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Sofia Platform

04 May 2011 News

Bulgaria Brings Together European and Middle East Leaders to Discuss Transition

Sofia Platform will welcome more than 150 political, civil society and activists

More than 150 participants from Europe, North Africa and the Middle East gather in Sofia on 5 and 6 May for an international conference entitled Sofia Platform: Central and Eastern Europe’s Transition and the Change in the Middle East. Political leaders, activists, journalists, representatives of NGOs will discuss the recent changes in the Arab world against the background of the transitional experience of Central and Eastern Europe.

Speaking on the eve of the conference, Bulgarian Foreign Minister Nickolay Mladenov said: “I believe that the international community, including the European Union, must do its best to assist the Arab countries on their road to democratic, prosperous and stable societies.

“By organizing this conference, Bulgaria would like to reaffirm its firm solidarity with the commendable efforts of the nascent Arab civil societies, aimed at building democracy, and achieving dignity and justice.” 

Starting in 1989, Central and Eastern Europe went through a difficult but ultimately successful transformation. Two decades down the road, democratic institutions have been entrenched, citizens’ rights and freedoms are better safeguarded, while market economy has improved the lives of a growing majority within each of the countries.

The Arab world is now at a critical junction as momentum builds towards the development of democracy. Driven by people power the Middle East has embarked on its own transition. The energy, a desire for freedom and the drive for reforms are there, but much like in the early days of 1989, it is not clear where this transition will lead.

While the historical, cultural and political contexts in the Middle East and North Africa are markedly different, the experience of Central and Eastern Europe, including mistakes, wrong choices and steps not taken, could be a very helpful starting point for a mutually enriching exchange of views and perspectives.

“Perhaps  the  biggest  lesson  learned  from our own transition is that you can’t  impose  change  from  the  outside. However,  having something to learn from and avoid repeating at least some of the mistakes that others have made, would be useful,” Mladenov noted.

In six topical panels, Sofia Platform will provide an inventory of ideas, know-how and relevant experience for the countries in the Middle East to draw upon in the areas of political reforms, transparency and anti-corruption, civil society and free media. Among speakers at the conference are UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, Hungarian Foreign Minister Janos Martonyi (on behalf of the EU Presidency), Foreign Ministers Luis Amado (Portugal), Carl Bildt (Sweden), Dimitris Droutsas (Greece) and Sven Alkalaj (Bosnia and Herzegovina), the Secretary-General of the Council of Europe Torbjorn Jagland; former Bulgarian President Zhelyu Zhelev and former Prime Miniser Philip Dimitrov.


Panel 1: Transition needs dialogue

Round tables are very important but they cannot solve problems of transition without public pressure. This was one of the main messages from the first panel of the Sofia Platform conference. Zhelyu Zhelev, president of Bulgaria from 1990-1997, said that the most important aim of the round tables is to prevent violence and bloodshed.

The second message of the panel was that countries in transition should seek regional co-operation to share know-how about the different processes of transition. The Visegrad group of countries is one of the best examples of successful co-operation.

Reforming the judiciary is crucial to creating and sustaining a democratic state, stated most of the panelists. Istavan Gyarmati, president of the International Centre for Democratic Transition in Hungary, said that this is the only way to achieve reconciliation, a market economy and the rule of law.

Countries should not accept advice from all quarters, but should seek to exchange experiences with civil society.

Ahmed Atef, a film director and activist from Egypt, said that it is important to have a free movement of ideas and a dialogue of ideas. This is the only way to moderate even extremist ideas, he said.


Panel 2: Civil Society and Media: Is advice needed or not?

The mistakes made by Central and Eastern European states after the 1990s were both in the public sector, where media funded by state are dependent on it, and the private sector, with the concentration of media ownership, and the deterioration of journalism down to the “sex sells” principle.

People can be active not only in political parties, but also in NGOs, that being the reason why an infrastructure for NGOs had to be developed, GMF-Bratislava's Pavol Demes said.

Wasim Alqershi, an activist from Yemen, described the way in which domestic media described president Saleh as the only option for Yemen andthe absence of any alternatives channels of information, a result of state regulations, the high illiteracy rate and great poverty.

