|EuroMeSCo 2007 Annual Conference 2nd Preparatory Meeting "Civil Society, Human Rights and Democracy"|
The EuroMeSCo Secretariat, in collaboration with the Arab Center for Development and Futuristic Research (ACDFR) and with the support of the European Commission, organised a seminar on "Civil Society, Human Rights and Democracy" in the Mashreq region, on 26-28 April 2007 in Alexandria, Egypt.
This seminar acted as a preparatory meeting for the EuroMeSCo Annual Conference 2007 on the issue of "A Common Agenda Against Intolerance: Human Rights as a Shared Concern" that took place on 3-4 October 2007 in Lisbon during the Portuguese EU Presidency.
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The EuroMeSCo secretariat in collaboration with the Arab Centre for Development and Futuristic Research (ACDFR), based in Cairo, organised the seminar “Civil Society, Human Rights and Democracy” in the Mashreq region in Alexandria, on 26-28 April, 2007.
This was the second of the twin seminars on human rights organised with the support of the European Commission. The first one, focusing on the Maghreb region, was held in Meknès on 21-23 September, 2006). The key goal of the seminars was to elicit an update on the debate about the current state of enjoyment of human rights in the southern Mediterranean, as well on the role that the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership (EMP) should play in the protection of human rights.
Similarly to Meknès, this seminar was organised as part of the series of preparatory meetings for the 2007 EuroMeSCo Annual Conference. This year’s Annual Conference on “A common agenda against intolerance: human rights as a shared concern” will be held in Lisbon, on 5-7 October 2007.
The Alexandria seminar mainly gathered approximately a hundred civil society representatives and human rights activists, as well as journalists, experts, scholars and diplomats, from Egypt, the Mashrek, the Maghreb and Europe. However, the regrettable absence of Palestinian participants, often limited in their travelling, must be stressed. In this particular case, they were materially unable to leave the Gaza strip.
Among others, the seminar brought together Egyptian participants from different political currents (Muslim Brotherhood, different liberal and left-wing currents representatives, as well as from “apolitical” civil society, mainly dedicated to social activities, and from research centres and associations close to the government), which until then avoided each other, and even vetoed the participation of certain people or institutions from the opposition. In fact, this seminar favoured the first real dialogue between these opposing forces, thereby breaking the ice between moderate Islamist and secular currents, liberals and left-wing movements, as well as between reformers close to the government and the others.
The event got exceptional media coverage. Al-Jazeera broadcasted the entire seminar live, which is unusual, as the network generally broadcasts its own local or Arab origin activities. The life broadcast allowed Al-Jazeera’s large public to follow the seminar’s different sessions as well as the debates that ensued between civil society actors from different political currents, whom they were no longer used to seeing debating, but rather quarrelling. BBC broadcast special commentaries and interviews with certain participants. The independent daily – and one of the most influential and respected in Egypt, and third in terms of distribution – Elmasry Elyoum published an article on the seminar, as did other local newspapers such as Nahdet Masr, Al-Dostour, Ahram Hebdo and Alahaly and Alnahar, apart from numerous important online sites.
The interventions of Gamil Matar, of the ACDFR and Mohamed ElSayed Said, of the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies (ACPSS) during the opening session straightforwardly acknowledged the fact that in the past five years democracy has been in steady decline in the Mashrek region, a finding that was confirmed throughout the two-day seminar. According to most participants, this decline is the result of US policy in the region carried out in the framework of the “war against terrorism”. In their view, this policy negatively impacted on the region’s human rights situation. The “war against terrorism” and “American project in the region” contexts served as pretexts for Arab authoritarian regimes to curb the scope of action of civil society actors (and, particularly, of human rights activists), and even impose emergency laws.
The discussions during the session on “Fundamental Rights: Between Universality and Specificity” (as well as on different occasions such as the session on “Religion and Politics in the Public Sphere” and the working group sessions on intolerance and civil society challenges) highlighted an issue that is central to the debate among today’s Egyptian and Arab “secular” or “liberal” civil society actors: how should Islamist currents be viewed and what attitudes should be adopted vis-à-vis the former, bearing in mind that they are generally perceived as an obstacle in the way of democratisation and modernisation, since they advocate the “cultural specificity of the Muslim-Arab world” and consider that human rights are a “western import”?
A number of participants disputed such a “rigid” understanding of Islamist-inspired movements’ discourse, and argued that rather than being static entities, the former have developed and continue to develop in a clear social and political context. They believe that a “dynamic” understanding of this phenomenon is thus needed. Furthermore, they challenged the exclusivist view of some civil society actors on their Islamist “colleagues”, while at the same time stressing the importance of solidarity among civil society actors in spite of the diversity in points of view.
