Across the Arab world, states are emerging scarred by conflicts and revolutions. These states are often in dire need of national reconciliation efforts. While Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, and Lebanon have all sought to engage opposing communities in national reconciliation dialogues, with varying degrees of success, the resignation of the UN special envoy to Syria marks how intractable Syria’s civil war has become. What can Syria learn from successful national reconciliation dialogues in the Arab world? What are its prospects when the crisis finally subsides?
The Carnegie Middle East Center hosted a public conference on national reconciliation and the implementation of transitional justice strategies in post-conflict states. Researcher and human rights activist Majid Almadhaji, USIP Center for Middle East and Africa’s Darine El Hage, Syrian League for Citizenship’s Wesam Jalahej, and ESCWA’s Oussama Safa discussed the experiences and the lessons learned from national dialogues in post-revolution Tunisia, Yemen, and Libya, as well as proposed a roadmap for a Syrian national dialogue. Carnegie’s Romy Nasr moderated the conference.
General Framework for National Dialogue
- Goal of Dialogue: There is a difference between the concept of national dialogue and the concept of national reconciliation, discussants explained. Dialogue is used to expand political participation and is one part of the reconciliation process. It is not an end to itself.
- Legitimacy of Dialogue: The size and representation of the community affect the legitimacy of the dialogue, the participants stated. Additionally, politicians in Arab countries usually moderate the dialogue, which can adversely affect its legitimacy and objectivity.
- Effectiveness of Dialogue: The effectiveness of dialogue is measured by tangible results, such as government formation, reform, and policy development, and by intangible measures, such as the promotion of political participation and existence of social cohesion, participants concluded. It’s important that all parties actively engage in dialogue. Additionally, dialogue is most effective when held in the country’s capital to minimize any pressure on marginalized areas of the country.
National Dialogue in Yemen
- Why It Failed: National dialogue in Yemen failed to address many problems, and led to an escalation in the conflict, discussants said. A technical committee for national dialogue was established, but seven key parties were excluded from participating. As a result, it was seen as illegitimate by many.
- 20-Point Action Plan: The committee issued recommendations in the shape of a 20-point action plan, but this plan never managed to win the trust of the people and was never implemented, they added.
National Dialogue in Libya
- Instability Still Exists: National dialogue in Libya is still at its introductory phase, participants explained. The current instability in the country threatens the chances of any future dialogue sessions.
- Two Initiatives for Libya: There are currently two ongoing initiatives in Libya an independent National Dialogue Preparatory Commission financed by the government, and a second initiative, launched by Libyan political actors. Discussants said that competition between the two initiatives affects the success of the efforts at dialogue. This competition already undermines popular perceptions of national dialogue, which were never high to begin with, the discussants added.
- Lack of Financial Coverage: The decision to finance the national body for preparation of the dialogue sessions is frozen, participants said. There is no clear concept of dialogue between the parties, and there are regulatory challenges facing the body, such as areas of coverage in the country.
National Dialogue in Tunisia
- Steps to Success: The Tunisian experience has witnessed clear success under the auspices of the Quartet, participants said. Several factors contributed to its success, including the credibility and neutrality of the Quartet, regional developments, and fear that the “Egypt effect” may be replicated in Tunisia.
- Challenges: Discussants warned that Tunisians fear a return to a political crisis due to the current economic situation and the potential delay of its upcoming presidential elections.
National Reconciliation in Syria: Possible Scenarios
Participants outlined three different scenarios for Syria: a regime victory, a victory by the opposition, or a negotiated settlement. They examined what the chances for reconciliation and dialogue would be under each of these scenarios.
- A Scenario of Regime Victory: Transitional justice does not exist, but national reconciliation is possible, discussants asserted.
- A Scenario of Opposition Victory: Under radical opposition groups, there is little hope for national reconciliation, participants warned. On the contrary, it is feared that extreme ideologies will be imposed on the people. Less ideological opposition groups may be willing to introduce elements of transitional justice, they added.
- A Scenario Involving a Settlement: Previous experiences do not provide good models for Syria to follow if it were to attempt a settlement and national reconciliation, participants said. In Lebanon and Bosnia, national dialogue led to an improvement in security, but no real national reconciliation.
- Challenges for National Reconciliation: National reconciliation is the mechanism of social justice, but the latter cannot be achieved without serious and committed leaders, discussants concluded. The re-election of Bashar al-Assad will not affect national reconciliation. There must be an important transitional period, where the return of millions of Syrians will prompt action on more pressing issues such as property rights, citizenship, and sectarianism.
Majid Almadhaji is a researcher and human rights activist. Previously, Almadhaji was a member of the technical committee of the National Dialogue in Yemen.
Darine El Hage
Darine El Hage is a regional program officer for the United States Institute of Peace’s Center for Middle East and Africa in Beirut. Prior to this post, El Hage worked for the Center for Victims of Torture on its New Tactics in the Middle East and North Africa Initiative.
Wesam Jalahej is executive manager at Syrian League for Citizenship. Jalahej is also a lawyer and human rights activist with a special interest in women’s and children's rights.
Romy Nasr is events and publications coordinator at Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. Her research interests include transitional justice and conflict mediation.
Oussama Safa is chief of section at the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia. He is an expert in Lebanese and Arab contemporary politics and a specialist in conflict resolution, strategic planning, and intercultural awareness.