The Arab Awakening, Civil Society, and the Choice Between Two Ways of Governing

Several weeks ago, I met with Prime Minister Essid and other members of Tunisia’s government and parliament to discuss reforms and the serious economic and security challenges facing the country. And I heard from leaders in civil society about their work — from providing services in communities, to connecting citizens to their elected representatives, and advocating for reforms that will shield youth from radicalization and promote their civic participation.

When Tunisia’s former dictator, Ben Ali, fled amid the first revolution of the Arab Awakening in January of 2011, few believed that the road to democracy and good governance in this region would be easy, but many harbored the hope that there would be no turning back. I think most people understood that the region’s foundations were “sinking into sand,” as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in 2010; when the possibility of more accountable governments arose, we hoped they would be built on firmer ground.

My own hopes reached their highest point in April of 2011, when I drove from Egypt across eastern Libya just as the anti-Qaddafi uprising was getting under way. I stopped in the seaside town of Derna, where the walls were covered with something I’d never before seen in my life — the graffiti of revolutionary moderation. “Extremism is rejected,” one slogan read. “We want a country of institutions,” read another. No one I met in Derna, in Benghazi, in Tobruk, or later that year on a trip to Tripoli, wanted to replace tyranny with terrorism — and that includes many people I met who believed in a deeply conservative form of political Islam. They saw Qaddafi and al-Qaeda as two sides of the same totalitarian coin, and wanted to be rid of anyone who would impose a rigid ideology on them. They wanted a government that would deliver opportunity and prosperity, listen to their grievances, enforce and abide by the law, and otherwise leave them to pursue their goals in peace. I think that hope was shared by most of the young people who rose from Tunis to Benghazi to Cairo to Manama to Aleppo in 2011.

Four years later, in most of the region, that hope has yet to be realized.

In Egypt, many of the young leaders who assembled in Tahrir Square in 2011 are now in prison for violating a law that effectively bans peaceful assembly, and an extremist insurgency continues attacks on security and military forces in the Sinai. In Syria, Assad met peaceful protests with artillery fire and air strikes, creating a pathway to extremism alongside piles of corpses. From that cauldron, a new terrorist group arose that treats mass murder and sexual slavery as exploits to be boasted of on social media. In Yemen, a dictator who yielded now exploits sectarianism and regional rivalries to claw his way back, opening the space for al-Qaeda even wider and deepening the suffering of his people. And Derna, the Libyan town that I visited in 2011, was taken over last year by a small group of extremists who immediately started killing lawyers, judges, civil servants, human rights defenders — anyone willing to fight for the rule of law against the rule of the gun. 

Four years is a very short time. It is far too early to say what the outcome of the Arab Awakening will be, whether we are experiencing an inevitably painful period of transition to a more stable, just, and democratic order, or an unraveling of order altogether. But the stakes have become clear. From the turmoil of the Arab Awakening, two new models of governance have emerged — one represented by Tunisia and one represented by Daesh (the Islamic State). We have a profound interest in seeing the first of these models succeed, and ensuring that the second fails.

The terrorists understand that the Tunisian model is their main ideological competitor, and so they have hit that country again and again, from the Bardo Museum to the beach in Sousse. This makes Tunisia’s task, and ours, even harder. When a society is under attack, it is natural that some people will say: “Now is not the time to be thinking about human rights, or about the long, hard, complicated task of building parliaments, parties and courts. We need to focus first on protecting ourselves.” These feelings of fear, anger, and resolve to fight back against the suicide bombers and gunmen can all too easily give way to an anti-democratic reflex — one that stifles speech for the many to counter the bad influence of a few, and that equates peaceful political opposition with violent political extremism.

In the United States we are familiar with this kind of reflex. After our 9/11, we improved our security, military, and intelligence capabilities and we pursued those who attacked us — all rightly so. But we also made mistakes — from Guantánamo to the expansion of unsupervised surveillance to the use of torture. We corrected those mistakes. But in their time, they hurt our fight against terrorism, making it harder to gain the trust of communities whose cooperation we need and blurring the moral distinctions essential to maintaining our advantage.

