MENA: Self-Criticism-Based Dialogue: Depolarizing Tool in Transition Contexts


By Hesham Gaafar

January 2020

Summary

This paper tries to develop a new approach to dialogue processes in polarized transition contexts. It is based mainly on the outcomes of a dialogue process that occurred in Egypt among key political and societal actors, between 2013-2017. The proposed dialogue approach is one that depends on self-criticism as a tool to deal with endogenous reasons of polarizations in transition contexts. Dialogues in such contexts often look for exogenous reasons for polarizations like controversial topics, international or regional alliances…etc. The proposed dialogue, however, tackles endogenous reasons behind polarization, i.e. the deeply-rooted traits and constructs of the influential political and societal players. By engaging in such dialogue, different parties come to consolidate their identities, sharpen their value consistency level, rectify their mistaken perceptions of the other, and therefore become better equipped to deal with the fears and premonitions that result from the uncertainty of the political process in contexts of transitions. The proposed self-criticism approach to dialogue makes sure to spot the light on endogenous determinants of polarization, and therefore provides a solid soil upon which any dialogue can be sustained. 

In transition processes plenty of turbulent changes, inflexible polarizations, and new unorthodox actors are unearthed. In such contexts, a genuine national-owned self-criticism-based dialogue among political and societal actors can contribute to a healthier public sphere with a lot less polarizations, through helping different players reach higher levels of value consistency and acknowledge the mistaken stereotypes they have about one another.

A dialogue process initiated by the Regional Center for Mediation and Dialogue (RCMD) in Egypt between 2013-2017 represents the motive behind that article. In its first phase, the process composed of internal dialogues within different political parties. The second phase of the dialogue ascended to an inter-party level, though among like-minded political parties. Our conception for the third phase, that was shortly interrupted, was to engage parties from different ideological backgrounds in a round of self-criticism-based dialogue.

  1. Transition contexts in the MENA Region post-2011

Transition processes that followed the Arab Spring since 2011 underwent divergent paths ranging from a slippery transition towards democracy in Tunisia; a reverse back to an authoritarian state in Egypt; civil wars and state failure in Syria, Libya and Yemen. The transitional period that ensued in different Arab countries were mainly characterized by the omnipresence of fear, negative premonitions and destructive stereotypes among the competing political forces. The presence of old players and deep state actors alongside the active polarizing roles of regional and international players intensified the fear and lack of trust that are already reciprocated among key political and societal players.

In transition contexts in the MENA region, the absence of solid political identity for different actors, old and new alike, resulted in increased difficulty in reaching compromises, striking bargains and enhancing mutual reassurances. This absence of solid identities magnified the stereotypes and mutual fear among political contestants; and in light of the inability to foresee or control the political process, the fear and premonitions forestalled any prospects for democratization. In fact, fear and intimidation prevailed since established and new interests are in constant clash, the first feels threatened and the later haven’t yet clearly materialized; they even became political tools.

The uncertainty and the sizable fear that dictated the course of transition were presumably the basis of the increasing polarization that prevailed. Societies that are haunted with fear, stereotypes, and mistrust can’t provide suitable context for democratic transition but rather a fertile soil for polarization and political conflict that can easily develop into armed conflict. In fact, self-criticism deals with the deep roots of such fears and premonitions that are deeply imbedded in internal constructs of most political parties and movements in transition contexts, and that in turn produce negative stereotypes and polarizations.

  1. What self-criticism offers in polarized transition contexts

In polarized transition contexts, self-criticism can be used as an intervention that aims eventually at building trust and mutual reassurance among polarized political contestants. By engaging different players separately in an internal self-criticism process, their levels of value consistency increase. This happens through reviewing past positions against the adopted value system. With an increased level of value consistency, mutual confidence and reassurances become more likely. This applies specifically to transitional contexts which witness contradictions between promises and later positions. Self-criticism helps develop a strong moral commitment to the party’s self-declared convictions, an outcome that is necessary for any efforts to build trust and reassurance among political contestants.

Secondly, self-criticism helps political entities put an end to internal polarization among competing wings of the same entity. When the party members reach compromises on the party’s value system and ideological platform, their differences turns into a source of strength rather than a drive for polarization. When all party members are on the same page, the party itself can move forward in an inter-party dialogue to resolve external polarizations. 

Thirdly, self-criticism help political players depart from past practices that contradict with their value systems, or that were built on wrong perceptions of other political contestants. It also enhances the internal democratization level within different entities, a prerequisite for a healthy dialogue among competing political parties. Having democratic political entities enriches the level of democracy on the national level. 

  1. The process: steps and lessons

In the turmoil of transitions, key players find themselves puzzled with important questions about their own identities, their future strategies and alliances, the other, past structures and grievances, and how to deal with them. This intensifies more in violent transitions that are haunted with polarization both within and among political players and societal actors. In Egypt, the context in mid-2013 was one of extreme polarization between Muslim Brotherhood supporters and civil state advocates.

This was the context in which a team of peace and dialogue practitioners from the RCMD tried to launch dialogue among different political parties from a self-criticism perspective. Our perception was that engaging political contestants in a dialogue based on self-criticism will help different parties acknowledge their role in the retraction of democratization prospects, and consequently work together to restore democratization and maintain an open public sphere.

The process was carefully planned to bring to the table influential political parties that are heavily polarized against one another. It was impossible, however, to begin directly with inter-party dialogue among the conflicting parties and movements that would utterly reject such dialogue. Therefore, starting at the party level with internal dialogue processes was an essential first step that gradually led to the planned inter-party dialogue over few steps as following:

  1. Formation of the Steering Committee 

Reaching out to influential members within the targeted parties to convince their leadership to join in was the first step. It was understood that the intense level of polarization was standing in the way of such dialogue. Overcoming this difficulty was the mission of the ‘Steering Committee’. It was formed from focal persons from the addressed entities who trust the project team and are convinced with the idea of the proposed dialogue. Members of the steering committee were responsible for developing narratives for their entities to convince them with the idea of the dialogue. 

The steering committee contributed to designing the process, starting from rules of the dialogue, whom to address within the party leadership, how to convince the addressed party of the dialogue’s added value, what topics to address, positions to review and questions to pose…etc. With the help of the steering committee, it was agreed that the dialogue should follow the following rules:

  1. Ownership and total control of the dialogue by the engaged party;
  2. Avoiding media coverage;
  3. The project team’s role is limited to technical support and the parties lead the dialogue themselves.
  4. Ensuring the inclusiveness of the dialogue within the addressed party.
  5. The dialogue is protected by Chatham House rule.
  6. Designing the dialogue for each party

After the approval of the party, it assigns one or more of its members to coordinate the process. This person is asked to provide the team with the required data to develop a ‘background paper’ that serves as the basis of the dialogue. In this paper, the party’s positions and viewpoints are reviewed against its declared core values in order to highlight any contradictions therein. The paper should highlight: (1) the party’s value system, ideological references, organizational structure, vision and mission; (2) dynamics and dilemmas of the party’s ability to deal with other parties and movements; (3) the party’s positions, decisions, statements, and its viewpoints about the concurrent political developments. It also investigates the party’s diversity level in order to draw a preliminary map of the party showing its geographic expansion; diversity levels in terms of age, gender, profession, and class; and the competing ideological wings within the party and their respective strength/influence. 

These preliminary maps help in designing the ensuing dialogue rounds to ensure their inclusiveness of different bearings and groups within the addressed party. Once this paper is prepared, the dialogue begins over several consecutive rounds that involve different groups and currents within the party.

  1. Concluding the intra-party dialogue phase

After each round of dialogue, the facilitator prepares a report on the issues discussed and conclusions reached. Different rounds reports build up a final report on the entire dialogue process that highlights mistakes and wrong decisions; contradictions between the party’s positions and its core values, misperceptions and negative stereotypes about the other, and how to rectify past performance. By spotting the light on the party’s own contribution to the downturn of democratization, and its mistaken perceptions and judgements about other key players, the party becomes more open to dialogue with its political contestants.

  1. Engaging like-minded political parties 

At this stage and after leading separate, parallel dialogue processes within different political parties, they become ready to engage in a dialogue with like-minded parties. At that phase, participants of the dialogue are asked to review their political current’s performance over the transitional period. For example, liberal political parties were asked to evaluate their decision to side with the military leadership against the MB president in July 3rd 2013.

  1. Engaging different parties in a round of inter-party dialogue 

At this last stage of the dialogue, supposedly parties of different political currents should have reached a level of maturity and value consistency that would allow them to engage in dialogue with their ideological contestants. The point of the dialogue here is to get past mutual accusations, and try to agree on new rules for a common ground that would allow the peaceful coexistence of all political contestants.  In Egypt for example, that stage started with a dialogue round among different parties and movement where each participant was asked to respond to one question: how his/her party contributed to the escalation of polarization over the course of transition. This represented a very good entrance to encourage the participants to open up about their parties’ mistakes.

At this stage, the presence of neutral and trusted political experts in the dialogue is of vital importance. They will be responsible for directing the dialogue away from useless accusations and towards desired compromises that require dismantling the prevailing stereotypes in light of past practices, and establishing new perceptions and common positions towards democratization, its principles, and guarantees. It should also aim at entrenching dialogue and discussion as standard procedures not only for running political parties and movements but also for arranging their interconnections. 

  1. Conclusion

Different transition processes that resulted from the Arab spring represented fertile soil for unhealthy polarizations between Islamists and civil-state advocates about state identity; among Islamists themselves about the best application of Sharia’a law; between revolutionaries and reformists about how to deal with deep state structures; and between the youth and the elders…etc. In fact, the early resorting to the ballot box before reaching broad political consensus about the path to future, or even settling the prevailing negative stereotypes among political actors and undermining the culture of exclusion, this led to a more polarized political landscape in which violence and mutual accusations became the norm.

I don’t claim that dialogues about these forms of polarization didn’t exist altogether. Nonetheless, dialogues that addressed such polarizations focused more on the surrounding national, regional, and international contexts that hosted and even fed such polarizations. It overlooked, however, the deep roots of polarization that are heavily imbedded in different structures and constructs of different parties and movements such as the unsettled political identities, the lack of internal dialogue and democracy, the high levels of value inconsistency, internal cleavages among different wings…etc. In fact, without addressing these internal factors, the sustainability of such dialogues will always be at stake. The self-criticism-based dialogue should, however, complement, not replace, other tracks of dialogue. This way, political actors will have the opportunity to address deeply-rooted causes of polarization alongside the surrounding contexts that intensifies it.

Author’s Biography

Hesham Gaafar is a Senior Consultant and Founder of the Regional Center for Mediation and Dialogue from 2011 till now. He has worked as a Consultant for the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (HD) since 2011. Also, he was a Consultant for Noon Center for Women and Family Issues from 2010 till 2017.

Egyptian authorities arrested him for three and a half years (October 2015- April 2019) for his efforts in dialogue and mediation among Egyptian political parties. Gaafar contributed to Muslim- Christian dialogues in the region and abroad. In addition to the dialogue between the Muslim World and the West. 

He Contributed to launching several initiatives, including:

  • “Shaq’eq” forum, a regional network that involves activists and Muslim scholars adopting Islamic feminism approach, a joint project between the Swedish Institute in Alexandria, Bibliotheca Alexandrina, and Noon Center for Women and Family Issues.
  • Communication forum for Egyptian family empowerment, a joint initiative between UNICEF, National Population Council (NPC), and MADA Foundation.
  • The “Cordoba Now” forum, which is a forum and network involving a group of Arab and European members who are concerned with transforming the political conflicts that have a religious dimension.
  •  The “Early Warning” mechanism for religious tensions in Egypt.
  • The National Council for Justice and Equality; is an Egyptian national council that is concerned with the rights of minorities in Egypt.

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