How to Build Democracy and Civic Ethic After the Arab Spring

The Middle East and North Africa are going through historic shifts.

I would like to believe that these changes are historic and despite the lack of democratic reforms in certain countries such as Syria and a lack of perceived progress on the Palestine Issue, I am an optimist.

One of the key indicators of progress in the region is the shift in consciousness of the population. This has happened rather suddenly in a burst of popular protests which is now known as the Arab Spring. 

And one of the key indicators of this shift in consciousness is how the citizens are seeing their relationship with the state. "Accountability" is emerging as the key word to frame the discussion regarding civil-society and state relations. It is interesting to see that the delegation from Muslim Brotherhood that visited Washington, D.C., just last week used this framework to define their vision, going forward. 

How this revolution of the spirit will transform to tangible results is something I am particularly interested in. From what I understand, bureaucracy has a big role to play in this process. 

While high moral principles are good starting points, they remain high-sounding unless we translate them into actionable items – through constitutional reforms, changes in the manner in which society holds those in power accountable and also reforms to the manner in which resources are allocated and distributed.

The bureaucracy should uphold the implementation of the rules and regulations that are made, while the leadership of the newly formed democracies should inspire, guide and educate the masses on the practice of democracy as well as help the common man interpret the functioning of  the democratic framework. In effect, the bureucracy should translate these principles into tangible outputs, and hold those in power accountable. 

The Athenian Oath: A good Starting Point ?

While the Middle Eastern countries have their own cultural norms and versions of Democratic practices, through such institutions as Shura (loosely translated as “Counsel”), which has through the centuries kept societies cohesive and is widely considered an acceptable mode of resolving most problems, the Athenian Oath of the city-state, which reads as follows, can be a good model for bureaucrats and leaders to follow:

“We will ever strive for the ideals and sacred things of the city. Both alone and with many, we will strive to unceasingly seek to quicken the sense of public. We will revere and obey the city’s laws: we will transmit this city not only less, but greater, better and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us."

While this seems like a Western (Greek) model, the spirit behind this is universal and the newly democratized states can adopt this as a good starting point in how they govern and seek to shape the states, in the years and decades to come.

This oath, when seen from an accounability perspective, defines the tangible outcomes that citizens can expect. 

In conclusion, I believe that unless the leaders and the masses are educated about the spirit of "democracy" and the norms of accountability that a democratic system puts in place, transition to a full-fledged democracy may not happen. 

The obvious challenges before the government: unemployment, rising costs of living, and political instability can all be addressed through the framework enshrined in this oath. If the leadership is able to inspire those in charge of running the country to live up to these ideals, then transition to a “real democracy” can be hastened. 

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Sabith Khan

Sabith Khan is a social entrepreneur, researcher and founder of MENASA, a think-tank and policy shop engaged in issues related to MENA and South Asia. Sabith has worked for several years in the field of strategic communications, public affairs and nonprofit management, trying to understand and communicate issues pertaining to civil society, development and youth in the US and MENA region. Sabith has worked with several large global public affairs firms, on award-winning campaigns in healthcare, entertainment and government relations. During his stint at Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide, he ideated and executed a global award-winning campaign for Apollo Hospitals (Abby and Clio Awards). He has also worked in the Middle East managing accounts as diverse as Dubai Film Festival, Mohammed bin Rashid Foundation, Dubai International Film Festival, Dubai School of Government. Most recently, he served as the Executive Director of Muslim Public Service Network in Washington D.C, an NGO that engages and inspires young American Muslims to do public service. He is currently pursuing a PhD in Planning Governance and Globalization at Virginia Tech. He has been involved as a team member and leader in several international development projects including consulting for the Near East Foundation, in helping set up their Monitoring and Evaluation system for their offices across the MENA region. Sabith has a Master of Public administration and a Master of Arts in International Relations from the Maxwell School of Syracuse University. In Summer 2013, he conducted research on American Muslim philanthropy at the Lilly School of Philanthropy, Indianapolis, in an attempt to map giving behavior among Muslims over the last ten years i.e., 2002- 2012. Sabith’s research interests include Religion and Philanthropy, Youth issues in USA, Middle East North Africa and South Asia, Governance and Civil Society. Sabith is also the co-editor of Millennials Speak: Essays on the 21st century, a snapshot of the ideas and opinions of the global Millennial Generation. Twenty writers from five continents, a diverse mix of young academics, policy professionals, and future thought and creative leaders, cover topics from the legacy of the Arab Spring, the global food system, the U.S. student loan crisis, youth unemployment, to popular culture. Currently working: Founder and Executive Director, MENASA Publications: 1. Humanitarian Aid and Faith-Based Giving: The Potential of Muslim Charity - Unrest Magazine, George Mason University. May 2013. Accessible at http://www.unrestmag.com/about-unrest/past-issues/#sthash.GEqNfv0U.dpuf 2. Arab American Diaspora and American Muslim Philanthropy: impact of crisis situations on mobilization and formation of a “community.” American University in Cairo Press. Cairo. (NP). Expected Fall 2013. 3. Middle-East Peace Talks 2010: Investigating the Role of Lobbying and Advocacy Groups in Washington, D.C. as Spoilers. Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. Spring 2011. Accessible at : http://www.maxwell.syr.edu/parcc/Research/intrastate/Spoilers_of_Peace_Project/ Blog: www.sabithkhan.wordpress.com

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