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Freer and fairer: Nurturing political transparency in the Middle East

Charles W. Dunne, Director of Middle East and North Africa Programs for Freedom House, speaks about the efforts of his organisation and others like it to provide political education and training on the ground in the Middle East. With host Jacky Angus.

"There's about 35,000 NGOs in Egypt right now; some of them working on health issues, rural development, but hundreds who are also working on issues of civic participation." -- Charles Dunne




Charles W. Dunne
Charles W. Dunne

Charles W. Dunne is director of Middle East and North Africa programs at Freedom House. Prior to joining Freedom House, he spent 24 years as a diplomat in the U.S. Foreign Service, serving overseas in Cairo, Jerusalem, and Madras, India. In addition, he was Director for Iraq at the National Security Council from 2005-2007 and a Foreign Policy Adviser to the Director for Strategic Plans and Policy at the Joint Staff in the Pentagon (2007-2008). He also served as a member of the Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff, where he contributed to the development of presidential initiatives to advance political reform and democracy in the Broader Middle East and North Africa. He is a scholar with the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C., and a member of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Credits

Host: Jacky Angus
Producers: Kelvin Param, Eric van Bemmel
Audio Engineers: Kelvin Param and Gavin Nebauer
Voiceover: Nerissa Hannink
Series Creators: Eric van Bemmel and Kelvin Param

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VOICEOVER
Welcome to Up Close, the research talk show from the University of Melbourne, Australia. 

JACKY ANGUS
I'm Jacky Angus. Thanks for joining us. In today's episode of Up Close I will be talking to Mr Charles W. Dunne, Director for Middle East and Northern African Programs for Freedom House.In addition to its role as a research institute Freedom House supports political education for democracy throughout the world. Our focus today will be on political education in the Middle East. He is currently visiting Australia for a conference on the recent Arab uprisings, a conference funded jointly by Freedom House and the University of Melbourne. Mr Dunne's background as a diplomat and American foreign policy advisor, with over 25 years' experience in the field, including posts in Cairo, Jerusalem and India, makes him ideally placed to assess recent developments in the Middle East. Welcome to Up Close, Mr Dunne.

CHARLES DUNNE
Thank you very much. Please call me Charles. 

JACKY ANGUS
Well, Charles, let's start with a brief summary of the origins and aims of Freedom House.

CHARLES DUNNE
Well, Freedom House just celebrated its 70th anniversary last year. We were founded in 1941 by Eleanor Roosevelt and Wendell Wilkie as an organisation intended to fight the ideological advances of fascism in Europe. After World War 2 we played a very active role - struggling against communism and its ideology as it spread in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. And we began undertaking programs on the ground, in addition to analysing political trends around the world, essentially, in the 1980s. And this was at a time, of course, when President Reagan founded the National Endowment for Democracy and really made it an important tenet of US foreign policy.We've been very active since then and have exponentially expanded our programs in the Middle East over the last few years. 

JACKY ANGUS
With regard to political education how does one develop an understanding of politics and the skills to ensure that democracy will actually take root in those cultures that have undergone an uprising or a revolution?

CHARLES DUNNE
Well, first of all, it's very important for us as an organisation to have the extensive knowledge of what is going on in each country that we're trying to operate in. So we have a number of regional experts attached to our regional programs, many of them also with a great deal of substantive expertise; in some cases political activists themselves.We also have developed extensive networks and relationships with partners - NGOs, individual activists and others - throughout the regions that we deal with. What we really try to do is listen to what they think the needs are in each country, and I can't emphasise this enough. This is very important to be responding to what politically active people in each individual country think their needs are, and help them to realise their goals. That's what we're trying to do - Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere - right now. 

JACKY ANGUS
When you say responding to their needs, that means what, learning how to, say, run an election or to be fiscally responsible when you scrutinise votes, when you educate people about the parties? Would that be right?

CHARLES DUNNE
That's all correct. I mean there's quite an active NGO community in Washington. Organisations such as the International Republican Institute, National Democratic Institute and others do a lot of the heavy lifting on party building, party education, teaching people how to run elections. Freedom House has value added in this - today it's often having to do with working with younger activists on non-violent political resistance, as we've done in certain countries; helping people monitor elections through web based platforms, which we've done successfully in Tunisia and Egypt; working a lot on social media training and helping to unleash its power to help people organise, spread news and educate each other about what they're doing to take part in the politics of their country. That's where Freedom House is really focusing in the Middle East today.But it's a real challenge for any NGO, really, to spread outside the capital cities and the major cities. A lot of the NGO activity in Egypt - I know this is also true in Tunis as well - is very much centred on the capital city.We in Freedom House are trying to get out into the countryside in a lot of these places. In Tunis we just held a major conference on transitional justice. We invited a lot of people from the provinces in to talk about their experiences under the previous regime, help give victims of the previous regime a chance to speak and really tell their stories and link up with people on the national level who we're trying to redress these wrongs. So I think that's critically important to link the rural and outlying areas into what's really happening politically in the capital cities.

