On 26 March, NIMD and Hivos successfully launched a joint publication on the possibilities for democracy support in the Middle East and North Africa region.
The launch, held in the beautiful old VOC hall at the University of Amsterdam, featured an engaging panel discussion chaired by Chris Keulemans.
Hivos' Tini van Goor officially launched the publication by describing the context in which Hivos and NIMD first came to work together on democracy support in a region not traditionally amenable to Western-style systems of government.
He emphasised the need for NGOs and other organisations to realise how severe the repression of civil society organisations is in some countries in the region. He also made the point that Islamist organisations are not necessarily 'evil' - the really important distinction, he said, is that between democratic and non-democratic organisations.
The panel discussion featured Bertus Hendriks of Clingendael, Steven Adolfs, NRC correspondent for NRC in Spain and Morocco, and an Iranian researcher from the University of Amsterdam, as well as Van Goor and NIMD's expert, Annie van de Pas. Discussion focused on the three case studies presented in the publication - namely Iran, Morocco and Egypt - and the possibilities for democracy support in the region.
Some panellists advocated engaging with so called Gongos, government-organised NGOs, particularly in the case of Iran where supporting the nascent Green movement might be seen, paradoxically, as unproductive. Others cautioned against such a move, arguing that seemingly legitimate organisations are not always as progressive as we in the West would like to believe.
This raised the question of how to continue supporting democracy in this region when ‘partial openings' lead to the election of parties or leaders who are not democratic, the success of Hamas in the Palestinian territories being a case in point.
Panellists also discussed the role of the Internet and other new communications technologies in the promotion of democracy in the region, particularly in the example of Egypt’s April 6th movement, although no clear approach was formulated on how to facilitate this.
The report's main conclusion - that NGOs wishing to support democratisation efforts in the Middle East and North Africa region should be realistic about their chances of success - was welcomed by the panelists. Only from such a realistic starting point can NIMD and Hivos and other organisations in the field if democracy support consider ways to be involved in this highly complex and diverse region.