Democracy That Delivers

Freedom of Association in the Middle East and the North of Africa

The Context

In the Mediterranean and Middle East region, numerous inter-governmental and civil society initiatives have affirmed social and political rights and identified the need for increased civic participation as essential for modernization.  However, the reality in the region has not matched the standards promulgated. States of emergency, anti-terrorism laws and authoritarian governments have limited the formation of, and participation in, civil society organizations and political parties and processes.

Throughout the region, laws that govern civil society organizations’ registration processes and provide (limited) space for organizations to work are generally prohibitive. Civil society organizations deemed to be engaged in work that is political are those most likely to be banned, restricted, monitored and censored. While a country may claim to have a vibrant civil society environment, reflected by the number of registered organizations, these are usually not working in the field of human rights and democracy. Institutions engaged in such work face cumbersome registration processes, restrictions on receiving international funding, limitations on activities, harassment by security forces, and censorship in the local press. Because political pluralism and social freedoms are not guaranteed, civil society has worked to fill this void, and as a result come under intense scrutiny and is up against many obstacles. Authoritarian regimes and non-democratic governments work to contain opposition and freedoms in order to protect their own positions and power, and civil society actors increasingly are marginalized, resulting in societal dysfunction. While in the short term this may be manageable, in the long term coupled with increasing income disparity and lack of basic needs and services, this will result in a more disenfranchised citizenry, less willing to cooperate with their governments and rulers, and likely a larger and more radicalized opposition.

The Project

As social demands for democratic participation increasingly call into question current government structures, this initiative, funded by the European Commission and the UN Democracy Fund, addressed the need for consensus and a shared vision for the advancement of ongoing reform processes.

Launched in February 2007, in response to an expressed need for greater efforts towards and in support of democratic dialogue and freedom of association in the Arab world, this project aimed to strengthen discourse and association in the Middle East and North Africa. Calling on the leadership experience of its Members and working with local partners promoting the constructive engagement of civil society, the Club de Madrid provided strategic counsel to leaders for reform in Bahrain, Jordan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Egypt. The Club de Madrid did not impose external ideals, but rather worked with local partners to discreetly nurture and facilitate the construction of discourse for democratic reform and development. Responding to the political context and efforts towards reform in each country, Club de Madrid members – leaders who have faced similar leadership challenges, many directly related to the democratic transformation of their own countries – shared relevant experiences and provided counsel. By supporting dialogue between authorities and civil society, Club de Madrid worked to transcend current constraints and create important policy frameworks and goals to build a shared vision of society, and advance and better protect citizen’s rights.

Former Prime Ministers and Presidents involved: Club of Madrid Members Abdulkarim Al Eryani (Yemen), Al Imam Sadig Al Mahdi (Sudan), Valdis Birkavs (Latvia), Kjell Magne Bondevik (Norway), Philip Dimitrov (Bulgaria),  Felipe González (Spain), Lionel Jospin (France), Wim Kok (the Netherlands), Zlatko Lagumdzija (Bosnia & Herzegovina), Jorge Quiroga (Bolivia), Petre Roman (Romania), Jennifer Shipley (New Zealand), Cassam Uteem (Mauritius); and Eduardo Rodríguez Veltzé (Bolivia).

The Club of Madrid has worked with: Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan, Bahrain Center for National Studies, Maroc 2020 (Morocco), the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies (Saudi Arabia), the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies (Egypt), and FRIDE: Fundación para las Relaciones Internacionales y el Diálogo Exterior (Madrid, Spain). 

Project Activities and Recommendations

Project Achievements and Challenges

Read the Project Final Publication

Next Steps

Project participants expressed a need for continued engagement in the region, and specifically for the Club de Madrid to remain engaged; and identified the following recommended next steps: a) more capacity building activities for civil society organizations; b) a continued push for project findings and recommendations to become actual policy and practice; c) increased dissemination of recommendations; d) continued efforts to shake-up the current political stagnation; e) continued push for the institutionalization of dialogue; f) coordination with other organizations working in the same area for greater effectiveness (particularly the Friedrich Naumann-Stiftung für die Freiheit and the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network); and g) further provision of information on successful and politically and culturally relevant national transition processes, including the Spanish transition.

The Club de Madrid is currently seeking follow on funding and support for continued regional programming and hopes to commence its second phase of project activities early 2010.


Club de Madrid
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