JACKY ANGUS
So the emphasis is very much on participation by local people, as well as knowing what to do. Does that mean that sometimes you get a government getting a bit anxious, even resentful, of the resources that you put in for that process of participation of their citizens? I guess some political challenges sometimes?

CHARLES DUNNE
Yes, that's certainly correct. We're facing that in Egypt today, where the Egyptian Government has cracked down on NGOs, including our own, Freedom House. They have - in last December; December 2011, raided our offices, along with those of several other organisations; closed them, sealed them with wax, removed all of our equipment and a small amount of cash on hand. Now our employees are under investigation and have been indicted in Egypt on various politically motivated charges having to do with running unauthorised operations and not getting prior permission to bring funds into the country.But this is really part of a broad based assault by the Egyptian Government on NGOs. Approximately 400 Egyptian NGOs have also been caught up in this investigation. It might be this is really an effort to intimidate the NGOs and discredit them as a political factor in the upcoming political transition. 

JACKY ANGUS
Well resumably, that sort of harassment happens in countries other than Egypt. How are you going pto be able to deal with that? From the point of view of actually encouraging NGOs to be linked in locally - that's the issue. Does that mean that NGOs are now threatened in terms of their survival in places like Egypt and other parts of the Middle East, given the situation in 2012 and at the moment?

CHARLES DUNNE
Certainly. In some cases the survival of NGOs is very much in question, as in places like Syria, which is undergoing considerable political strife. In Egypt the question isn't so much the survival of the organisations as the question of whether they will be intimidated from undertaking controversial political activities. I'm very worried about a chilling effect, not only in Egypt, but elsewhere in the region, as people look at what's happening there and in certain other places. They'll say it's not worth it to become involved politically. The NGOs will still exist, but they just won't be doing what we think of as their job. 

JACKY ANGUS
You're listening to Up Close, coming to you from the University of Melbourne, Australia. I'm Jacky Angus. I'm talking to Charles Dunne from Freedom House about political education in the Middle East. Well, Charles, is there anyone else that should be really getting involved in political education, quite apart from the regimes themselves? Obviously, the Government should be, and in schools and so on. I'm thinking of the Arab League for example. The Arab League talks a lot about these things, but is now being increasingly incorporated into the global political perspective. Is this something they should be or, in fact, perhaps, are getting interested in?

CHARLES DUNNE
I think the Arab League is playing a much more interesting and even effective role in trying to support political change in some countries; sometimes effectively, as they did in Libya; sometimes less effectively, as they tried to do in Syria.My hope is that they will become more active in supporting on the ground NGOs who are trying to bring democracy and representative government really, is what it's all about, in their own countries. I haven’t seen much evidence that they're supporting programs, but they are in a very interesting process of re-orientating their entire perspective on political change in the region.

JACKY ANGUS
Becuase it does seem that while, of course, the bigger NGOs and the funding of NGOs from the United States and other countries - that's exemplary and important and has led the way; but there must come a time, finally, where countries who have undergone a revolution and who claim to want to work beyond the rhetoric of democracy to actually implement some kind of civics programs in schools, to really make sure that people know what being a good citizen is. I mean it's a bit beyond the rhetoric of democracy. It's actually being able to hand a political party, to turn up to vote rather than to, say, boycott an election. Do you see any signs in the Middle East for this happening? Or are we being too optimistic here?

CHARLES DUNNE
I don’t think we're being too optimistic. I mean we've certainly seen this in Egypt, which has had an established NGO community - there's about 35,000 NGOs in Egypt right now; some of them working on health issues, rural development, but hundreds who are also working on issues of civic participation. They have an infrastructure there and they're doing that right now.A more interesting case to me is Libya where today, in fact, we have a Freedom House team on the ground there assessing possibilities for co-operation with local partners. Even before Gaddafi's fall hundreds of NGOs - civic oriented NGOs - were growing up in Benghazi and in Tripoli. They have a huge capacity for helping activate the Libyan population, teach them what it means to be a citizen in a democracy, organise people to advocate effectively on their behalf and to serve as a buffer between the Libyan people and their emerging Government.So I think that there's a huge role for them to play. And what they've asked for is more international engagement with them - how do we do these things? All these institutions either didn't exist, were co-opted or were destroyed under Gaddafi. And now there's this huge appetite for technical assistance - teach us how to do this. So I think in a place like Libya it's very promising in terms of the future politics of that country, when you look at what the NGOs are trying to do.