No grievance against power justifies terrorism, but terrorism is born of grievances deeply held by those who are marginalized by their governments and their societies. ISIL, for example, rose by exploiting the deeply felt grievances of Sunni Iraqis fed up with a decade of increasingly sectarian and non-inclusive governance, and the vacuum created by Assad’s atrocities in Syria. What is Daesh’s message today to young people across the Middle East who have been struggling peacefully since 2011 to build more just and democratic societies? The message is: “Your methods are doomed to failure; you will be imprisoned; you will be tortured; you will be silenced; nothing will change. We who use violence, on the other hand, are strong and will be victorious.” Imagine how that argument can resonate in places in the region where terrorists and peaceful political activists are in fact sharing the same jail cells today. By the way, this is also Daesh’s message to proponents of political Islam who have rejected violence and placed their faith in democratic institutions and elections: “Your way will lead to your destruction; our way is the way to win.”

That is why it is a mistake to conflate peaceful Islamist parties with terrorists. If we treat their adherents as one and the same, eventually more and more of them will be.

When we give in to the anti-democratic reflex — when we start legislating exceptions to the laws that protect our liberties, when we quiet peaceful dissent, when we brutalize those we imprison — we dampen hopes that peaceful redress of grievances is possible. As President Obama has said, “When peaceful, democratic change is impossible, it feeds into the terrorist propaganda that violence is the only answer available.” Such abuses also alienate people whose help we must have to defeat terror. Some of the best information we get about young men going off to fight for Daesh and similar groups comes from their families, religious leaders, or other members of their community. But who is going to call the police about a friend, a neighbor, or loved one if they think that person will be tortured or disappeared after they are arrested?

This is not to say that we must be passive in the face of this existential threat. We must be relentless in confronting it; but have to recognize that this is not a question of balancing protection of our people and preservation of our values; in fact we must do both if we want our side to win and the terrorists to lose.

How do we help those who stand for liberty and democracy in the Middle East, North Africa, and the rest of the world win?

First and foremost we must bring to justice those who choose violence and terror — and that sometimes requires the use of force. Through our security cooperation, we will do everything we can to help Tunisia to exercise legitimate force against internal and external threats. But it is just as important to build a culture of liberty in society, to protect free expression, to make institutions open and representative, and to ensure that the security institutions meant to keep us safe truly serve and protect all the people.

Building a culture of liberty also means strengthening the role of civil society. Tunis was home to the first human rights civil society group in the Arab world, the League Tunisien de Droits l’Homme. Sadly, the Ben Ali regime mastered all the tricks dictatorships use to restrain civil society activity with legal measures and bureaucratic hurdles, just as other authoritarian governments across this region are still doing.

But civil society is one of the most important sources of community resilience to fight extremism. In Tunisia there has been a rush of new civil society organizations dedicated to discouraging radicalization. These organizations channel youth dissatisfaction into positive participation and help families advocate with their government for stronger laws and policies that prevent young Tunisians from joining the fight in Syria and Iraq.

Some in the region today say that civil groups working to counter violent extremism are all well and good. But unchecked, a free society can spiral into danger. They say that liberties place extremist forces outside the bounds of government observation and control. They say that too much freedom makes society weak, more vulnerable to this threat.

These people don’t understand terrorists very well. Terrorists don’t need freedom of speech or assembly to walk into a public place and gun people down. Terrorists know how to circumvent all the restrictions that governments can place on civil society. For every blogger in the Middle East who is arrested for a Facebook post or tweet criticizing the government, for every local NGO director whose organization is shut down for accepting foreign funding, there are a hundred real terrorists who, under cover of proxy servers and aliases, are quietly recruiting more followers in chat rooms and spiriting suitcases of cash across borders. What’s more, the terrorists know how to exploit governments’ policies of repression by incorporating them into their grievance narrative.

