On Friday, October 2, 2009 the Project on Middle East Democracy, along with the Friedrich-Ebert Foundation and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, hosted a roundtable to discuss the findings of POMED’s recent policy workshop.  The workshop, the second in a two-part series, took place over the previous two days and brought together fifteen leaders from the United States, Europe and the Middle East to explore existing multilateral frameworks designed to promote Middle East reform, including G8-BMENA, the European Neighborhood Policy and the Middle East Partnership Initiative.  The roundtable featured Hanane Zelouani Idrissi, assistant program officer with the Middle East and North Africa team at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, DC, Audra Grant, a political scientist at the RAND Corporation specializing in Middle East politics and Almut Möller, an Associate Fellow at the Austrian Institute for European and Security Policies (AIES).  The discussion was moderated by Andrew Albertson, executive director of POMED.

Idrissi opened the session with a history of several existing international frameworks designed to promote reform in the region.  She highlighted the United Nation’s Arab Human Development Report, which is produced by Arab scholars, the Broader MENA initiative, a mainly government-to-government initiative, the State Department’s MEPI initiative, and the Good Governance for Development program introduced by Jordan in 2005 and organized through the OECD.  When debating these initiatives the workshop participants stressed the need to include civil society within reforms, ensure coordination for bilateral cooperation, continue international support through mid-term and long-term planning, and create incentives for Arab government participation.  Idrissi also discussed the workshop’s proposal of an Arab Social Forum, conceived as an independent platform for dialogue between civil society organizations and individuals with an interest in Middle East political reform that seeks funding from individual and private donors.

Grant followed with a discussion of the workshop’s attempts to define multilateralism in the context of reform.  The workshop groups focused on how the E.U. and U.S. should balance engaging governments with engaging civil society.  The question arose, if only civil societies are included in international reform efforts is the process still considered multilateral?  Second, the groups questioned what are the tradeoffs of ignoring political reform in favor of economic reforms that offer more traction?  Most members believed that neither political nor economic reform can be put on hold, leading to a greater question over the need for sequencing reforms.  The groups did not come to an overarching conclusion to this well known debate, but did come up with several suggestions on ways to ensure international agreements are enforced on the local level within each initiative.  Finally, Grant focused on the group’s discussion on measuring reform success, since objective formal evaluations of each of these initiatives will be crucial moving forward on future recommendations for improvement. 

Möller, then, emphasized the importance of listening to perspectives from both the West and from the Middle East.  All members of the workshop were critical of existing international frameworks in terms of effectiveness and their monolithic approaches to the region.  There was also an agreement on the importance of civil society and the international community’s need to refocus its support.  The group disagreed, however, on the role of Arab governments in reform.  Another point of contention within the workshop was the role of democracy in reform.  Western agendas have emphasized security and stability over regime change, while the Middle Eastern participants were disappointed in this stance and want the West to pressure Arab governments over the issue of democracy. 

In the proceeding question and answer period, the panelists elaborated on the existing frameworks that they feel continue to have potential for reform.  Möller emphasized the Mediterranean Union’s ability to facilitate practical cooperation and she put forth several ideas developed by the workshop.  First, there was consensus on the benefits to expanding the Euro-Mediterranean University, which was created to bring together students from across Europe and the Middle East.  Second, she explained the potential for international apprenticeships in developing technologies and the possibility of establishing regional watchdogs for consumer advocacy.  Grant spoke about the need to reform the BMENA program with one suggestion that the agreement would be more effective if Arab governments were included into a new MENA framework that does not include Afghanistan and Pakistan.  Idrissi emphasized that the Middle East by now boasts many mature civil society institutions ready to take on issues of political reform.  She believes the West need no longer focus on training and capacity building, but rather should support these groups in their existing activities.

When discussing multilateralism, Grant emphasized the workshop’s focus on the need to build a consensus to conceptualize the problem and to define who should participate in actual reform.  Möller discussed the E.U. experience with multilateralism and the major benefit the organization has received by creating forums for intellectual exchange.  She explained that government initiatives are naturally geared to working with other governments, but that the E.U. prefers to remain uninvolved in Arab governments’ political affairs.  Personally, she believes there is extensive untapped potential for reform that involves civil society in a critical role.

On the issue of separating economic reform from political reform, Idrissi noted that these interests are inter-related and the E.U. and U.S. have differing approaches and effectiveness.  The workshop did not presume to solve the issue of reform sequencing, but recognized that economic and political issues go hand-in-hand and need to be analyzed within the context of each framework. 

Lastly, the panelists addressed questions about positive and negative aspects of existing initiatives.   Grant began with the fundamental need to convince Arab governments to accept limitations on their power, possibly by allowing them to take some credit for being involved in the reform process.  She then addressed concerns over the use of the U.N.’s Arab Human Development Report.  She reiterated shortcomings with BMENA, including its overly-broad perspective, and the need to narrow its focus and build consensus around micro-programs.  Möller critiqued the Union for the Mediterranean, but praised the window for technical, economic reform.  The strength of the E.U. initiative is that it provides long-term planning, but it was unable to effectively integrate Middle Eastern civil society groups in the process.  Idrissi pointed out the positive efforts of the MEPI initiative to incorporate civil society, but she takes issue with the evaluation standards of participants, stressing the need to find ways to incorporate non-English speakers in the initiative.  She also insisted that the lack of Western interest in regime change will leave the burden to local actors.