JACKY ANGUS
Well, that's impressive with the non-government organisations, but what about the role of government in this?

CHARLES DUNNE
Well, in some cases, again, to go back to the Libyan example, they have a lot to learn too. The Transitional National Council that now runs the country, for example, issued a whole constitutional declaration in 2011 which mapped out how they were going to govern the country after the fall of the regime. It was very impressive in terms of its dedication to electoral democracy, constitutional guarantees, free association, human rights and so on. And I think they still are interested in that, but when you see how they've actually carried this out in practice - there's no transparency in the way the temporary Parliament conducts its business. Decisions are seen to be arbitrary. Large segments of the population feel voiceless as they're being governed.So I think the governments have a major role, especially in terms of setting a tone and operating as transparently as possible. And I think if they can manage to do that it can really unlock the door towards much greater and more effective civic participation by their own people. 

JACKY ANGUS
So what you're saying is that if there's evidence of some kind of democracy in practice, then civic participation is going to be encouraged. I'm thinking though, in the educational sphere, presumably there really is a role for state education to be having, as part of its curriculum, a basic understanding of the levels of government and what a citizen should and shouldn't do. Isn't that very important?I mean up until now it's really almost been a punitive aspect of the police that tell you no, you can't vote, move along. How optimistic are you for that? I'm really talking about, I guess, the actual putting into practice, through schools, an understanding of politics by students from a very young age.

CHARLES DUNNE
I think that's very, very important. I think very few of these governments undergoing transitions right now have really grappled with that problem. I don’t think you see wholesale revisions of curricula, in the elementary and primary schools and above, that really talk about these issues. Freedom House has tried to help in this situation. We have a website called Democracy Web. It's a whole - now in Arabic - curriculum which has specifically been redesigned to speak to Arab audiences, to teach how democracy works, how representative government works or judicial systems are supposed to work. And it really is important that governments themselves take this on.I was in Tunisia for the elections in October 2011. What I was impressed with was the extent of the civic education campaign that the Independent Electoral Commission undertook. I mean I could walk down the street and be handed a brochure on any street corner which, in Arabic, would say here's why it's important to vote on 23 October - to protect the gains of the revolution was the top reason. There were get out to vote campaigns all over. And this was in addition to everything that the parties were doing to try to get people to vote for them. That's a start, but I certainly agree that there needs to be a foundation for a broader effort to build a new citizen in some of these Arab countries.

JACKY ANGUS
There's been a lot of argument - and in the literature - that, really, the idea of democracy is - well, it's great for a slogan, but to what extent do you think democracy is (a) understood at the ordinary level, at the street level in the Arab countries, particularly where people are illiterate? Really, more to the point, what about the claim that democracy is a western invention? We want our own democracy here. We're Muslims and we're civic minded and so on and so on. Do you think it's time, maybe, for NGOs to pull back a little and allow some of that automatic organic growth of an understanding of democracy that suits us, we the people, we the Muslim people?

CHARLES DUNNE
Yes. I think that that's very true. I think citizens in the Arab world definitely do want to form their own types of governments. They want to own the process and they want to shape it in ways that reflect their own values, their religious customs and so on. And that's something that any international NGO certainly supports.And we realise that any democratic form of government that emerges in any one of these countries is not going to necessarily resemble that in the United States or Australia or any place else. What we do in our efforts to help organisations on civic education is to simply talk about how things have been done in other countries, what has been effective in other places, so that people have a wide variety of tools and lessons and case studies to choose from.What I would say is that polling data over the last 10 years or so has consistently shown that large majorities of citizens in Arab countries do believe that democracy is the best form of government and can work for them. They might differ in the specifics, when you ask further questions, but very few people see democracy as incompatible with Islam, incompatible with their own culture. And they really believe that they can form such governments on their own.

JACKY ANGUS
You're listening to Up Close, coming to you from the University of Melbourne, Australia. I'm Jacky Angus. I'm talking to Charles Dunne from Freedom House about political education in the Middle East. Charles, can you tell me what Freedom House is doing, more specifically, in relation to social media and helping people know how to use it?