According to Amani Elkhayat from Egypt's ON TV, the information coming to the West does not give the real opinion and situation in the MENA region. Its aim is to separate the West and the East. “I do not accept that this is an internet revolution because we have our own values”, she said.

The message from Lamia Grar, of the Arab Institute for Human Rights, was that co-operation with human rights organizations from Europe and the US should be very careful because this approach had not worked out in places like Iraq and Palestine.


Panel 3: Anti-corruption Strategies – the joint efforts of Europe and the Arab world are necessary

Popularization of underground formations and creation of oligarchies was the main accent in the presentation of the topic by Minna Jarvenpaa from Open Society Foundation.

The countries which had strong middle classes handled modernization much better, Ognyan Minchev from Transparency International said. The countries from Central and Eastern Europe which had strong institutions before the fall of communism, managed to better modernize their societies. According to him, the middle class is an instrument against corruption because it can control power. The new Facebook activists from the countries in the Middle East can have exactly such a function.

Corruption is already the most serious problem for security and this applies not only to countries in the Middle East but to the whole world. This was the main point of Jana Hybaskova, Head of EU delegation to Iraq.

Speaking from personal and professional experience Sasha Bezuhanova, Member of the Board of the European Council of Women in Technologies, said that one of the most important battles in fighting corruption is the change in mentality but that takes time. She described the electronic government as one of the major instruments for fighting corruption. This gives clarity and transparency to administration, Bezuhanova said.

Abderrazak Kilani, president of Ordre National des Avocats in Tunisia, defined the current historic moment as an incredible chance to the people in his country to build a real constitutional state which is possible only through active fighting against corruption.

The main message of the Moroccan economist Fouad Abdelmoumni to the European countries was to control their elites and institutions which corrupt not only the rulers of the countries in the region but the whole society. He made an appeal to the triptych West – Central and Eastern Europe – Southern Mediterranean for cooperation in the fight against corruption.


Panel 4: Reforming Political Institutions

The European Union needs to draft an European Marshall-type plan for Middle East and North Africa, Greek foreign minister Dimitris Droutsas told the fourth panel of Sofia Platform conference.

The prospect of EU membership was a very strong driving force for reform in the Balkan countries, but this particular factor was not available to MENA countries. That was the reason why EU needed to develop a new vision for its Southern neighborhood, Droutsas said. Such a plan should be developed as an investment in the peace and stability of the region and the EU.

Reforming political institutions should be done quickly and simply, according to the recipe of former Bulgarian prime minister and current head of the EU delegation to Georgia, Philip Dimitrov. “Otherwise, the energy of the revolution could fade away”, he said.

Hesham Khedr, a founder of the New Islamic Party El Nahda in Egypt, defended the Muslim Brotherhood, saying that it should not be shunned if it was successful in the elections and took power in a democratic way in Egypt. Muslims made a difference between religious and secular power, but religion could not be detached from everyday life, which is why the country's new constitution and forthcoming elections should reflect the Islamic culture of the Egyptian people, he said.

The party wanted strong citizen institutions, he said. And if that meant that the people wanted a woman for president or approved the sale of alcohol, his party was ready to accept the will of the people.

Isam al Khafaji, special advisor and consultant on the social and economic affairs of the Middle East, compared Islamic parties to shadow states. When the state failed to perform its duties, people turned to the Islamic parties for medical and educational services, he said. The issue was that Islamic parties received funding from abroad, which made it difficult for other parties to compete against them.

Tunisia's way of dealing with this issue was to ban foreign funding and limit private donations to political parties, Sihem Bensendrine, a spokesperson for the Conseil national pour les libertés en Tunisie. Other electoral code changes introduced ahead of elections included provisions for male and female equality on party candidate lists and the decision to impose lustration, barring officials from the former regime from taking public office.

Panel 5: The Arab Spring – a chance not only for the Middle East, but for the EU, too

The experience gained by Central and Eastern Europe, as a group of different nations and cultures that have undergone the process of transition to democracy, is unique. In all Eastern European countries, the goals were the same, but the transition processes had their differences, Bulgarian Foreign Minister Nickolay Mladenov said during the fifth panel of the Sofia Platform conference.

