Salvation for Arab civil society must come from within
For a long time, freedom fighters and freedom of expression advocates have drawn inspiration from the US constitution’s first amendment and its application there.
While this theoretical source of inspiration continues to be valid, many feel that when it comes to its application in recent months, something has been missing.
If the day comes in which people around the world can no longer look up to the US for inspiration in important areas such as freedom of expression, where do we look for inspiration?
Some are saying that Europe will be the new leader for rights-based advocacy. The fact is that Sweden, for example, was ahead of the entire world with its access to information law. And the EU is quickly filling the gap that Washington has left open with its “America first” policies and its media-bashing president.
While many leading countries when it comes to respect for human rights are certainly based in Europe, the future of universal freedom of expression advocacy probably lies somewhere else.
There is no doubt that one should take inspiration wherever it exists, but there is a need to look inwards and to continue the process of fighting for such freedoms with a holistic approach, depending, to a large degree, on the civil society forces working together.
For way too long, in Jordan and the region, many civil society organisations and activists have worked on their own. Setting up shop locally and seeking funding internationally there was no need to work hard on networking and building local alliances.
Times have changed and the challenges are greater.
International funding, while still important to sustainability, is being corralled by local governments and often being forced to change spending priorities based on perceived needs and focal points decided unilaterally by local executive powers.
Governments feeling the tepid international demand for respect for human rights are feeling emboldened to further exert control on freedom of expression, the right to assembly and other basic human rights.
The need for local consolidation, networking and building local, regional and international alliances has never been as important as it is today.
Governments do take such alliances into consideration and are aware of the power of a united, connected and networked civil society.
The days of selfish work by human rights activists is over and the need for interconnectivity, networking and unity is upon us.
Civil society, however, does not and cannot work in isolation of other forces in society, including local activists, students, women, unions, independent media and the private sector.
Each in their own way are key to creating important alliances to defend and fight for the common cause that all agree to.
A national manifesto might be needed to provide a theoretical direction to this new alliance, and active support and commitment to such a manifesto is crucial for it to work and to survive the onslaught that might be coming from different forces, both in and outside the government, that are not keen on civil society having a role in helping shape the national agenda.
The closing of space of civil society and freedoms is not limited to one country. The trend is universal and unless a country has strong traditions and powerful agents ensuring its survival, civil society’s efforts to help preserve freedoms is being challenged the world over.
It will take hard work, dedicated activists and the support of different sectors of society for such a holistic approach to be effective to the degree that governments take it into consideration.
Some successes have been recorded in Jordan, such as the efforts to cancel Article 308 of the penal code, which allowed rapists to be free of punishment if they married their victims.
Such successes are often too few and far between to allow civil society to count on. But the fact that civil society activists have already united in coalitions such as the Himam alliance is a positive sign that the groundwork has been done and the seeds for unity and cooperation have been planted.
Now is the time to nurture these new alliances for them to be able to produce continuous positive results.