During two years of project implementation, more than 500 national stakeholders representing government and civil society led and participated in 27 project activities aimed at building greater freedom of association in six countries in the Middle East-North Africa region.
The project resulted in a) active participation of over 500 leaders in Jordan, Bahrain, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Egypt from executive, judicial and legislative bodies including Heads of State and Government, Ministers, Upper and Lower House legislators, political parties and civil society organizations, activists, journalists and academics; b) consensus building processes and institutionalized dialogue advocacy resulting in locally owned and drafted policy recommendations for strengthened freedom of association and national reform processes reached through the engagement of government and civil society leaders; c) participation of civil society and government interlocutors in joint discussions to address unresolved roadblocks in national consensus building processes, sometimes initiating and facilitating direct, open dialogue for the first time between opposing parties; d) comprehensive reports on the situation of freedom of association in the region; e) delivery of policy recommendations to heads of government and state aimed at consolidating ongoing reform initiatives and advancing democratic values in the region; f) sharing of relevant democratic transition and consolidation experiences from Latin America, Eastern Europe, the Netherlands and Spain, and g) strengthening, and in some cases creating, an interstate advocacy network that has extracted promises at the highest levels for democratic reform; and h) dissemination of project findings and leadership commitments to European Union representatives and commissioners, as well as to government and civil society representatives attending international forums, to encourage their implementation as instruments for dialogue.
We identified two types of challenges during project implementation. The first represent obstacles dependent on the political will and commitment to reform of project countries; while the second are project-specific challenges that should be addressed in future programming to better ensure more successful and tangible results. The lack of real commitment by the leadership in project countries to allow for significant opening of political space is an overarching challenge to reform efforts generally and freedom of association efforts specifically. Many promises at the highest level were made during project activities, but actual change for the most part has yet to be seen. Unless there are strong push factors led by local reformists, coupled with external pressure, there is a clear risk of continuing stagnation. Looming danger of polarization in the countries of the region, as well as the economic crisis and its consequences on social stability and possible increase of authoritarianism to contain unrest, remain predominant concern. Finally, the inability due to political sensitivities to have real debates about power sharing and, specifically, the role of project countries’ King/President, means that deep, lasting reform is unlikely in the short-term.
Within the project, the need to more carefully select project countries has been a lesson learned, as the willingness of governments to engage in discussions and consensus building activities is key to achieving the objectives of such an initiative.