"Governments and Civil Society Hand in Hand for a Better Future" was the title of this year’s G8 Broader Middle East and North Africa (BMENA) Initiative "Forum for the Future," held in Cairo December 16 to 17. The next day, while senior international diplomats attending the forum were still in town, Egyptian police raided the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights (ECESR). They arrested prominent youth activist Mohamed Adel, beat up and detained several others, and confiscated computers and documents. The raided organization is one of only a few Egyptian human rights groups that have dared to criticize the violent repression of supporters of ousted former President Mohamed Morsi and others and to call for accountability. Of course ECESR was not among the tiny group of hand-picked Egyptian "civil society partners" invited to take part in the forum.
The December 18 raid only compounded the reasons why Egypt was an appalling choice of regional host by the G8 co-chair — Britain — and why the United States should not have participated. The raid came amidst a massive ongoing crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and a newer campaign against revolutionary youth activists, three of the most well-known of whom (including Adel) were sentenced to three years in prison on December 22. In fact, even when the decision to hold the forum in Cairo was made at last year’s gathering in Tunisia it was a mistake, as the government of Morsi, deposed in a July military coup, was no friend to independent civil society either.
The Egyptian government did not disappoint; its representatives were quick to seize on the forum as an opportunity to promote their narrative about the country’s march toward democracy. Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs Hisham Badr claimed that Egypt was "building its future on a democratic basis," and that hosting the forum this year coincided with the pace of societal and political change in the country. The head of the British delegation, Hugh Robertson, minister of state for foreign and commonwealth affairs, appeared to do little to counter this controversial official Egyptian discourse.
But it was not only the venue that made this Forum for the Future — never a dazzling success over its nine years of existence — into a sad parody of what it was intended to be. Its original goals were: for officials from G8 countries to encourage Middle Eastern governments to undertake political and economic reforms; to enable indigenous civil society activists and private sector leaders to raise issues of concern and thus be seen as a legitimate part of the reform debate; and for their governments to be compelled to listen and respond.
From the outset the forum was hobbled by the organizers’ tendency to water down the agenda and to engage a fairly narrow slice of Arab civil society — mostly "partners" rather than critics of regional governments. Some of the authors of the forum, initiated in 2004 by the United States as part of President George W. Bush’s "Freedom Agenda," noted as early as 2008 that it suffered from inattention during the latter years of the Bush administration and had failed to deliver on its modest potential. Still, in some years, a number of respected Arab activists and reformers did attend and used the forum to challenge their governments’ hollow reform narratives as well as to offer alternative visions of change.
The quality of discussion and tangible output was uneven over the years, but the final communiqué from the 2012 Forum in Tunis (co-hosted by the United States) stands out as an especially strong endorsement of political rights and freedoms. Even though Arab governments largely ignored such declarations, the idea was that activists and G8 governments could use them as a standard to which those governments had ostensibly agreed.
And the forum served on and off as a place for major policy statements, such as former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s remarks at the January 2011 forum in Qatar, in which she highlighted the demands of Arab youth and warned presciently before an audience of uncomfortable Arab officials that "the region’s foundations are sinking into the sand." Her speech came just one day before mass protests in Tunisia forced former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali to flee the country.
This year, it was not the U.S. secretary of state or even deputy secretary of state who participated, as has been the case in every past forum. Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Uzra Zeya represented the United States, along with counterparts at a similar level from other countries. Zeya, in forthright and thoughtful public remarks, correctly noted an increase in "legal restrictions and political intimidation of civil society" in "some MENA and G8 countries." She stated, "there are activists — including some in Egypt — who face criminal charges and intimidation for the peaceful exercise of their rights." Zeya’s remarks, which contrasted with the softer tone employed by her fellow G8 representatives, surely annoyed her Egyptian hosts. But such statements have the most impact when uttered by a newsmaker such as the secretary of state.
Civil society participation in this year’s forum was also anemic compared to past years; only one civil society preparation meeting was held (in Jordan) rather than several, and far fewer organizations took part than has been typical in the last few years. In the case of Egypt, several of the important NGOs that have helped to organize and set the agenda for many years, such as the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, were excluded this time, presumably because they have called for accountability for the mass killing of pro-Morsi protesters in August. At the plenary civil society representatives were relegated to delivering extremely brief readouts of the preparatory meeting while government officials held the floor for hours. In 2011, a Tunisian human rights activist shared the stage with Clinton and the Bahraini foreign minister. Disappointingly, it seems that neither the British as co-sponsor nor the United States pressed hard on the central issue of civil society’s marginalization in 2013.
Incredibly, the co-chairs of the 2014 forum will be Russia (the next G-8 president) and the United Arab Emirates (selected by Russia). It is difficult to imagine how such a conference hosted by two of the countries most hostile to civil society could be anything but a cynical charade.* And Russia is likely to use the forum shrewdly as a chance to propagate, under the prestigious banner of the G8 presidency, its own dangerous narrative about the illegitimacy of independent civic groups and foreign NGO funding and the value of President Vladimir Putin’s system of "managed democracy." The United States and Europe have not been able to push back very effectively against Russia’s global anti-democracy discourse. Therefore one could imagine next year’s forum as, rather than an innocuous gathering with some modest
salutary effects or a façade event like the 2013 Cairo conclave, a harmful endorsement of authoritarianism under G8 auspices.
It is time for the United States to abandon its involvement in the forum. This is an awkward step, given Washington’s role in creating the initiative. But since the enthusiasm of other G8 members is questionable, the event might well die a quiet death once the United States pulls out.
The United States should then redirect its efforts toward designing a more constructive regional platform for direct dialogue with Arab civil society. This would be one in which NGO representatives with genuine independence would be free to take part, without Arab government vetting of participants or the agenda, and discuss the real political, economic, and social issues holding back development in the region. While such an initiative should be multilateral, the G8 is probably the wrong vehicle now due to Russia’s negative turn. Instead, the United States might work with the Community of Democracies, the National Endowment for Democracy, and new European Endowment for Democracy, or just formulate a coalition of like-minded democracies to learn from these organizations and discuss coordinated approaches.
A decade ago, the concept of gathering senior Arab officials, representatives of civil society groups and the private sector, and foreign ministers from the world’s most powerful countries to talk about political and economic reform in the region seemed novel. But the 2011 Arab uprisings discredited the vision of change implicitly promoted by the forum — top down, incremental, limited reform, to preserve friendly Arab regimes. After the past three years, during which millions of the region’s citizens have mobilized and risked their lives repeatedly to call for rights, justice, and accountable leadership, Arab civil society activists do not want or need Western officials to help them make such modest requests of their rulers. They do need the United States and other democratic powers to keep pressing Arab governments to open space for civil society work, and to allow them to network with international organizations as well as to receive funding from foreign sources. The struggle for democracy in the Arab world will be long and painful, but no one can deny that it is well underway, and the U.S. approach should change accordingly.
*An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the UAE excluded civil society participants when it hosted the forum in 2008.
Michele Dunne is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Amy Hawthorne is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.