MIDDLE EAST AND NORTH AFRICA
Over the past year, a series of dramatic setbacks devastated the prospects for progress in most of the countries of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The rapid spread of the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), the protracted horrors of the Syrian civil war, the normalization of authoritarianism in Egypt, the continuing conflict between Israel and Gaza, the proxy wars between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and the collapse of state institutions in Libya and Yemen have ravaged the political landscape throughout the region. Security and stability became urgent needs, overriding demands for civic and democratic rights.
Undeterred by these mounting challenges, civil society throughout the region persisted in advocating for rights, dignity and tolerance through increased civic initiatives, newly born civic groups, regional networks, and political organizations. Despite their inexperience and limited capacity, a younger generation has been connecting across borders. The stakes for reformers and democrats throughout the region have reached new highs as they have sought to formulate alternatives to authoritarianism and mobilize a wide range of social sectors, including small businesses, labor and political groups.
In Iraq, the army and security forces failed to stop ISIS from taking several cities in north and western provinces. Out of desperation, Iraq’s newly elected government authorized arming street militias to bolster security, opening the door to politicized and sectarian abuse of power on the local level. NED grantees suspended programs in cities that fell to ISIS and relocated others. In safer provinces, programs focused on civil society initiatives, including youth and women, to engage with central and local governments on accountability and responsiveness to citizens’ priorities.
In the midst of uncertainties on foreign military withdrawals and despite a protracted presidential electoral dispute, Afghanistan’s national unity government provided Afghans with a fresh political dynamic. NED supported civic groups across the country, with an emphasis on those led by women and youth, independent media and governmental accountability initiatives. Courageous groups advocated democratic ideas and values, the compatibility of Islam and democracy, and rule of law. Programs also engaged community leaders and advocacy groups with local officials on good governance and accountability at the provincial level.
As Egypt turned towards authoritarianism, government officials and state-sponsored media demonized foreign donors, independent NGOs, and the political opposition alike. NED supported civic groups that remained undeterred by the crackdown and carried out programs strengthening local governance and accountability, promoting socio-economic reforms, and cultivating youth leadership and other initiatives in critical sectors, including media, the private sector, and labor.
In Yemen, the fragile interim government had significant representation from independent civil society but could no longer govern large swaths of the country. Despite state weakness, government meltdown, and political turmoil, NED grantees focused on youth-led initiatives on local governance and accountability. At the national level, NED partners inside and outside the transitional process advocated for constitutional and policy reforms on human rights, corruption, accountability, and women’s participation.
Syria’s civil war intensified with the rise of ISIS, and Libya’s transitional government and its democratic process broke down into violent regional conflicts. Still, NED was able to provide assistance to nascent civic groups in both countries to build their capacities, engage youth in local civic projects, and promote human rights and civic values. Human rights and the free flow of communication were also priorities in Iran, given the highly repressive political environment.
Syria’s war, the rise of ISIS, and the influx of Syrian refugees put Jordan and Lebanon on a crisis footing amid the escalating risk of severe political instability. This gave Lebanon’s dysfunctional government a pretext for postponing its overdue presidential and parliamentary elections and forced civic groups in Jordan to lower their reform expectations. In both countries, despite the shrinking public space, NED partners advocated greater civic oversight over national and local government, promoted investigative journalism, supported alternative voices and wider national dialogue, and called for socio-economic reform.
Despite the war in Gaza and the stagnation of the peace process in the West Bank, determined civic groups continued to press for democratic governance. NED supported partners advancing civic participation at multiple levels, as well as independent media, citizens’ watchdog groups, and rights advocacy.
Turkey’s robust economy, civilian government, and record of free and fair elections have not been sufficient to prevent recent backsliding towards authoritarianism. President Erdogan cracked down on dissidents, journalists, judges, and political opponents. NED partners worked to defend and strengthen key pillars of democracy, including independent journalism, rights protection, citizen-state dialogue, and political pluralism.
In the most significant advance of democracy in the region, Tunisia completed its phased transition to a representative government. Tunisia’s labor unions and key leaders in the political parties guarded the democratic transition against extremism and authoritarianism. NED increased support to emerging civic groups and initiatives on governance, accountability, decentralization, transitional justice, inclusion of women and youth, public policy analysis and advocacy, and media reforms.
Morocco’s reforms also remained substantially on course despite security challenges and increased restrictions. NED partners advocated for more rights and greater government accountability and transparency, and engaged local stakeholders with local officials on citizens’ needs and priorities. NED also supported successful Moroccan initiatives to expand regional exchanges and internship programs.
In response to the escalating political violence and sectarian conflicts in the region, NED’s regional program expanded support for forums for peaceful dialogue and articulation of civic values. NED also supported human rights advocates and monitors in the Gulf states, Iran, and in other restrictive environments, as well as networks of emerging policy forums and think tanks, anti-corruption initiatives, and youth civic education.
To learn more about NED grants and grantees, explore the regional links on this site.
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