Friday, February 11, 2011

Building civil society institutions in post-authoritarian regimes

    Friday, February 11, 2011   No comments


by Ahmed E, Souaiaia*
Regardless of what happen in the next months, the year 2011 will enter the history books as the breakthrough year for Arab societies. On January 14, 2011, the Tunisian people ended the reign of a ruthless dictator and with it ended fear. The Tunisian revolution soon inspired peoples of other Arab countries to take charge of their own destiny. On January 23, thousands of Egyptians launched a similar revolt to bring an end to Hosni Mubarak’s reign. There are indications that Yemen, Algeria, Morocco, and Jordan will be transformed with or without protests. The Gulf states, too, will not remain unaffected by revolutions that are not only bringing about political change but also psychological transformation in the soul of Arab citizens; people taking charge of their own destiny and taking full ownership of their state of affairs.
The future of Arab societies is dependent on the transition from authoritarian rule to pluralism. There are many who are calling on the creation of civil society institutions starting with political parties, NGOs, and free press. In fact, just today, it was reported that a group of Saudis formally requested from the kind to allow them to form a political party. It is all positive change, but it may be placing emphasis on the wrong priorities. Establishing these entities immediately may have a long term negative impact on issues of social justice and rule of law. Replacing one-man Arab regimes by multi parties regimes can be just as oppressive and perhaps more suffocating. Instead, it is argued here that the transition to self-governance can be achieved when the separation of power takes precedence over partisan power sharing.
Not to suggest that power sharing among various political parties and representatives of interest groups is not a good thing, for it is. But the power sharing model is also susceptible to creating elite that could--and in most cases did--fence out marginalized minorities and the vulnerable groups and individuals.
What is proposed here is to focus the energy of change ushered in by these popular movements to create safeguards that shore up the rule of law, separate governing authorities, and empower watchdog organizations. The first step for establishing stable self-governing societies in the Arab world is to use the transitional period to draft constitutions, subject to popular referendum, that enshrine the independence of the judiciary, the sovereignty of the legislature, and the service-centered authority of the executive power.
To begin by establishing political parties and NGOs before securing the separation of powers is similar to placing the chariot before the horse. After all, one could ask, how effective can a human rights organization be in a paradigm where the judicial authority answers to the executive officer whose agents are generally the main culprits of committing human rights violations? The authoritarian Arab regimes were able to oppress with impunity because the legislature and the judiciary were tools in their hand. They used these branches of government to provide them with legal and legislative covers even as they arbitrarily arrested citizens, tortured political opponents, and misused public funds.
It will be utterly misguided if the new ruling elite that will emerge after these popular revolutions are allowed to create a new paradigm that would give the illusion of pluralistic governance but in reality preserve a power structure that marginalizes vulnerable social groups.
Civil society institutions are strongest when the legal and judicial mechanisms upon which they are founded are sound. Practically, this can be achieved by recognizing the various layers of civil society institutions.
First, constitutional and legal separation of powers must be guaranteed and established in reality. Moreover, leaders must find creative ways to evaluate and tenure judges. The less politics is involved in identifying, reviewing, and conferring tenure for judges the more empowered the judiciary will be in its application of the law and in preventing abuse of power.
The second important layer of civil society institutions consists of the presence of free and independent press. In most Arab countries, there are many news and media outlets that claim to be free and independent. A close examination of the structure of these institutions and the control over them reveal that they are not necessarily free and independent. Medial and press outlets in Arab countries are either state owned or privately controlled. The privately controlled outlets include newspapers and other media that are owned by political parties, unions, associations, and businesspersons. While the government controlled media are essentially propaganda tools, the privately held outlets promote the narrow interests of the shareholders and owners. Given that the press’ mission is to inform the public, one can hardly believe that an entity thus structured could indeed fulfill its mission with integrity. After all, how could such an institution faithfully serve two masters—the shareholders/owners and the public?
A free and independent press should have as primary mission the dissemination of critical information to citizens. It should exist to inform and to keep the governments’ dealings open and transparent. That goal cannot be achieved if the media or the press answers to shareholders or to political parties’ leaders. Creative and imaginative ways must be used to categorize and license free and independent press—perhaps relying on a combination of public funding, education, training, and legal regulations.
The last layer of civil society institutions would consist of any and all social groups representing all kinds of interests. This layer will be critical in providing services and empowering minorities, but as stated above, it cannot perform its functions if there is no rule of law or if the branches of government are not separate and sovereign.
Islamic societies are at a critical juncture. They could use this opportunity and build forward looking societies. They have a chance to learn from the mistakes of other societies: they can draft better constitutions, they can elect better leaders, and they can establish stronger foundations for the emergence of civil society institutions. They can turn the disadvantage of embracing pluralistic governance late by learning from the mistakes of those who preceded them. They could rely on hindsight to move beyond the shortcomings of older systems. They can reflect on the decades of hopelessness, marginalization, oppression, and denial of basic rights to create inclusive, civil, and proud peoples. They can give meaning to their existence in the clarity of collective wisdom, in the soberness of knowledge, and in the hopeful determination of dreamers.
Professor Souaiaia, teaches classes in the department of Religious Studies, International Programs, and College of Law at the University of Iowa. Opinions expressed herein are the author’s, speaking as a citizen on matters of public interest; not speaking for the University or any other organization with which he is affiliated.

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