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Researching Civil Society Engagement in Post-2011 North Africa

Updated: Dec 10, 2020

This week, Senior Program Manager at the Arab Center for Research Kathya Berrada, tells us about her new book "Ten Years into the Arab Spring: Capturing lived experiences, aspirations and frustrations", which features individual experiences of public and political engagement in post-2011 North Africa.

Interview conducted by MERH’s Editor Hajar Zaki.

What inspired you to write the book?

6 years ago, I decided to make a major shift in my career from finance to work in research and civil society. This was triggered by the Arab Spring and the desire to contribute somehow to the discussion. I joined The Arab Center for Research in Rabat which was more of a liberal think tank and I started to manage training programmes and conferences for young civil society actors to empower them and enable them to express their voice when delivering policy recommendations. One of my main observations was that they have a major understanding of the grassroots problems because they are working directly with the communities, they are serving but generally lack the skills needed to articulate the observations into something more policy oriented.

We understood that there was a gap there and that we could play this role in enabling them to use the knowledge they had acquired when interacting with communities to produce policy briefs. I ran several programmes related to the MENA region. Then I started to meet people from different horizons in the region, civil society actors or entrepreneurs who are more involved in their countries’ media and political sphere. This is when I had the idea of the book. I started to meet with them on a regular basis, which allowed me to build trust and create a safe space, where they could talk to me about their experience of the Arab Spring from its inception and share feelings of hope and frustrations.

Can you give me a bit of background into the book itself.

A. I decided to write the book as a way to showcase some of the stories I had heard which were very interesting and thought provoking. These were stories of struggles. Initially I wanted to issue a different volume every two years to feature four to five people from different countries across the region and show how they had been experiencing struggles for democracy and economic inclusiveness, both at the individual and community level. Their drive and motivation but also how these struggles are entrenched within their communities. The first iteration of the book, which is coming out this year will look specifically at four people: a civil society actor from Morocco who finds himself inspired by the Tunisian model of civil society engagement, a Tunisian lady who was involved in the early phase of Thawrat-Al-Yasmin (Tunisian Revolution) and a former University Professor of Economics from Morocco, who decided to develop a local think tank. This third participant of my research had collaborated with civil-society actors and invited them to become involved in a more structured form of political action instead of protesting for political reforms in the streets. Another protagonist of the book is a young entrepreneur from Egypt, who is interested in exploring the concept of economic resilience. Finally, the last subject is a Palestinian refugee who leveraged technology as a means of [social] integration. The book is designed to relay the voices of those who have first-hand experience of the fights for political involvement, civil society engagement, technological development or women’s activism. It also raises questions about the pandemic and considers how the economy in the region and political regimes have been responding to the pandemic. The book will be available in August of next year.

How would you say that civil society engagement has evolved since the first wave of the Arab Spring?

A lot of civil society organisations emerged just after the Arab Spring, but it is only progressively that people started working towards a more structured and policy-oriented form of engagement that can demonstrate impact. There would always be civil society organisations working on the grassroots level to serve people’s needs within local communities, but the sector is now starting to think about ways to engage policymakers, drawing attention to long-term and sustainable solutions because these stakeholders are better-placed to make substantial and structural changes.

Did these civil society actors view revolution as the best way forward?

Some people feel that taking to the streets and calling for revolutions are not enough and may even be counter-productive, which has led to a kind of disillusion. In some regard, many civil society actors deplore the fact that the enthusiasm has faded away and would say that “the flame is no longer there”. Activists don’t feel like taking to the streets is enough to change things. Their capacity to consolidate a movement is, in their view, very limited.

How do civil society actors express hope for the future?

There’s hope in the sense that revolutions would never end as a process. The main development in terms of political action is that people relocate their energies differently. They start to reconsider the revolutionary process in a different way. So, I see hope in our capacity to reinvent other ways to communicate, for example, leveraging technology, entrepreneurship, imagining ways to mobilise differently.

Is there anything you would like readers to take or learn from the book?

Maybe two important things:- the first aspect is that we usually cannot put faces on the Arab Spring movements because generally we talk about it from a macro-perspective. But the major intake for me is to be able to put faces on the people who are part of the movement in one way or another. Not necessarily as protesters on the street but as individuals, who believe in the need for change, in democratic transitions and economic reforms. To be there, to get there, to engage with others in more innovative ways. That would be the two major intakes.

Was there a general consensus among civil society actors?

My first observation when engaging with different civil society actors in the region is that Tunisia appears to have a particularly active and lively civil society. When we opened up a call to applications for our training, programmes and conferences, the majority of the proposals we received were from Tunisia. The number of applications from Tunisia was disproportionately high compared to other countries, which is impressive considering the relatively small size of its population on the scale of the region. The nature of civil society in Tunisia sets the tone for Tunisians’ experience of democracy as a process. The Tunisian experience really contrasts with the Western idea of “established democracy” that prevails in the U.S.; the idea according to which democracy, once achieved, is a given, which only needs to be protected and promoted. There is a sense that it is a building process and not an end in itself. On the other hand, the country is still facing economic challenges. You have the ‘intellectual salon’ kind of discussions where people are discussing the importance of democracy, and yet many people have not seen any change in their life in terms of social inequality and economic growth, which generates frustrations. There is a general understanding that something has been achieved but also the conviction that it needs to be cultivated further through the scope of economic reforms in order to give equal opportunities to all Tunisians.

What were the feelings overall of the civil society actors while they were sharing their stories?

You also have others who would think it’s a normal long-term historic process. I think you have these two competing visions of society that you will find everywhere: people who are patient in terms of seeing the long-term impact and others who are more concerned with short term outcomes and feel that social change is not noticeable in their daily life.

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