Others emphasized the need to reinterpret the religious texts, to modernise social values and change mentalities. They argued that precisely because these actors are based on an Islamic point of reference, by definition they exclude fellow countrymen belonging to a different religion or with different beliefs.
The debate on this issue is far from being over.
The session on “The place of Human Rights in the discourse and activities of civil society organisations”, as well as the working group sessions on intolerance, freedom of expression, women’s rights and civil society challenges reflected in greater detail the relative decline of the region’s human rights situation.
The working group on “Intolerance and Protection of Fundamental Rights” stressed, among other issues, the impact of the regional political context on intra-communitarian stability and on the rising intolerance in a number of Mashrek countries such as Egypt.
The working group on freedom of expression drew an alarming picture of increasing repression by authoritarian regimes (for instance, Syria) of civil society actors such as human rights activists and journalists (expressed in lack of liberties, lack of freedom of assembly, phone-tabbing, home surveillance, intimidation and accusations of treason and of collaboration with the United States and Israel), and called for laws on the protection of journalists and forbidding persecution of the former on account of the exercise of their freedom of expression to be drafted.
Participants also dwelled on the issue of internet in Arab countries, particularly in Egypt, and more specifically on the problem of access to information, and highlighted the importance of access to transparent and credible information sources, the need to suppress all control over the media such as through internet “filtering”.
Furthermore, they addressed the state of affairs of the Arab media in general, focusing on, among others issues, the role played by satellite TV stations, and particularly the impact of religious programmes and artistic production influenced by the guidelines of the “oil countries”, that impose another form of censorship on expression, and exert a type of social censorship which can often be more vicious than the one operated by political powers.
The working group session on women’s rights called for, among other issues, fair laws vis-à-vis civil society and particularly women to be drafted, for reservations to CEDAW to be lifted, and for the promotion of a mentality change vis-à-vis the image of the woman through the media and school syllabuses.
The session on “The place of Human Rights in the discourse and activities of civil society organisations”, as well as the working group session on “Civil Society Challenges” emphasized the extent to which civil society institutions are hampered by problems in their internal structure, which explains why the protection of human rights is not one of their priorities. Among other obstacles, participants spoke of the lack of internal democracy and good governance within civil society organisations, as well as of an institutional culture, of a balance between a spirit of voluntarism and professionalism, the lack of agreement between civil society organisation’s own agendas and those of lobbyers, the question of continuity and financing, and the gap between activists (in the field) and the academic world. In addition, they noted, on the one hand, the lack of solidarity and cohesion between different civil society organisations at the national level and, on the other hand, the existence of number of problems in the Arab network of civil society organisations, at the regional level.
During the session on “Human Rights in the Euro-Mediterranean Agenda: The EMP and Neighbourhood Policy”, as well as in the closing session (and perhaps even the opening session) a number of Arab participants called for a more substantial presence of European institutions in this type of initiative. They mainly deplored the European policy in the region that they believe has often conformed to the line of the US policy. Without denying the responsibility of their governments and civil society organisations, they expressed a certain nostalgia or bitterness toward what they considered to be Europe’s disengagement with regards to protection of the values of democracy and human rights in the region. This is worsened by the fact that in their view Europe represents an alternative to the “American model in the region”, inasmuch as the former could restore regional order, especially in the aftermath of the real failure of US policies in the region, particularly in Iraq, and the conversion of the war against terrorism into one of the main causes for the expansion of terrorism and intolerance in the world. Without supporting a draw or some sort of cold war between Europe and the United-States, they hoped that these transformations could be benefited from to establish critical dialogue within the Euro-Mediterranean area, with the aim of elaborating well-balanced policies on democracy, human rights and the reinforcement of civil society in the Mashrek region.
During the closing session, the Arab League representative, Mahmoud Rashed, reminded his organisation’s interest in human rights issues, expressed, for instance, in the adoption in 1994 of the Arab Charter of Human Rights.
In sum, the importance of increasing the number of this kind of EuroMeSCo meetings in the presence of European experts must be stressed, with the aim of urging an open and critical Euro-Mediterranean dialogue, particularly since the EuroMeSCo network is increasingly concerned with matters linked to civil society in this region and could become a platform for debate and exchange, and play a confidence-building role. Intra-regional meetings would favour, among other things, an enriching exchange of experience between civil society actors of the Maghreb and Mashrek, since they develop in different social and political contexts. Given that these regional meetings that tend to favour themes and concerns of the host country’s civil society actors (Morocco and Egypt, in the case of the Meknès and the Alexandria seminar, respectively), it would be important to, in the short-term, organise meetings at the national scale, if possible in each of the other Mashrek (Palestine, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon) and the Maghreb countries at stake (Algeria and Tunisia).