The Arab Spring and its truncated aftermath raise many important questions about political reform. Citizenship and rights, in particular, form an important area of concern in light of the obstacles to wholesale democratization and to the reform of formal institutional structures in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). As most regimes have pushed back strongly against societal pressure for political opening, many reformers hope that active citizenship can compensate for the lack of progress in other areas. One of the few enduring legacies of the flowering of democratic activism in 2011 is citizens’ search for more active involvement in decisions that affect their day-to-day lives — even as the prospect of democratization has receded in most states. This has engendered much debate over how citizens across the region understand rights — and whether they seek a concept of citizenship that is distinct to the region.
Since the first rumblings of the Arab revolts in late 2010, the U.S. and EU governments and institutions have routinely promised to listen to local voices in devising and implementing their MENA policies. Their narrative has been one of supporting the local “ownership” of reform processes and buying into citizens’ different understandings of democratic rights. In line with this, they should now direct their attention and resources to local initiatives that raise awareness and create the conditions for individual rights to expand in a way that makes citizenship more effective — even as prospects for institutional reform at the macro level remain uncertain. The challenges lie in identifying the right range of partners and in molding U.S. and EU support around local views and aspirations rather than their own political terms and concepts, even in the presence of controversial concepts of citizenship rights. Indeed, the debates following the Arab Awakening saw lively dialectics between often contradictory concepts of citizenship, highlighting how difficult it can be to reconcile individual and community rights, the relationship between the state and religion, or the role of women.
Over the last three years, our EUSPRING research project has explored exactly these issues. It has listened to and engaged with representatives from Egypt, Morocco, and Tunisia as they addressed fundamental questions about rights and citizenship. Since 2011, these three countries have experienced unprecedented intense and lively debates about citizenship and the different ways of enshrining rights within the new constitutions that were promulgated in each state following popular pressure. The EUSPRING project examined these debates as the three countries embarked on different political paths. Tunisia is attempting to consolidate a still fragile democracy, while security threats give rise to government responses that impinge negatively upon democratic rights. Egypt has reverted to a regime more repressive than that of former President Hosni Mubarak, and citizens’ protests flare periodically and unpredictably. In Morocco, the monarchy codified several more liberal rights in the new constitution, but citizens continue to demand more far-reaching change.
This article was originally published by The German Marshall Fund, under the title "New Forms of Democratic Citizenship in the Middle East and North Africa: An Alternative Approach for the EU and United States."