Terrorists don’t need liberties to thrive — they thrive in the shadows of liberty’s absence.

Who, then, does need liberty?

  • Young people and women need liberty.
  • Journalists and academics need liberty.
  • Those who are marginalized, outside the sphere of economic development or political influence need liberty.
  • Those who have been wronged by government policy or corrupt practice, and who seek change within the political system, need liberty.
  • Those who work in their communities to improve peoples lives, to advocate for better schools and safer streets and more jobs — the very things that serve as a counterweight to extremism — need liberty.
  • Those who are moderate and peaceful, who reject violence, who accept tolerance and diversity, and espouse that their deeply held religious conviction should be a guiding principle for social and political life need liberty and they need and deserve a voice and role in government.

Tunisia has shown how — in the presence of liberty — secularists and Islamists can come together in common purpose to solve public challenges despite their profound differences. We saw that in 2012 and 2013 when, in the midst of a severe political crisis, Ennahda, Nidaa Tounis, and other political parties joined in a National Dialogue created by civil society organizations. They agreed on a new democratic constitution. They agreed to a peaceful hand-over of power to a transitional government. They agreed that free and fair elections must go forward. These are the qualities that distinguish Tunisia from so many others in the region, that bring friends like the United States to its side, that will ultimately ensure the defeat of terror. The fight against terrorism must therefore preserve democratic gains, and never be used as a reason to retreat from them.

The new Tunisian model of governance — a model based on rights, political inclusion and compromise — is far harder to pursue than its alternative at the other extreme. As we’ve seen in other parts of the region, it is a lot easier to destroy a country than to build one. So if we want to see the promise of 2011 realized — to build democracy and defeat terrorism — we will need one more thing: We will need the realism to be patient.

Authoritarian states don’t make things easy for their democratic successors. They leave behind hollow institutions; networks and habits of corruption; security institutions trained to protect their state not their people; populations that grew up with little or no civic education. Academics say that on average, successful transitions from dictatorship to full democracy with rule of law take around 15 or 20 years, in the best circumstances. And democratic transitions demand so much more of ordinary citizens than established democracies do. In the United States, democracy demands that we show up and vote every once in a while. We don’t have to take into our own hands the work of building local governments from scratch, retraining our police, rewriting our laws, recruiting new judges, creating new political parties, while simultaneously having to provide for our families and to protect ourselves from terrorists or barrel bombs.

In the United States, we forget this sometimes. We get excited when revolutions for democracy and human rights appear to have won; we mobilize to support them; we try to stay on the right side of history. Then, a few years later, when the highest expectations of those revolutionary moments remain unrealized, we are tempted to conclude that even modest gains were never in the cards, and to go back to managing a depressing status quo rather than making the investments and taking the risks necessary to change it. Patience does not have to mean accepting a lower standard for countries in the Middle East than we would apply to ourselves. It does not mean we should accept injustices; no one who is being tortured or arrested wrongly today wants to be told to wait a generation for redress. We simply need to remember that the inevitable setbacks that every democracy in transition faces are a reason to work harder, not to give up, recognizing that the ultimate payoff will likely not come in a single news cycle or even in the lifetime of one of our presidential administrations, but that the payoff is worth working for as long as it takes to achieve.

That is the patience and commitment we are determined to show in partnership with the people and governments in the Middle East and North Africa where people are willing to work for liberty and the rule of law. This region and the world needs the Tunisia model to succeed, and to spread so that it is not alone. And the United States is proud to stand with the people of Tunisia as they continue to make the courageous and sometimes difficult decisions required of the democratic path they have chosen.

At the time of writing the author was the Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. Editors’ Note: This article is adapted from a speech given by the author in Tunisia earlier this month. 

About the Author(s)

Tom Malinowski

Former Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (2014-2017) Follow him on Twitter (@malinowski).