ACRPS convened its third annual Social Sciences and Humanities conference between March 20 and 22 in Tunis, with this year’s themes being “Stages of Historical Transition and the Prognosis for Arab revolutions” and “Development Policies and the Challenges of Revolution in Arab countries”.

Opening the conference, a statement by Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki was read out to the assembled conference, stating that Tunisia was honored to host this forum and noting that "whereas before the revolution tyranny in Tunisia held intellectuals in contempt and exploited them to consolidate its own authoritarian policies, we are now working to build democracy and establish a new relationship with thought and culture, together with thinkers and scholars." This conference, noted President Marzouki, held the promise of exploring the prospects for new political orientations and mechanisms that may better deal with the range of threats and challenges that loom on the horizon in the Arab world.

The Tunisian experience, he continued, "also provides a good model for the analysis of policy development and the challenges of the revolution,” as a country distinguished by many of the associated development challenges which include the urgency of meeting people’s expectations while simultaneously trying to build an alternative development model; balancing the pressures of international financial institutions and standards with national entitlement perceptions and idiosyncrasies; the conflicting policy horizons of Arab or of Maghreb economic integration and the myriad associated obligations and proposed solutions; and the powerful constraints that such countries face on policy choices.

“There is no paved route to democracy; we have to pave the road ourselves”

Azmi Bishara, Director-General of ACRPS, presented the conference’s inaugural lecture, entitled “Two Types of Transitions, and Something of Theory” as a theoretical preface to the first conference session. Bishara pointed out that there was agreement among scholars that:

“a transitional period is one of major crisis, a phase characterized, in all histories, by the emergence of a movement and launching of new ideas. Today we are living in a period of revolutions and political unrest against entrenched regimes, with activists who have identified democracy as a goal, dictating a need to determine the nature of the transition phase towards democracy […] we are not speaking here of natural laws that inevitably lead us to democracy, but rather of trying to identify the right steps toward reaching this goal from our present position. Today we have with us academic scholars whom we hope will debate this topic among themselves and with history’s actors, and in the process, interpret our experience and the experience of other parts of the world, for there can be no meaning to the words “transitional phase to democracy” without the presence of actors who are in agreement on the goal of building a democracy, [and on the need for] historic revolutionary and reformist action to drive towards this goal”

The democracy in question, Bishara elaborated,  “is one that identifies its seminal characteristics and principles of democracy in extrapolation from the variety of experiences of democracy and historical development witnessed in the world at large. These could include the periodic hand-over of rule through a peaceful electoral process, whether parliamentary, presidential, or both; the separation of powers and independence of the judiciary; the freedoms necessary for such a process to be meaningful  such as the freedom of expression, freedom of association, and freedom of assembly; the implementation of laws and safeguards required to prevent abuse by the state; and the sense that equal citizenship rights are the basis of the relationship between the individual and the state, the essence of this citizenship”. He then drew the participants’ attention to a critical feature of the transition to democracy, namely the neutralization of the security force, the main instrument of repression, and the importance of effecting gradual changes in them, thereby focusing on the empowerment of democratic institutions, especially those that are elected. This, he added, can help to overcome the opposition of the state’s large bureaucratic apparatus to any change. “Democratic forces must unite themselves around this goal, and avail themselves of the shelter afforded by the very legitimacy of the revolution.”

Failure to understand the nature of movement in transition to democracy, and the requirements of this transitional movement, is one of the most important factors contributing to the faltering of this transition, Bishara continued, observing that “this misunderstanding of the transitional phase has sometimes taken the shape of conflict between secular and religious forces, instead of the real struggle that is at stake – which is one between democratic and non-democratic forces.”

He cautioned that revolutionary transformation from a tyrannical political order to a democratic political order is something that burdens the political order, not society at large. “But society and its culture do not change overnight, and as a result democratic transformation finds that it is often on a collision course with customs, traditions and cultures that all took root in an era of oppression. It would be a mistake to think that long-standing, ingrained corruption is only a superficial matter, or that it does not afflict the entire society.” It would also be a mistake to look for a clear and paved road to democracy, he concluded, for “we have to pave the way ourselves”.

Development Must Be Revolutionary

Ibrahim al-Issawi, Professor of Economics at the Institute of National Planning in Cairo, then delivered an address on “the Politics of Independent Development and the Arab Uprisings,” in which he stated that development work must necessarily be revolutionary and not simply a matter of economic reforms that may or may not have positive social impacts. Radical change in economic, social, political and institutional structures is as intrinsic to development as it is to revolution. Issawi specified that there can be no real development without upholding four desirable qualities: inclusivity, independence, sustainability and social justice. All together these help advance progress towards the liberation and empowerment of human beings and of the country to which they belong.

He further asserted that independent development rests upon five main pillars, namely: (1) a development-focused state with comprehensive national  planning; (2) mobilization of the greatest possible amount of domestic savings to finance a high rate of capital accumulation and adequately attend to the build-up of human capital; (3) democratic participation and the equitable distribution of wealth; (4) restraint  of the national economy’s  relations abroad; (5) cooperation among countries of the South.

Referring to development policies in Egypt after the January 2011 Revolution, Issawi stated that the July 3, 2013 coup d’état has turned the clock back: “there can be no realization of the goals of the January Revolution under the present tripartite alliance of the military command, the security apparatus and the business leaders, all of whom are deeply perturbed by any hint of activating the state’s economic development role, feeling that this would detract from their role. They now find themselves preoccupied with the possible compromising of their wealth that any expansion of social justice might entail, prompting them to reject calls for the economic independence and political development of the country out of fear of damaging relations with the forces of global capitalism in whose orbit they revolve.”

UNDP Millennium Development Goals:  Year 2010 Top-Ranked Arab World Countries: Oman, Egypt, Tunisia, Syria

In the closing roundtable of the conference, which discussed the needed development policies to respond to the challenges posed by the movement for social justice, the topic of independent development was further discussed. Some participants argued that Arab revolutions have not failed, rather what we see is the features of the first wave of change, and that societies are in a continual state of brewing whilst new waves of change continue to build up. Professor Ibrahim al-Issawi then discussed some proposed alternative models to neo-liberal capitalism, including the social market, the Third Way, social solidarity, Islamic economics, and the Turkish model, but he concluded that these models are not convincing, and not commensurate with the needs of development in the Arab region. A new model of independent development needed to be developed, he indicated.

Also raised was the fact that Arab revolutions have prompted a re-examination of the credibility of many of the development indicators adopted by organizations such as the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development and the United Nations Development Programme, since they failed to provide a true picture of the fragile social and economic situation of many Arab countries. A participant gave the example of the Human Development Report issued by the United Nations Development Programme on the eve of the Arab revolutions, which spoke of the “miracle of Tunisia’s development” and classified the Arab countries as “better than average” in achieving the UN’s Millennium Development Goals – with the top four achievers listed, in order, as Oman, Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, clearly demonstrating the deeply flawed nature of performance indicators and the dire need of their revision.

The conference closed with the distribution of the annual Arab Prize for Social Sciences and the Humanities for 2013-2014, an award established by ACRPS that is meant to encourage Arab researchers to pursue creative and innovative scientific work on issues and problems central to the development of Arab societies.