It is a rare sight for opposition parties and figures in any region to be united in their goals or even views, and such a thing only occurs when there is a force sufficiently hated by all to justify their unity. In terms of the democratic opposition throughout the Arab world, that force is dictatorship and authoritarianism – something that has plagued the region throughout the decades of its independence from colonialism.
A sort of vision of unity and cooperation was seen in the Arab Council’s conference in the Bosnian capital Sarajevo in early October. It was a unique event that brought together democratic opposition figures from much of the Arab world and countries beyond, in a way that was not governed or organised – at least not openly – by foreign, non-Arab and especially Western entities.
Speaking to the founders of the Arab Council on some primary issues they brought up during the conference, MEMO was able to gain an insight into their struggles, expectations, visions and messages.
What does the Arab Council aim to achieve?
When it comes to the main reason for the conference, as well as the very existence of the Arab Council, the unavoidable factor that emerges is the failure of the Arab Spring movements in successfully toppling dictatorships and replacing them with democratic systems. The gathering in Sarajevo, therefore, was an initiative that serves as a counterbalance in helping Arab democrats and interested parties reclaim the playing field.
As former President of Tunisia, Moncef Marzouki, put it: “Everybody believes that the Arab Spring is over. Very few people know why exactly, and nobody knows what would happen in the near future. This is why we are here, to try to imagine and figure out what should be next in the future and what we have to do to prepare for the future.”
According to Ayman Nour, former Egyptian presidential candidate and current owner of opposition channel El-Sharq: “We are trying to found the Arab network that will basically take care of that kind of transition to a democratic system. Because We understood that the core of the problem in the past stages was that there was no exchange of experience in terms of political life… We think through these meetings and in our decisions, we will achieve some of our goals.”
Tawakkol Karman, Yemeni activist and Nobel Laureate, said that although the conference “undeniably represents a positive stride, claiming its success in uniting the democratic opposition is challenging given the longstanding legacy of disagreements and conflicts of interest.” She hailed it, however, as “noteworthy for presenting objective approaches to achieve democratic transformation in our Arab region and for its commitment to accommodating diverse trends in this pursuit.”
A new wave of the Arab Spring?
A key event that the Arab Council’s founders warn of – or rather advocate for – is the re-emergence or revival of the Arab Spring. The first wave was in 2011, the second in 2016, and the third wave against the returned dictatorships of the region is reportedly expected imminently, or at least in the near future.
“We believe for that the Arab Spring is at the beginning of the beginning of the beginning,” Marzouki said. “Now for us as human rights activists, democratic activists, politicians, etc, we believe that there will be third wave.” The reason, he said, is that “because of the failure of the concrete evolution [of the previous waves], we expect that there will probably be the third wave very soon in Egypt, in Tunisia, etc.”
The counterrevolutions throughout the Arab Spring states, such as Egypt’s military coup and Tunisia’s constitutional coup, were expected to “give them [citizens] what the revolutions didn’t do: mainly social and economic development. So because of the failure of the counterrevolution – now you see that Egypt is kind of a failed state and Tunisia also, Algeria also – I know that there is a lot of extreme unrest.” Marzouki warned that “our countries now are just like volcanoes. You look at a volcano; you know that there is nothing [happening] at the moment. But you know that the volcano will burst. You don’t know when, but you know the volcano will.”
“We are trying to figure out what would be this third wave and what we must do to channel it. Because we are afraid that this new revolution could be extremely violent,” Marzouki continued. “What’s happening now in Gaza could be the trigger of this new wave of popular protests.”
Karman also predicted a new wave, saying that although the counterrevolutions have resorted “to war, fear, revenge and persecution to regain control, the Arab Spring endures. Similar to the second Arab Spring wave…the third, fourth and tenth waves against tyranny are inevitable. The future and destiny of our region will be with democracy, justice and the rule of law. This is the collective desire and will of Arab people.”
Arab democrats’ messages to the West and foreign nations
One factor that majorly contributed to the overthrow of newly democratic systems – and which is overlooked by many – was undoubtedly the reaction of Western nations and powers to the democratic governments and opposition movements, as well as the general lack of support from the international community and regional blocs such as the European Union (EU) and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
Whether one looks at insufficient arming and backing of the Syrian opposition groups and movements, the diplomatic cold shoulder to the democratically-elected government of former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi prior to the 2013 military coup and massacre, or the appeasement of Tunisian authoritarian Kais Saied for the sake of tackling migration, figures show those who took part in the Arab Spring feel betrayed by the West and much of the international community.
