IJR executive director Fanie du Toit spoke with AYANDA NYOKA about the growing pro-democracy movement in North Africa and the Middle East.
In December of last year in the Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid, 26-year-old Mohamed Bouzazizi – a modest and hardworking vegetable vendor, the main provider for his family, and victim of police harassment since childhood – set himself alight outside a local municipal office in protest of the confiscation of his stock and equipment. This act seemingly set off a wave of pro-democracy protests in Tunisia that quickly swept across the region. Egypt’s 18-day ‘revolution’ was instrumental in ending 30 years of undemocratic rule by ousted president Hosni Mubarak, paving the way for constitutional reform and elections later this year. However, while many remain hopeful about Egypt’s peaceful transition violent confrontations between citizens and the Libyan government have provoked an international military response from a coalition of France, Britain and the US. Some lessons emerge from South Africa’s transition to democracy, and from the IJR’s work in post-conflict societies across Africa.
AN: What are the main driving forces behind recent pro-democracy protests in North Africa and the Middle East?
Recent protests have occurred in a range of different societies. However, cross-cutting issues may be the global economic downturn which has had a major effect on both revenue streams and socioeconomic conditions, particularly in highly oil-dependent economies. Also, citizens with limited opportunities for past mobilisation have made very effective use of social media to orchestrate mass action. Looking at the bigger picture, it seems citizens in these countries have grown frustrated with the kind of leadership they have been fed, and political grievances that have built up over the years simply boiled over.
AN: Given the IJR’s experiences in post-conflict societies across Africa, how important are justice and accountability considerations for a society in transition, like Egypt?
Both are vital, but the relationship between these often conflicting goals needs precise and context-specific management. The importance of getting this balance right should not be underestimated. States undergoing major transitions, as now appears to be happening in parts of the Arab world, must strive to achieve some measure of retrospective justice and accountability for crimes of the past. Without this, the resolve of any new dispensation to uphold the rule of law will be weakened. However, while important, such measures should not be the exclusive or even top priority, nor will they singularly redress past problems. In a country like Egypt, for example, peace and social stability are of primary importance. The process of drafting a democratic constitution will be critical, as will the upcoming elections. Only once a constitutional framework is in place will a newly elected leadership be able to proceed credibly with justice and accountability measures; and for this to happen, opposing groups need to learn to trust one another.
AN: In a country like Egypt, what factors may contribute to a successful transition to democracy?
A huge test is often whether the military can step away from power to make way for elections. Indications in Egypt at least suggest that this will be the case. But a widely accepted constitution needs to guide the process. This implies tough negotiations around Sharia law and women’s rights, but if successful, a democratic Egyptian constitution will have important implications for Arab and Muslim societies across the world. It will help create durable democracy – beyond simply having elections – through participatory governance and progressive legislation which bind everybody into the process.
AN: The outcomes of Libyan pro-democracy protests have been very different. In your opinion, when is international military intervention necessary and appropriate, if ever?
In the past, the sovereignty of nations was seen as a supreme rule in international relations. Military intervention into another country was seen as an act of war or aggression. ‘Sovereignty’ was used as the excuse for why the Allies refrained from invading Germany for so long even though millions of Jews were being massacred, and similarly, while genocide took place in Rwanda. To this day, the African Union remains reticent to intervene directly in places like Zimbabwe. However, the UN Charter nowadays does provide for legal military intervention, specifically when a government or ruler begins killing its own citizens. This principle was strengthened by the Rome Statute in 1997, which acknowledges war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide and the ‘right to protect’ movement. However, such military intervention is contingent on UN Security Council approval.
AN: What role should the AU take in ensuring continental peace and stability, and initiating transitional justice processes?
Strange as it may seem, the AU still does not have a comprehensive transitional justice policy. Currently such interventions are carried out on an ad hoc basis. Such a policy would greatly assist in creating a political and governance environment in which transitional justice initiatives can be implemented effectively, responsibly and more consistently. However, the AU’s widely published, acrimonious stand-off with the ICC has prevented a more positive discourse on transitional justice processes amongst key role-players on the continent.
AN: Finally, is there a role for South Africa in the context of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’?
South Africa has an important role to play. As in many countries, our domestic and foreign policy are strongly linked. The values of our democratic transition, including reconciliation over vengeance and inclusion over exclusion, are evident in our foreign policy approach. At the same time South Africa is beginning to show signs of being firmer on human rights transgressors on the continent. South Africa has domesticated the Rome Statute and enacted its tenets into national law, which means that we are obliged to arrest any indictee of the court who enters the country, and send that person to The Hague. South Africa can therefore exert pressure to execute ICC indictments, if this occurs. However, our greatest test does not lie in North Africa. It lies just over our borders, and in some ways we have indeed failed Zimbabwe and its people by doing too little for too long. South Africa needs to seriously and strategically consider our role in that country, bearing in mind our values of peace and forgiveness, as well as of democracy, good governance and respect for human rights.
Ayanda Nyoka is currently completing her master’s degree in political studies at the University of the Western Cape, and is a research intern in the IJR Political Analysis programme.