Fixing the Middle East – the ingredients of a National Dialogue

Recent events have been moving so fast it is as if several years of history-making events have been squeezed into a matter of weeks. For CEDR, it was important but intriguing, that the Royal Family in Bahrain responded to the recent national unrest with a call for a “national dialogue.” Other rulers in other parts of this suddenly turbulent region, have also suggested similar paths to progress (when not calling out the troops). Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, son of the Libyan leader and the country’s most likely face of reform (prior to the recent days of violence) warned “Libya is at a crossroads, if we do not agree on reforms rivers of blood will run through Libya.” But these calls have not always produced a strong affirmative response. This is understandable. When a ruling or opposing group, even in a personal relationship “gone wrong” scenario suddenly suggests a “conversation,” the reaction of the other party in the conflict is likely to be skeptical, or positively negative, for several good reasons.

• “If history shows you did not listen, why should we believe you now?”
• “If you really cared, you would have started the conversation before now”
• “In order to trust you, I need more proof you have changed/will change your behaviour”
• “You are too set in your ways, you would not even be capable of the kind of conversation that is needed”
• “You have only sold us one-sided messages before now, so where are your resources or motivation for a 2-way conversation”
• “It’s too late for words, we need to see some action.”

So many reasons then to kill a conversation before it starts if relationships or political circumstances are fragile, unstable and suffering from a build-up of historic distrust. “Let’s just move on.” Tight controls aimed at preventing dissent meant that anti-Government protests in Tunisia were rare. Part of the reason why the Tunisian president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali didn’t attempt to negotiate earlier was because he didn’t take the initial protests seriously and backed the violent police response as necessary action in protecting public property against a small number of terrorists. But as the riots gained momentum the President eventually changed tack and used methods to appease the protestors such as sacking his interior minister and releasing those detained throughout the riots. He also tried to address the root cause of the problem by creating an extra 300,000 jobs. But despite these measures, his hold on the country continued to crumble and on 14th January, nearly a month after the protests began, he officially resigned as Tunisia’s president.

Yet, this cannot be the end of the story. Some conversation needs to take place, but when, and how, and between whom? If there is no conversation, is there not a chance of chaos, violence, or a shift to a new regime with little experience or capacity for conversational fluency?

No one said that a dialogue – a genuine two-way, and indeed multi-angled, conversation – was ever easy. But to imagine a national dialogue really taking place, several ingredients have to be found and helped to work.

Here are some suggestions of what could assist, mostly common sense in concept but often amazingly difficult in practice to implement. First, to overcome natural and justifiable mistrust arising from history, a serious “gesture” is required to show how much the other party appreciates that life has really changed – this can be exit of a key political personality at the top of the regime, for example in Bahrain many protesters are calling for King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifah to step down yet they don’t wish to abolish the monarchy entirely, or a powerful statement that is so clearly an assurance of change or of apology, that everyone can recognise there is “no way back.” There are signs of this in Bahrain with King Hamad releasing a number of political prisoners. Similarly, bringing to the table and giving respect – and airtime – to someone who has clearly been treated as an “outcast” by the former regime, can also signify change is serious.

The gesture that can be created by the above routes, may be necessary, but it is not sufficient to ensure a genuine dialogue. Other things need to happen to create a practical national dialogue that is serious. First, the ruling party should hand over power of process to a third party with no stake in the outcome – finding a neutral senior statesman or two from another jurisdiction may help, as convener and facilitator of the dialogue process. But they have to be credible and not tainted by prior favouritism or contacts with the old regime. A budget should be allocated and it must be serious.

Invitations to the table should not be limited to current opposition parties, there should be a call for community groups to sponsor representation, with an agreed process to ensure that sufficient representation is achieved. There should be good process management skills brought to bear, with professional help. A major council gathering needs to be convened, for the public voice to be heard, alongside serious working parties seeking proposals covering the main “socio-political-economic” agenda areas. A deadline should be set for the first reform proposals to be formulated and an implementation plan established. Emerging leadership should be acknowledged, but not confirmed till the public have means to exercise a vote on their preferred leadership. This should be a ground rule for everyone’s participation.

The emotional agenda of having experienced a history of non-dialogue, also needs addressing, alongside the political process one. Part of the early debate/working party agendas, should specifically focus on “quick wins” – what social changes can be implemented quickly which will both address existing grievances, and at the same time be very public displays of progress being real and attainable, so that a spirit of constructive endeavour and hope can be generated and sustained. The King giving 1000 dinars (around £1500 or $2,400) to all Bahraini families might be seen as somewhat contemptuous of the more serious aspirations of the people, but it did at least recognise the need for tangible statements of progress.

One wonders if the UK government thought of a national dialogue process over the cuts, or the Big Society? One can only hope that the current problems of the Middle East will end up having lessons for us all, rather than seeing it patronizingly from the West as how the “other half” have things to learn about democracy. We may have a democratic voting system (and the detail is still being debated), but are we really good at national dialogue? Remember the last government started a product called the ‘Big Conversation’, but it ended with a whimper, probably because it was only one way…

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by Karl Mackie

Dr. Karl Mackie a mediator and Chief Executive for The Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution (CEDR).