Professional Associations: Assessing their Potential as Actors of Change

CAIRO, EGYPT - FEBRUARY 12: Medical workers gathered around the union building protest two doctors being beaten up by nine police officers last month, on February 12, 2016. © AA/Mohamed El-Raai

(Paris/Beirut/Tunis, 9 November 2021) - The Arab Reform Initiative (ARI) launched today its e-book entitled “Between the Importance of Roles and Challenges of Organization and Representation: Independent Professional Associations in the Arab world”. This e-book is part of ARI’s research efforts to better understand elements and conditions of change in the Arab world, as well as its main actors. Specifically, it sheds light on “independent” professional associations in order to understand their roles, the challenges they face, and the opportunities they are presented with in their attempt to organise their membership and the “street” more generally and contribute to peaceful power transitions.

The e-book focuses on five main case studies in the Arab world (Sudan, Algeria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Egypt) where independent professional associations have played a critical role in recent mobilisations, either as negotiating parties in democratic power transitions or in being a representation of protest demands. The five case studies delve in-depth into the role of independent professional associations and the challenges they face through research papers written by researchers living in the Arab world who have followed popular mobilisations either through observation and research or through direct involvement in protests. The authors are: Mohamed El-Agati, Omar Said, and Abdel Monem Saed writing on Sudan; Nacer Djabi writing on Algeria; Jamil Mouawad writing on Lebanon; and Ali Tahir Al-Hamoud writing on Iraq.  The volume was edited and compiled by Jamil Mouawad, a Senior Research Fellow at the Arab Reform Initiative.

“Professional associations emerged as key players in the wave of protests that swept Sudan, Lebanon, Algeria, and Iraq since 2019. This publication and the discussions that were organized with key stakeholders in preparing it aim to take stock of the role of these professional associations in these mobilizations and assess the challenges they face in fulfilling their role as potential actors of change and as a space for democratic contestation,” said Nadim Houry, executive director of the Arab Reform Initiative.

In their comparative readings of the case studies, the authors try to understand the fundamental challenges that independent professional associations face in the Arab world, be it legal barriers which restrict freedoms or the imbalance in social representation (and especially women’s representation) – a major issue raised during the protest movements –,  or by shedding light on the necessity of presenting a critical, and perhaps decisive, approach to the dialectic of the trade-off or marriage between political work and the work of representing the interests of professional groups. Finally, they call for a rethinking of the role of professional associations in general in light of the social and economic transformations that have come to pass in recent decades.

This book is a step to (re)centering professional associations in the protest movement, political life, and representation in the Arab world. It represents an opportunity to launch two complementary paths: the first is the development of a research agenda that explores in depth the role of independent professional associations and documents the experiences of their activists in order to present an internally critical reading. The second is the development of a political agenda based on dialogue and points of convergence between independent associations in the same country or in the Arab world. Of course, these steps must be complemented by identifying and networking with similar successful experiences from outside the Arab world in order to draw lessons and exchange expertise.

The views represented in this paper are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Arab Reform Initiative, its staff, or its board.