“Of course, the dictatorships are backed by the regional powers, by Israel, by Iran, by Russia, the Saudis, Emiratis – they’re backing the counterrevolutions,” Marzouki said. “But we democrats didn’t have any help from the Western countries, just some words. So we know that we have to rely on ourselves, and all what we expect, all what we hope is that Western democracies wouldn’t support dictatorships too much.”
The former Tunisian president is sceptical, however. “When you see the situation, you see very well that the United States or Europe are backing people like [Emirati leader] Mohammed Bin Zayed, [Saudi Crown Prince] Mohammed Bin Salman, etc.”
His message to the West and the overall international community is
Don’t support dictatorship, because it’s counterproductive. Because of the counterrevolutions, because of poverty, etc, we have this flow of migration, and the flow of migration would fuel your far-right, and your far-right is anti-democratic. So because you are not supportive of our democracy, in fact you are destroying yours.
Karman echoed these concerns, stating that “It appears evident that Western governments and foreign powers, in general, lack a genuine will to support the democratic struggle. The opportunistic nature of their positions became apparent during the Arab Spring. In the present circumstances, the situation in Gaza has further revealed that Western governments and foreign powers are willing to forsake their principles in order to safeguard their interests and maintain alliances with oppressive regimes.”
She warned that this “logically leads to the conclusion that the idea of Western support for democracy is, in fact, a deception. Consequently, our only option is to rely on ourselves and the awareness of our people in pursuing democratic aspirations.”
The Yemeni activist reiterated the fact that such a stance is counterproductive to their own interests. “My message to the West is that the biggest strategic mistake they make is to ally with tyrannical regimes. Their interests lie with the people, their freedom and ensuring democracy. The tyrants pose the greatest threat to their interests and to global security and peace, and they must learn from the lesson of the tyrannical regimes’ alliance with Russia and its abandonment of the West in confronting Putin and his war, and its occupation of Ukraine.”
Ayman Nour highlighted that in regards to “the western position in the last ten years, we can say that they didn’t have one solid position…they were always giving the advantage to interests over principles.” He made clear, though, that “I always call upon the West to have true discussion between opposition parties and the Western world. Let us study and analyse how some of their interests that are present in the region and also to achieve what is our democratic right.”
Future of the Arab opposition
The future of the Arab opposition movements, civil society and democratic transition remains one that is mostly speculative, and the Sarajevo conference was somewhat amongst the first steps in the long path they are set on taking.
When asked where she sees the democratic forces by the end of this decade, Karman said: “Arab tyrants have historically been instrumental in the Western strategy to safeguard the interests of major powers. It is of utmost importance to tirelessly work towards generating a powerful political momentum in Arab countries, fundamentally transforming the structure of their political systems, and championing the realms of rights and public freedoms.”
She retained a largely cynical outlook, however, saying that “In light of the existing realities today, there might not be a significant change in the Arab world, but the experience of the Arab Spring revolutions has proven that anything can happen in a few days. Personally, I hope significant developments will occur before 2030, but, as I mentioned, the battle against tyranny in the Arab region is not an easy one.”
Nour, noting the tens of thousands of political prisoners in Egypt particularly, said: “We are dreaming of an exit from the phase we are in now. I think the Islamic political forces need to go back some steps if they want to achieve any goals, and I think that also the liberal forces and, in general, civil society need to take a huge step forward.”
He cited 2030 as potentially “a suitable date or timeframe to have this region, in general, be in a neutral position among free states. It is enough that we have 70 years of the military regimes and power. Egypt deserves that and better than that. We have a good constitution – 100 years ago from 1943 – and some liberal experience before the 1950s. We are a state not far from the idea of democracy and freedom.”
The Egyptian opposition figure also addressed the issue of the headquarters of Arab democrats and opposition movements in the near future, especially as Turkiye has been rebuilding relations with Egypt’s government under coup leader and President Al-Sisi and other authoritarian regimes like Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad – moves which have put the opposition’s safe haven within Turkiye at risk.
Nour acknowledged that Ankara “took the burden of the whole ten years. They were contributing and helping. And it is understandable that they sometimes prioritise their interests…It’s like a part of its strategies in the next phase.” Although the Istanbul-based figure said that not much has generally changed that will change his position in Turkiye, “the situation is not the best, but it is not the worst.”
He revealed that he is searching “for other centres in Europe, maybe in Bosnia or Azerbaijan, states where it is cheap to live and establish your work. So there are various platforms…in order to decrease the pressure on Turks themselves, because Turkiye is under pressure in its relationship with Egypt.”
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.