upon them in order to restrict their chances of running for office. “Democracy in the heart of the Arab world [Egypt} is falsified,” he lamented, praying that the conference will be the “spark for a new wave of the Arab Spring that is upcoming.”

Yemeni journalist, politician, human rights activist and Nobel Laureate Tawakkol Karman described authoritarian systems and their continuation as a direct result of colonial heritage. Dictators and armed militant groups, she said, are sicknesses in society that must be rooted out. She condemned the counterrevolutions throughout the region as not only destroying the efforts and sacrifices made in the Arab Spring, but also failing to result in any benefits or reforms, adding that they will only encourage further revolutions.

Karman accused the democratic West of having abandoned the Arab world to its dictators and failing to ensure the countries’ democratic transition, maintaining that the international community as a whole remains silent. She called on the West to stop giving support to counterrevolutions in the Arab world and legitimising the dictators.

The first day of the conference was marked by panels of experts, political figures, human rights defenders, journalists and academics who covered a number of topics. The first was an assessment of democracy in the Arab world, which focused on the causes of its failure and the various factors and influences that obstructed the democratic transition and its progress.

The second panel looked at the future of democracy in the Arab world, searching for potential solutions to resume the stalled democratic transition in the region. The third panel was more theoretical, in that it discussed the crisis of democracy and the revision of its concepts, outlining the crisis of representative democracy amid corruption in the media and subsequently on elections.

On the second day, participants were grouped into four different workshops according to their expertise, where they discussed and brainstormed ideas and strategies toward achieving the future democratic transition. Those workshop topics consisted of concepts, political and economic-development, the establishment and structure of a network for Arab democrats, and the role of media and communication.

During the closing session, the Arab Council’s “Sarajevo Declaration” was announced and shared with all, reiterating that “only democratic countries are capable of building a single Arab space that fulfils the aspirations of the Arab peoples for unity” and that “tyranny… has no horizon other than further plunging our people into poverty, oppression, division and war.”

The declaration set out the three primary goals of the council and its landmark conference: the establishment of a “network of Arab democrats”; the adoption of a “clear roadmap aimed at supporting and accelerating the paths of democratic transformation in the region and contributing to its maturity”; and engagement in “joint collective action by all peaceful means, whether political, intellectual, legal or media, until victory is achieved for the Arab democratic project.”

Despite the conference’s heavy use of rhetoric, as lamented by many participants, it did contain significant and considerable discussion – often heated and passionate – between participants. It was thus a democratic process and council that is much-needed.

It has been cited and presented as a kick-start to the Arab democratic process which has deteriorated over the past decade since the decline of the Arab Spring. It certainly has the potential to serve as the nucleus for its revival, at least in terms of values-building and strategic action.

While the conference hosts were Bosnian and the location was the historic and picturesque city of Sarajevo, that was hardly unusual. Numerous other conferences for a century and more have seen nascent national movements and even governments meeting in foreign cities.

The 5th Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party in 1907 was held in London, for example, and preceded the communist revolution in Russia by a decade. It was attended by figures such as Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky. The Arab Congress of 1913 was held in Paris. Participants discussed autonomy for Arab nations amid the impending fall of the Ottoman Empire.

Such conferences and their outcomes – despite being held in foreign lands – led directly to participants and their backers coming to power, so it may also be the case for the “Democratic Transition in the Arab World: Roadmap” conference. That is the great hope of those who took part. A lot depends, of course, on the momentum of the movement, the pragmatism of its strategies, the efficiency of its actions, and the wider geopolitical context upon which it must operate.

“We are in Sarajevo now,” said many participants, “but hopefully we will meet in an Arab country next time.” If the Arab Council succeeds in preparing for the next wave of the Arab Spring that is predicted to happen, democratic leadership in the Arab world may yet have another chance.

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