Since the Arab Spring that spread in the Arab world during the first decade of the 21st century, Arab reformers have received several setbacks in terms of effort for reform and democracy. These setbacks, however, have not hurt one important sector in the Arab world; civil society.
Not-for-profit organisations have continued to spread despite the increase in pressure to control and restrict their activities. Individuals frustrated with the political process and the absence of any serious role for parties and elected officials have resorted to voluntary organisations which work on anything from human rights to youth activism, women empowerment, labour organising, legal aid, environmental awareness and many other fields. Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have spread quickly and have become an important sector in society despite the many efforts by governing bodies to defame them and to restrict their work and their ability to fundraise or to hold public meetings.
The relative success of these organisations has led to the creation of local and regional networks that aim to maximise their effectiveness and to help protect themselves from the onslaughts of the government executive branches. Countries which have experienced civil wars and occupation, like Lebanon and Palestine, appear to have had more success in this sector than other countries. The reason is simple; in the absence of a central national power that is accepted by the population, many of these NGOs have acted as surrogate governmental bodies providing important services to the public, such as education and health, while at the same time insisting that they have the right to call for political reform in their own countries.
What has led to the success of these civil society organisations was the fact that many of their founders and key personnel have become well-informed of the opportunities that are provided to them by networking in regional and international forums. These interactions have widened the knowledge of these organisations and at the same time gave the organisations a chance to build strong networking relationships with their colleagues around the world.
One of the early lessons that civil society activists have learned in the past decades has been the need to leverage their own local and regional networking opportunities on the level of regional organisations.
The League of Arab States has been one of the regional inter-governmental organisations that has become a target for civil society organisations who are trying to influence the league in the hope of "improving their policy and decision making processes, build better relations with their contents, who are ultimately the people living in the Arab states and to promote greater democracy in and accountability for their work”.
The above mentioned quote comes from a draft charter under the title “Charter for improving civil society engagement with the League of Arab States” that is being circulated for signature by civil society organisations in the Arab states.
This effort is being carried out by a consortium of civil society organisations, including Madar in Palestine, Maharat in Lebanon and Transparency Maroc in coordination with the Canadian-based Centre for Law and Democracy.
The organisers are meeting this week in Amman to chart their next moves that are aimed at engaging the League of Arab States, which has so far been not responsive to calls for such cooperation with Arab civil society.
Over the years, the Arab League has made some gestures towards civil society, including an initiative introduced by former secretary general of the Arab League Amr Moussa in 2002, which included the creation of the post of commissioner of the secretary general for Civil Society. Several prominent Arab figures were appointed to this post, such as Taher Al Masri. It was later developed into the envoy of the secretary general to Civil Society, a post which was filled by ambassador Nancy Bakir, then ambassador Haifa Abu Ghazaleh. But this initiative, as well as other efforts, fell short of practices by similar bodies around the world.
The organisers of the conference taking place in Jordan carried out a study of what other intergovernmental organisations are doing in this regard and concluded that the League of Arab States "falls far short of better international practice", including the practice of similar intergovernmental organisations in other regions of the world, when it comes to engaging with civil society.
Some of the conclusions that the authors of the study have made include the need to consult on consultation, the Arab League should make a commitment at the front end of this process to substantially revise its current approach to civil society engagement and, as part of that, adopt a new policy or policy framework for this.
Consideration should be given to creating a new, dedicated structure within the Arab League to lead on this process, to build trust with civil society organisations and to overcome previous tensions within the relationship.
The League of Arab States is also called to open and allow more access to information, to engage civil society by granting them accreditation in the form of observer's status to members wishing to attend and contribute to the league's regular meetings and summits.
There is no doubt that Arab civil society organisations have an uphill battle facing them. The effort at networking national and regionally and the continued pressing intergovernmental organisations to engage is important and must continue. Eventually such efforts will bring about a breakthrough.