CHARLES DUNNE
Well, in the Middle East in particular we have a number of people who are, really, experts on new and social media. We have provided a lot of training for groups who want to use this to help organise and help disseminate information and so on. In fact, I mentioned earlier that we have a training team in Libya today. And one of the activities we're going to be undertaking is working with some new radio stations to help show them how to professionalise their product and how best to utilise their skills and ability to help educate the population.One of the phenomena that we've noted in the Arab spring, and are really trying to gear a lot of our programming towards, is the role of social media, which has enabled people not only to organise in ways that they have not been able to before, and to disseminate information free of Government control. But it's given the people a really powerful tool for the first time, to scrutinise what it is their governments are doing and cast a critical gaze on their activities; whereas before it was a one way street through control of the media and control of the security services. The Government had the ability to scrutinise them.So social media is, in my view, not just a tool but, in fact, one of the causes of the political changes that have been going on in the Middle East. As I say, we're trying to help people in these emerging democracies to understand how to really utilise these tools to mobile populations and help them advocate on issues of importance to them.

JACKY ANGUS
What about situations in which the internet is actually blocked and people can't use it? Do you have a position on that? Or do you have guidance and advice?

CHARLES DUNNE
We do. Freedom House has been active, not just in the Middle East, but in other countries, working with activists on communication security, helping to understand the various ways in which governments can control and divert information. We consider it very important. We have a Freedom House program - Internet Freedom. Again, that operates worldwide - and one on freedom of expression, which will really work hand in hand on these very issues.We think, in general, in the Middle East, the media - especially the electronic media - are much freer today than they were before, but there are still areas in which the governments are very much trying to shut down and control them. We certainly see this in Syria and Iran. China is now in the process of trying to create its own internal internet to completely cut out outside influences.

JACKY ANGUS
And has Freedom House been denied entrance into many countries in the last, say, five years?
CHARLES DUNNEWe have not been denied entry into many countries, but there are certainly countries where we can't work. A few years ago we were forced to shut down our operations in Uzbekistan, for example, because of, actually, government prosecution of our employees. That, fortunately, has not happened to us yet in the Middle East. We are still operating in Egypt despite the ongoing prosecution, but we will certainly have to re-evaluate whether we are able to do so in the future. And there are countries where we simply can't work on the ground. Obviously, Syria is one of those places.

JACKY ANGUS
Well, Charles, from your perspective as director in Middle East and North Africa, how do you view the harassment that morphs into legal prosecution or, just in general, maybe, an opposition from the average citizen who's a bit suspicious of you? How do you deal with that?

CHARLES DUNNE
Well, it depends on which country we're in and what the nature of the opposition is. For example, in Egypt, the Government has tried to crack down on our activities while we have many willing partners who want to work with us, directly or through our small grants process, to implement programs on their own in local communities. In Tunisia we faced the opposite problem. We find a lot of suspicion coming from local NGOs, whereas the Government is perfectly supportive of us. Just last week they registered our organisation formally and two ministers spoke at the opening plenary of our transitional justice conference that was held earlier this week.In all countries our view, essentially, is we are what we do. Doing good work with credible local partners on issues that matter to people in these countries is the best way to establish our brand, if you will, and to relieve suspicions.When I hire people I try to put a national face on each of our offices. Many organisations - sister organisations of ours in Washington - will hire Americans only to head their operations. I hired an Egyptian to head our Cairo office, who has been magnificent in the face of this harassment. I hired a Tunisian national - a real expert in transitional justice - to head our Tunis office. They can relate culturally. They can relate directly with the governments involved and they can relate with their local NGO partners in ways that an American couldn't. I think that's the best way to establish credibility and answer questions that people have about who we are and what we're doing; which we try to do on a daily basis. We have information about us in Arabic on our website and so on, but it's really being active with credible local partners and doing good work that will make the difference.

JACKY ANGUS
Thanks very much, Charles. It's been very interesting.

CHARLES DUNNE
You're very welcome.

JACKY ANGUS
That was Mr Charles Dunne from Freedom House, who joined us to talk about political education in the Middle East.Relevant links, a full transcript and more information on this episode can be found at our website at upclose.unimelb.edu.au. Up Close is a production of the University of Melbourne, Australia. Our producers for this episode were Kelvin Param and Eric van Bemmel, with audio engineering by Gavin Nebauer. Up Close is created Eric van Bemmel and Kelvin Param. I'm Jacky Angus. Until next time, goodbye.

VOICEOVER
You've been listening to Up Close. We're also on Twitter and Facebook. For more info visit upclose.unimelb.edu.au. Copyright 2012, the University of Melbourne.


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