Inclusive Peace & Transition Initiative

Arab Spring: Challenges during Political Transitions and Comparative Lessons for Civil Societies in the Middle East and North Africa

The objective of this project was to strengthen the role and sustainable participation of civil society groups in the Middle East and North Africa during the consolidation phase of the transitions they underwent during the Arab Spring. While the project made a clear distinction between each country’s dynamics of upheaval, it aimed to generate comparative international and regional insights on challenges and possible response strategies for civil society by providing a space for dialogue and reflection for civil society movements, comparative learning from transition processes both within and outside the MENA region, and a space for exchange between various civil society groups, politicians, regional and international experts, and donors.

The 2011 wave of popular uprisings that took place in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) brought together several societal actors who have since pushed for a significant socioeconomic and political transformation of their countries. Among these actors, civil society movements (including women and youth organizations) have been particularly present and active. To a large extent and in varying forms, they have arguably been in the driving seat of these changes, whether in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, or elsewhere in the region.

Such a development is not unique to the MENA region. A similar key role for civil society was previously observed on an equally large regional scale during transitions from authoritarian to democratic rule in Latin America in the 1980s as well as in Eastern Europe in the 1990s. In other parts of the world, such movements have also substantially contributed to the ending of wars and, concomitantly, various authoritarian regimes.

Yet, research and experience demonstrate that civil society often loses its decisive role in the phase after the immediate transition. While civil society generally proves to be united by a common goal during the 'revolution' phase, the challenges of 'building a new order’ are manifold. In particular, there is a high risk that civil society will lose its influence over the transition process. Former elites may challenge or impede the set up of new institutional frameworks and their functioning, power struggles within and among groups can persist and lead to fragmentation, and civil groups may lose their leaders as these become politicians. Additionally, loose and consensual civil society movements can end up being transformed into non-governmental organizations with limited goals and increasing dependence on external donor funding. Overall, civil society often becomes a service provider for vulnerable groups in need instead of exerting a real influence and playing a role of counter power through different political roles inside and outside the official governance structures. Being aware of the pitfalls and challenges facing civil society during the uneasy and often lengthy transition periods is therefore essential.

The project organized core regional workshops and various consultations in Europe and the MENA region, and disseminated issue briefs providing guidance to civil society, politicians and international actors and donors, as well as academic publications. A first workshop was held in April in Amman (Jordan), and brought together more than 70 participants from Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, Morocco, Algeria, Lebanon and Jordan which included civil society activists, international and regional researchers as well as diplomats and donor representatives.