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Citizenship rights since the Arab revolutions. The cases of Tunisia and Egypt


On Monday, 9th February, an International workshop on “Citizenship rights since the Arab revolutions: the cases of Tunisia and Egypt” took place in Tunis. The event, that brought together experts from Tunisia and Egypt, the US and Europe, with many representatives of Tunisian civil society, university students and journalists, aimed to discuss in depth how citizenship rights have evolved in the two countries, by exploring also the broader implication for the US and EU policies.

The conference began with opening remarks by Assistant Professor Ruth HANAU-SANTINI, coordinator of the EU-Spring project (L’Orientale University of Naples) and Mrs. Asma NOUIRA (Observatoire Tunisien de la Transition Démocratique in Tunis) and continued with interactive panel discussions and presentations on current and future development challenges regarding the implementation of citizenship in the two Mediterranean countries. It successfully concluded with a set of questions and some final remarks by many of the participants.

The first panel focused on “Tunisia: citizen’s rights in debate”. Opening the session, Mrs. Souad TRIKI (FNCD Tunis) raised the attention to the issue of informal economy, the rising unemployment and the fragile right to work. She pointed out the persistent sexual discrimination, the difficult access to investment for creating new activities and the public funding that deepened the regional differences. Considering all that, urgent solutions need to be taken by the new government, such as promoting entrepreneurial culture, creating closer links between university careers and job opportunities, rethinking the existing laws to encourage formal economic activities over the informal ones.

Mr. Hamadi REDISSI (University Farhat Hached of Tunis) highlighted the existing gap between “constitution formelle” and “constitution matérielle”, the commitments in the text and social reality. The 2014 constitution contributes to the consolidation of citizenship rights in a number of ways and it undoubtedly advances Tunisian rights and freedoms. Nevertheless, attention is to be given to the limitations and shortcomings of this text, in particular the fact that the new constitution is ambivalent on the rights and freedoms of foreigners, and of ethnic and religious or linguistic minorities in Tunisia, such as the rights to freedom of economic initiative that has not been included in the text. He also reminded the restrictions on personal freedoms, such as the requirements of public order, national defence, public health or public morals.

The following speech was given by Mr. Pietro LONGO, post-doc Researcher at the University of Naples “L’Orientale”. He tackled the constitution-making process, focusing the attention on the major debated issues and articles, as well as the post-Islamism in Tunisia and the moderation through exclusion instead of inclusion. The final wide agreement on the Constitution well represents an example of “conflict resolution”, and social and political mediation.

The second session was dedicated to “Egypt: wither citizenship rights? ”.

Mr. Mohamed ELAGATI (Research and Executive Director of the Arab Forum of Alternatives – Cairo) presented his speech on the nature of the State, political rights and freedom. He considered citizenship as a political practice and a way of inclusion. Although in Egypt political rights are supposed to be equal for every citizens in theory, the actual practice is far from that. Also of prime importance is to highlight how the identity of the State reflects the notion of citizenship. In his view, opening up the public space is a necessary step to implement an effective citizenship, considering that citizens must feel as integral part of the ongoing project.

Mrs. Amy HAWTHORNE, Senior fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East - Washington DC, offered an overview of the concepts of national identity in Egypt, highlighting to what extent this is strictly linked to the notion of citizenship. Noting that the concept of citizen is not necessarily linked to democracy, it is important to point out how it is possible to achieve a democratic citizenship. She also noted that the “balanced of power” of the Egyptian Constitution seems to favor the State institutions over the rights of citizens, wondering whether it can really represents the national consensus being drafted by a very narrow group of people. Nevertheless, positive changes in the right discourse must not be overshadowed, such as the anti-harassment campaign for women.

A video conference with Robert SPRINGBORG, Naval Postgraduate School, closed this session. He outlined that a lot has to be done in the field of civil rights and freedoms and focused the attention on the necessary requirements to make really effective the citizenship rights.

The third and last panel was entirely dedicated to the EU and US policies, with a special emphasis on their evolution after the Arab Spring. On the one hand, all the speakers outlined the continuity of the European foreign policy rather than the wished strong change after the Arab Spring, on the other hand, they described the limitations acknowledged by the EU.

Mrs. Rosa BALFOUR, EPC of Brussels, noted that there are more continuities than changes in the European approach to the two Mediterranean countries. Yet, significant changes have been made: if at the beginning of the Arab Spring, the EU was proposing itself as a model for the transition, relying on the experience of 1989 and its idea of normative power, now a change in the EU level of ambitions happened. The European Union is, indeed, more self critical and less confident that its own institutions and instruments can make the difference in the area. Moreover, if the relations among the EU and Islamist parties was a kind of taboo before 2011, new debates are now ongoing over the relation between the State and religion, as well as the issue of religious communities in Europe.

Following this presentation, Mrs. Ruth HANAU-SANTINI, explained that the EU tried to have a cohesion policy in response to the Arab awakening. Compared with its traditional standards EU was relatively quick to allocate funds, for example to civil society. But, the number of challenges was so high that more and more member states decided to re-nationalized their politics. She also agreed on some continuity aspects of the EU policy: an example is given by the fact that most of the aid to the two countries is in form of budgetary support as it happened before the turmoil. Moreover, it is important to consider that many observers stopped looking at the economic situation per se in each country, while it is fundamental to re-conceptualized social rights and redistribution logics based on economic growth.

At the end, Mr. Richard YOUNGS, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace - Washington DC, argued that the EU is conscious that the ENP has failed and was not specifically tailored to each countries, but added that there is a genuine will to rethink it. Many aspects need to be taken into account considering the future EU foreign policies: all the debates in Brussels is now on the need for the EU to become a more geopolitical actor, taking security issues more seriously. Moreover, in the next future the European Union could be probably more inward looking, lessening its commitment abroad. No one in Europe will have problem in saying that economic and social rights need to go hand in hand with political rights, but they often diverge in practice.

Some final remarks on US foreign policy came from Mrs. Amy Hawthorne as chairperson of the last session. She explained the two opposite extreme of President Obama's overall approach of foreign policy and of his predecessor Mr. Bush. Knowing that neither democracy nor human rights have ever dominated the foreign policy of any country – although they are always present in some degree – it is also not worthy that in the USA there is a growing domestic pressure demanding for a deeper commitment of the US foreign policy with human rights and democracy, as for the recent episodes regarding the Saudi blogger.

Going ahead, many doubts where posed by some participants about the real possibility for the EU to be a model of transition for other countries, especially considering its deep economic and political internal crisis. In tackling these challenges, Europe needs to adopt a real listening mode. Nevertheless, there was a general agreement on the fact that this crisis may be an opportunity to rethink EU policies in North Africa, leaving a part the traditional asymmetric approach and presenting itself as a more equal and credible actor in the region.

In conclusion, Mrs. Ruth Hanau Santini, conveyed her gratitude to all participants, particularly session moderators and panelists. She extended her thanks to the local partners and audience, expressing her satisfaction with the interactive nature of the discussions.

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