He recalled the arguments by doubters in the 1990s, who questioned whether democracy and free markets were possible in Eastern Europe. “Today, 20 years later, these doubts have been rejected and I’m sure the same may be achieved by the people in the Middle East”, Mladenov said.

George Ishak, an activist and member of the leadership of the Kefaya grassroots opposition coalition in Egypt, has described his experience with the EU has not been very useful so far. The Kefaya movement has been in existence since 2006, but during this period, none of the EU ambassadors in Egypt had supported it. Ishak asked for EU’s co-operation in returning the funds that have been moved out of Egypt by the previous regime, as well as help in overhauling the education sytem and financing a system for electronic elections in the country.

The demographic explosion in the Arab countries can become an opportunity for the entire world, if the economic conditions in the region were to be changed, Sweden's Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said. Immediate measures were necessary to deal with the economic crisis in Egypt and Tunisia during this early transition period, or the "revolutions of great expectations" could turn into "revolutions of failed expectations". According to Bildt, this had to be dealt with within the International Monetary Fund framework, with the US and the EU – but also the Persian Gulf countries, which benefited the most from the rise in oil prices – contributing to economic recovery in the region.

“The EU is facing its biggest strategic challenge – how to stabilize its connections with the MENA region,” Portugal's Vice Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Luis Amado said. This was a much more difficult process than rapprochement with Eastern Europe in the 1990s. “Now we have to learn how to live with political Islam, but also how to hold back radical Islam in this beginning of the political transformation in that part of the world,” Amado said.

According to Said Sadek, professor of political sociology at the American University in Cairo, countries in the Middle East already learned from the experience of Eastern Europe and had avoided, in some cases, making the same mistakes.

“We, in the EU, like to make tough choices – on one hand we push for a transition, and on the other is the Hague Tribunal, which condemns those we wanted to negotiate with before,” said Ivan Krastev from the Center for Liberal Strategies and member of the Board of ECFR. “If there is a lesson that the countries from the MENA region can learn from the experience of the countries in Central and Eastern Europe, it is that they need organization, strong leaders and strong political parties,” he said.

Panel 6: The way ahead is difficult and demands the efforts of all of society

What does the Arab world expect from Europe and from the international community? That was the main question that moderator Nadim Shehadi of Chatham House asked panel 6. Neutrality is not possible, he said: Europeans cannot afford the luxury of not being involved and of not standing by universal values. It also was necessary, he said, to “reconsider our own understanding of the Islamic movement” and to seek to understand the nature of the opposition to the regimes in the countries involved.

Theodore Karasik, director of Research and Development at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, said that the Gulf Co-operation Council perspective was that the Arab countries did not consider 1989 and the changes in Central and Eastern Europe a model for the current revolutions – which they saw as revolts – in the Middle East and North Africa. We have to interpret what happened in CEE on local Arab ground, he said.

Aboubakr Jamai, founder and editor of Moroccan newspaper Le Journal Hebdomadaire, urged that there be no compromises on major principles such as protection of human rights, freedom of speech, self-respect and dignity.

Hazem El Amin, a journalist at Lebanese newspaper Al Hayat, said: “There is a certain problem between Europe and public opinion in the Middle East because of some people’s unwillingness to exclude religion completely from public life. And this lessens the value of Arab culture, which mustn’t happen”.

The State Secretary of the Ministry of Education in Tunisia, Hassen Annabi, said that it is not easy to predict what the future is going to be “because we are in a process of revolution at the moment and we can talk only about the near future”.  He hoped that there would not be intrusive European interference. A transition to democracy would require the joint efforts of the entire community as well as a revolution in the way of thinking, because it is important for Tunisians to restore confidence in their own country. Our revolution, Annabi said, would succeed only if it was considered in its context – as a part of Maghreb, which presupposes building new relationships among Arab countries.

Basem Kamel, a member of the Revolution Youth Coalition of Egypt and a member of Mohamed El-Baradei’s team, said that the revolution in Egypt was not over yet although it had managed to bring down the regime. Kamel sketched the main steps to be taken now to ensure security and freedom for Egyptians: organization of institutions, establishment of an independent police that work in the interests of the people, establishment of free media, education of people, as well as guaranteeing the rights of minorities and of all the citizens of the country. Kamel emphasized that Egypt needs a change in the political climate, on the basis of what people really wanted.





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