On October 14, 2012 about 550 activists, practitioners, scholars and donors from more than 100 countries gathered in Lima, Peru, at the World Movement for Democracy’s Seventh Assembly entitled Democracy for All: Ensuring Political, Social, and Economic Inclusion.
In its welcoming letter, the steering committee stated, “We know that democracy takes many forms, but at its core is the fundamental principle of equality.” This continued to be the central theme in the workshops that followed.
The wide range of discussions in which I participated focused on strategies to achieve full inclusion for women, youth, ethnic and religious groups, indigenous populations, sexual minorities and other excluded groups throughout the Middle East-North Africa (MENA) region.
Perhaps the most unique element of the Assembly was the opportunity to interact with people engaged in the on-the-ground changes underway in the MENA region. At a time when the region’s realities are hidden beneath misperceptions portrayed by the media, it is most refreshing to take part in conversations with the real face of the region – its people.
The discussions in Lima remind me that the MENA region is truly diverse with many underlying differences, and requires a holistic viewpoint to fully understand it. As an Iranian-American working in Mumbai, I experienced the Assembly through a multi-faceted lens: being Iranian, I have always seen the differences between Iran and the Arab world. Living in the U.S., I often looked at the MENA region as a Muslim entity of sorts, undermining the historic, socio-economic, demographic and political differences. Now as a researcher in Mumbai studying West Asia from the Indian perspective, I often focus on the larger picture and its economic implications for India, while overlooking the internal dynamics of the region.
Listening to experts speak of the so-called “Arab Spring” in various countries of the Arab world reaffirmed the differing realities of the region. While Egyptians are preoccupied with balancing the role of the Muslim Brotherhood, religion and the army, in their newly established democracy, the Libyans struggle to befriend the role that the NATO played in overthrowing and killing their longtime dictator, Muammar Gaddafi.
Some countries are in a different phase of struggle: the Syrians feel at a loss and betrayed by the region; the Bahrainis are trying to maintain their revolutionary spirit amidst widespread repression in the streets.
The rest of the region also plays an active part in the reordering politics in MENA. The Saudis stoically comment on the changing geopolitical landscape (while keeping mum on their own politics). The Iraqis are actively taking part in the discourse on nation-building and Iran is heading towards an even more conservative era.
In all of this, outsiders with a vested interest in the region, namely India, have been watching the dramatic developments in these countries and hoping for a speedy path to stability, the continuation of the flow of trade with the Gulf and beyond. The fear of a largely unstable MENA with all its energy resources adds to the misunderstanding of this region and its aspirations. It is as though MENA is calling for the world to fully understand its complexities, challenges and aspirations, and move beyond the mere interest in energy security.
Studying West Asia from Mumbai, and then viewing it from Lima, has led me to think more carefully about the role India could play. As the world’s largest democracy and with close ties in the region, India could promote a more realistic and in-depth understanding of the nuances within this region – beyond only its role as a major energy supplier.
I left Lima feeling cautiously hopeful about the political future of the MENA region. During one of the last workshops, the panelists and participants engaged in a contentious and an emotionally rough discussion about the fact that the very citizens (such as women and the youth) who risked their lives in street protests against autocratic regimes, are now barely represented in the new democracies of the Arab world. At the climax of this argument, an older Peruvian man reminded the crowd that the dialogue itself is an indication of a new path towards democratic thinking; this is an absolute necessity for inclusive and democratic governance. He has a point. If nothing else, we seem to be practicing democratic thinking in today’s MENA region.
Azadeh Pourzand is a Senior Researcher at Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations.