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The Center for the Study of Islam Democracy

Casablanca Conference Report

The Future of Democracy and Human Rights in the Arab World

CSID organized a conference in Casablanca, Morocco entitled “The Future of Democracy and Human Rights in the Arab World” on Oct. 22-23, 2010 in partnership with the Centre MADA.The choice of the theme proved both important and timely.

In recent years, many observers have come to believe that promoting democracy is no longer a priority for the U.S. administration. Others believe that the movement for democracy is part of an external agenda, that lacks depth and support inside the countries of the MENA region. This initiative is tangible proof of the degree of mobilization among the democratic forces, and it demonstrates that the struggle for democracy is ever present, regardless of the political situation.

The strength of the Casablanca conference rested in that it could bring together enough diverse profiles of academics, civil society activists, politicians – women and men secular and moderate Islamists – all rallied to the cause of democracy. The mere fact of bringing these people, who accept each other in their diversity testifies to the enormous work accumulated by the democrats and the progress registered in the mentality. Indeed, a decade ago; gathering similar profiles was much closer to dreams than to reality.

Another aspect of the strength of this conference was that it was held just weeks before parliamentary elections in two Arab countries engaged in the process of reforms,:Egypt and Jordan. Both countries had experienced some reforms in the last decade.  Unfortunately, in recent years, these initiatives have been slowing down, and there was even some significant rolling back, particularly in the realms of human rights and freedom of the press. In Egypt, a few weeks before the election, prosecutions and arrests continued among opposition activists, and in Jordan, the electoral law and the distribution of electoral districts were revised in ways that severely undermined the principles of transparency and neutrality.

Almost all Arab countries have experienced setbacks during the last four years, including serious violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms, unjustified arrests, systematic torture, lack of respect for the independence of the judiciary, and tighter media controls.

This challenges us as democrats, as we are confronted with our responsibilities. We need a lot of vigilance to safeguard the democratic gains and ensure the continued mobilization among the driving forces for these country to avoid tensions and to ensure stability and welfare in their societies.

Conference activities

The conference also provided an opportunity to organize a meeting of the Executive Committee of the Network of Democrats in the Arab World (NDAW). The executive members met a day before the opening session of the conference.  During the full-day meeting, it reviewed NDAW’s programs with the of the program officers, discussed upcoming activities, and prepared the organization of a general assembly to elect a new steering committee and a new executive.

First Day 

Opening Session: Three talks were scheduled during the opening session. First, Dr. Mokhtar Benabdallaoui, Director of MADA made a short speech of welcome to participants; he also traced the Arab and Moroccan hopes and expectations for this event. Dr. Radwan Masmoudi, CSID President, recalled the reasons which prompted him to organize this conference, and stressed the guidelines that should structure the Declaration of Casablanca.

Salaheddine El-Jourchi then presented a review of Democratic Action in the Arab world, commented on the deficits of a period marked by a complex environment and recalled the success of Arab democratic movement, and outlined priorities for the Next Decade.

Session I – Opportunities and handicaps of democratic reforms and promotion of human rights?

Present at this first session were such renowned names as Saad Eddin Ibrabim, chair of Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies, Emad Shahin, Professor of Religion, Conflict and Peace building, Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, University of Notre Luce, Rohail Gharaibeh Member of Jordanian parliament, and Abdelsamad Belkbir, intellectual and former advisor to former Moroccan Prime Minister Mohammed El Youssefi.

The speakers discussed what was called “The Spring of Arab democracy” and the pursuant meltdown. According to them, the reasons for blocking the democratic transition are many, including the hypocrisy of some super powers regarding their lack of sincerity regarding the pressures on Arab authoritarianism. For many participants, the Western powers give priority to their strategic interests to Democracy. Islamophobia was also cited as a roadblock in the road to democratization; much of the speakers mentioned that support for democratization was frozen after the Islamists began leading in fair and transparent elections.

One issue discussed at length was the transformation of some Arab republican regimes into hereditary regimes; after this has been accepted in Syria, it is now emerging in Egypt, Libya, Yemen and perhaps even in Tunisia.

At the end of this first session, all participants agreed on the reality and sensitivity of setbacks for democracy, namely in regards to freedom of opinion and expression, freedom of association, the independent judiciary, respect for civil rights, especially as they relate to illegal detentions and fixed elections.

Session II – What progress during the last decade?

The panel of this second session was composed of Moustafa El Khalfi, director of the Moroccan Centre for Contemporary Studies, Najib Ghadhban professor at the University of Arkansas, and Boudjema Guechi, from the Algerian League of Human Rights.

The speakers painted a bleak picture of the situation of human rights and democracy in the Arab World. They all agreed that the beginnings were, nevertheless, very encouraging with the 2002 elections in Morocco, in Egypt in 2005, and in Palestine in 2006. Many factors have contributed to this setbacks in human rights and democracy, including the lack of willingness on the part of political regimes to engage in wholehearted reforms, changes in the policies of major powers, the lack of experience among activists and ultimately, the increase of radicalization and extremism.

Session III – Preparing the draft of the Casablanca Statement for democracy and human rights

A broad discussion was opened on the decisive points which would culminate in the Casablanca Declaration. Participants agreed to highlight the issues of respect for human rights, the principle of popular sovereignty, and the call for the adoption of a political system that paves the way to peaceful transitions between regimes. They agreed on the need to reform and strengthen the justice system, the means to solidify its importance by protecting it from undue interference by the executive and strengthening its independence and effectiveness.

Participants stressed that reforms cannot succeed in the absence of multilateral reconciliation efforts. Reconciliation is necessary to treat the effects of the past. From there, on the basis of other experiments, the release of political prisoners is a priority, as well as the cessation of proceedings against opposition activists and the criminalization of torture in places of detention. It is also imperative to recognize the rights of civil society organizations and political parties to exist and operate freely.

Participants noted that in many cases, the transgression of the law is used not for political reasons but because of corruption and nepotism – both widespread in the Arab world – which requires the application of principles of good governance.

Participants noted that civil society cannot, whatever the mobilization around the cause of the cause of democracy, achieve the necessary reforms alone. Participants are aware that to carry out reforms, they would need the support of all good willed parties, including support from Western powers. In doing so, respect for human rights and democratic principles should be a standard regulating international relations.

Second Day

Session I – Democracy between moderate Islamists and secular

The panelists who led this first session on the second day of the conference were Haytham Manna, President of the Arab League of Human Rights, Ahmed Nejib Chebbi, Editor of the weekly Al Mawkif Newspaper in Tunisia, and Mohamed Tebbal, a member of the Algerian Parliament.

The concept of democracy was the center of a wide debate between moderate Islamists and secular activists. For over a decade, a fundamental point of confusion came from binary elements prevalent within Arab societies: democracy and Shura, Caliphate and democratic government, status of women and minorities, as well as on the implementation of the principles and rules of sharia. The participants confirmed that this confusion is part of the past, all agree on the sovereignty of the people, the need for an elected government, and on the basis of universal suffrage. The declaration reiterates the principle of the rule of law, denial of any special arrangements and adopts the principle of equal rights and duties among all individuals on the basis of citizenship.

Based on their personal experiences, the participants all noted that though there is a diversity in political projects, all players agree on the means: democracy, with its regulatory principles and universal repository of human rights, is the desired basis of any successful and lasting political or social project.

Session II -Democratic reform priorities in the next decade:

At this second session on day two, four panelists defined what they considered priorities for Democratic Reform, and they included Abdelaali Hami Eddine, academic and columnist for the newspaper Akhbar  Al Yaoum, Nabila Mounib, academic,and leader of the party “Unified Socialist Left”, and regional coordinator of the National Union of Higher Education, Mohamed Mouadeh, leader of the Tunisian party “Movement of Socialist Democrats”, and Mr. Rohail Gharaibeh a leader of the “Islamic Action Front”, and the Jordanian Parliament, and Mr. Mohamed Jamil Bin Mansour, Parliamentary and chairman of the party: Mauritanian Forum For Reform and Democracy.

Almost all speakers have reiterated the same basis priorities. There was a consensus on the legal guarantees that governments must provide, affirming that one can hardly imagine a society flourishing when everyone is at risk of wrongful arrest, or the possibility of being incarcerated beyond the scope of law for an indefinite period, or is detained in unknown places. The second priority is the establishment of human rights where they do not yet exist, and their consolidation in countries where they have a certain, but inadequate, level of recognition. These two priorities – legal guarantees and fundamental freedoms – are inconceivable in a society where a judicial authority, independent and effective, is non-existent.

To establish a viable democracy, the participants have defined a range of conditions necessary for any democratic practice, rule of law, transparent and genuine elections, separation of powers and the ability of the elected civilian authority to govern without impediments.

Session III – Role of civil society, international organizations and Arab parliamentarians in promoting Democracy and Human Rights.

Three speakers facilitated this third session: Mokhtar Benabdallaoui, academic and Director of MADA, Suhaib al-Barzinji, Executive Director of NDAW, and Noureddine Karbal, leader of JDP.

The fairly recent phenomenon of civil society revival has raised the issue of lack of civic culture, lack of appropriate human resources, and glaring gaps in the legal environment. The problem also arises in the relations between civil society and political parties, sometimes where their reports are much more competitive than complementary or constructive, thereby undermining democratic progress in this part of the world.

The executive director of NDAW then gave a presentation on its activities as a new player at the regional level and revealed its plan for greater partnerships and cooperative efforts in the next two years.

These efforts for democracy involve the creation of political parties with public resources to hold them in place. The speaker also mentioned the lack of infrastructure, which significantly inhibits political parties and civil society from their abilities to realize their full intended roles.

There was also consensus among participants on the support needed to strengthen NDAW particularly, thus allowing it to fully play its role as a regional civil society network.

Session VI – Announcing the declaration of Casablanca Ceremony

Panelist participants during this final session of the conference, during which the Casablanca Declaration was unveiled, were Saad Eddin Ibrabim,  Mohammed Hafeez, Director of the weekly Al Hayat, Mohamed Jamil Bin Mansour, Rohil Gharaibeh, and Nejib Chebbi.

This session mainly addressed the issue of monitoring the publication of Casablanca Declaration’s. The speakers and participants expressed the wish to make a good campaign to best publicize the document. Benabdallaoui Mokhtar, Director of MADA Center has announced that his organization is ready to publish these interventions in a collective work given certain assistance from other willing participants.

During the closing session, Radwan Masmoudi, Founder and President of CSID thanked the participants for their travel to Casablanca and for their effective contribution in the two-day conference and the drafting of the Casablanca Declaration. Dr. Masmoudi reminded them of their responsibilities and vows to work tirelessly for the dream of Arab democracies to be realized.

Click to read the Casablanca Call for Democracy and Human Rights, and click here to sign it.

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