National Reconciliation in the Arab Spring Countries: Lessons from Bulgaria, Iraq, Morocco, and South Africa
On June 19, 2013, the Brookings Doha Center (BDC) hosted a policy discussion with El Habib Belkouch, President of the Center of Human Rights and Democracy in Morocco; Nickolay Mladenov, Former Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Bulgaria; Hussain Shaban, General Director of The Documentary Center for International and Humanitarian Law in Beirut; and Yasmin Sooka, Executive Director of the Foundation for Human Rights of South Africa. The discussion, moderated by Deputy Director of Brookings Doha Center Ibrahim Sharqieh, focused on past experiences of national reconciliation in Bulgaria, Iraq, Morocco, and South Africa. It offered best practices, success stories, and lessons learned, with the hope of enriching the debate within Arab Spring countries like Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Yemen as they work to forge a new social contract.
More than two years after the toppling of their regimes, the Arab countries that witnessed popular uprisings in 2011 are struggling with the process of national reconciliation. Challenges include how best to rebuild a domestic order, deal with questions of transitional justice, implement institutional reform, and address grievances through various forms of compensation or reparations. The panel of experts, drawing on their diverse backgrounds and experiences in national reconciliation, agreed that there is no single method applicable for all country cases.
Laying out the Iraqi experience, Hussain Shaban described the process of “de-Ba’athification” – the exclusion of Ba’ath Party members from public and political life – as detrimental to Iraq’s progress and stability. Shaban maintained that the inclusion of Ba’ath members in Iraq’s political life would have better supported the country’s transition to democracy, referring to Administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority Paul Bremer’s rushed policy as one of “national retribution” rather than “national reconciliation.” The 2003 formation of the transitional Iraqi Governing Council based along sectarian lines and according to ethnic quotas only deepened the vertical cleavages in the country and enabled the continuation of violence. What Iraq needed, Shaban said, was an effective national dialogue, emphasizing the importance of such a dialogue for all countries undertaking national reconciliation. Shaban pointed to the South African experience as a prime example of successful national dialogue. If a dialogue like this had taken place in Syria, he added, grievances could have been addressed peacefully and the current civil strife and zero-sum conflict could have been avoided.
Building on Shaban’s remarks on the need for national dialogue, Nickolay Mladenov stressed the urgency of dismantling the network of dependency that remains in the aftermath of the fall of a dictatorial regime. Bulgaria did not undergo a sort of de-Ba’athification; instead, the archives of the former regime’s security services were in part made available to the public, allowing them to make more informed decisions about candidates for public office. Immediately dismantling the security apparatus of the former regime comes at a price, said Mladenov, but he argued that it becomes more costly if not dealt with soon after the fall of a totalitarian regime. The consequences, he warned, are threefold: institutions with “glass ceilings,” where some can inexplicably rise while others cannot; a debate on the country’s past in which positives are highlighted while negatives are glossed over; and the evolution of old-regime networks that promote political and economic corruption.
When asked about the role that security sector reform plays in transitions and national reconciliation, as well as how to carry out that reform while avoiding a power vacuum, Mladenov asserted that there must be a careful balance that differs on a country-by-country basis. Ultimately, he said, any approach must result in security services accountable to the country’s civilian leadership. He also argued that when people eventually return to their daily lives, they will expect to be provided with services such as potable water, electricity, and access to health care among other things. If the system is incapable of securing these needs, revolutionary anger will continue to simmer.
El Habib Belkouch shed light on the Moroccan experience and reinforced the idea that, in any process of reconciliation, there has to be nationwide involvement and a prioritization of the national interest. He noted that this is what seems lacking in the current Arab cases, where interests have taken precedence over the desire to make effective changes in the country. The Moroccan experience of national reconciliation in 2004 is unique in that it – and attendant reforms – took place under the same regime that had been in power for decades. The process occurred under what Belkouch referred to as “power-sharing based on consensus,” which included a series of processes addressing issues such as women’s rights, gender inequality, and human rights. All this resulted in the creation of a new draft constitution that served as a mechanism for transitioning into a new era of democratization with the participation of parties on the right and left.
Yasmin Sooka discussed the South African experience and noted that a key focus of post-Apartheid South Africa was reconciliation and building national unity. Sooka asserted that nations do not have the luxury to ignore the past, and added, “Societies that do not confront their past are doomed to repeat [past] violations.” In South Africa, different parties had come to the table to ask how they can live together despite past crimes and persistent inequality. New president Nelson Mandela was determined to establish accountability without creating new enemies for the South African state. As such, conditional amnesty was given to violators, but there was also a process that enabled victims to speak about their experiences after the new government came to power. The newly established Truth and Reconciliation Commission invested in an extensive public outreach program to hold public hearings, including testimony by former members of the military and security services. The Commission ultimately issued a balanced report that found that although the liberation movement fought a just war, it had, in some instances, violated the Geneva Convention. Victims were accorded public recognition of their suffering and reparations were made as part of the national reconciliation and unification process. Sooka also warned of the failures of the South African experiences; emerging democracies in the Arab world must address socioeconomic injustices during their transitions, she said, if they are to avoid the kind of economic inequality that persists in South Africa today.
During the Q&A session that followed, a question on how societies can forgive those who committed crimes not just against the people, but against the nation by preventing it from developing was met with a consensus answer from the panelists: people must ask not how they can forgive, but what they want to achieve for their nation. Do the people want to build a new state, or do they want to return to the fundamentals of a previous era? This loomed as a fundamental question for all the Arab Spring countries. This question has to be part of a long – sometimes arduous – national dialogue that produces a unified national vision, one focused on transitional justice and not retributional justice.