From 2008 to 2011 ARI led a dialogue process between leading figures of different political opposition groups in Egypt, Morocco, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen, serving as an umbrella for critical dialogue between diverse political actors on the most delicate and complex of topics. Issues discussed included the place of Islam in public life and the neutrality of the state vis-à-vis religion, freedom of thought and of expression, responding to social demands and the social agenda, the status of women, and the rights of minorities. Discussions also addressed the development of political platforms for campaigning and the identification of possible alliance options.
The project’s aim was to foster a dialogue among all opposition forces present in political arenas on the basis of their commitment to democratic principles and encourage outside partners to engage with democratic coalitions that include Islamists. The activity was also designed to engage scholars and representatives from various movements in a critical dialogue with other political and social forces to discuss the thorny issues that constitute a source of concern for non-Islamist political and social forces. The ultimate objective was to explore possibilities for building national coalitions or frameworks for political alliances. The dialogues served to explore issues that would contribute to the formation of these alliances, such as respect for the principles of democracy, as well as identify more difficult issues that could serve as obstacles, such as the question of national unity.
22 researchers, journalists, and political activists from Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, and Yemen participated in the dialogues. Four dialogues took place over the course of 2009, each with a set of themes to be treated:
- Cairo, January 2009. The group discussed four experiences of coalition building in Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Syria. Discussions focused on strategies and principles on which alliances are made, the level of trust between the parties to each coalition, and the degree of success of each of the four experiences.
- Beirut, April 2009. Yemen was added to the countries studied. The group focused on codes of conduct and rules of engagement for the representatives of political forces, particularly on how to manage divergent views between different parties. Through these concrete discussions, the participants clarified their understanding of pluralism and of the concept of democracy as well as the issue of social justice and how the various groups respond to social demands.
- Rabat, July 2009. Discussions were structured around the key questions of neutrality of the state and of constitutions towards religion; how to reconcile religious law and civil law; equal citizenship and rights in multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian societies; attitudes towards women and non-Muslim minorities; freedom of belief, of thought and of expression; and priorities in foreign policy and relations with the West.
- Beirut, November 2009. The fragmentation of national entities was identified over the course of the dialogues as a major danger threatening the fate of the unified state. This also applies to societal fragmentation or violent civil confrontations.
In addition to these critical dialogues, the project also comprised the production of a number of papers and commentaries, as well as the organisation of an international conference convened in partnership with the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) in November 2009, entitled “Traditional Societies and Modern Politics: New Processes of Mobilization and Political Participation in the Arab world.” The conference was attended by 50 participants and brought together ARI’s working groups and some 20 scholars working on Islamists.
The final report, Critical Dialogue between Diverse Opposition Groups, provides an overview of the project and brings together the papers produced by 22 researchers from Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, and Yemen on the following topics:
- Lessons learned from coalition-building experiences;
- Islamist movements and social demands;
- The relationship between religion and politics, and the possibility of secularism;
- Advancing women’s rights, with or without Islamists;
- The question of equal rights for minorities and the danger of fragmentation of nation-states.
Bassma Kodmani, ARI Executive Director, and Salam Kawakibi, ARI Deputy Director, led this project.