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Fireworks at Kansalaistori Square, Helsinki, to celebrate a century of Finnish independence (Photo: Finland 100)

Fireworks in Helsinki, to celebrate a century of Finnish independence (Photo: Finland 100)

Fighting for civil society

Egypt today limits free expression by jailing activists, journalists, and nongovernment-organisation (NGO) employees on farcical charges such as insulting authorities, inciting unrest, and misinforming the public. When prominent Egyptian activist Alaa Abd El Fattah - who fought for democratic change before, during, and after the 2011 Arab Spring uprising - was sentenced to fifteen years in prison this June for organising a street protest, now criminalised in Egypt under the country's 2013 Protest Law, it became clear that the government's goal is no longer to merely contain or silence dissent. Rather, it seeks to seal off the arena of civil society altogether.

Egypt is one example of a trend ranging from the Middle East to China, from Russia to Rwanda, of illiberal governments seeking to monitor civil society and shrink its room to dissent and rally for reform. On the surface, it appears that governmental influence to reverse this trend is also diminishing.

The USA, for example, has undermined its own legitimacy in its pursuit of national security with inconclusive military interventions, its detainee and drone policies, and its overreaching surveillance programme.

The Egyptian activist Alaa Abd El Fattah

Still, there is much at stake in enlarging civil-society space, even beyond human rights. Backing brittle autocracies for counterterrorism partnerships or access to energy-producing resources is often a recipe for instability. On the other hand, openness and free expression facilitate reform and innovation, which can in turn lead to economic development and prosperity. To cite but one example, civil society demands for open information on SARS in China advanced public health in the country. A 2013 World Economic Forum Report confirmed the benefits of a resilient civil society.

There is an emerging geopolitical contest between forces of repression and expression. A battle for civil society space, a space race of sorts, is becoming increasingly intense in countries like Venezuela, Ecuador, Zimbabwe, Bahrain, Iran, and Thailand. Focusing on indigenous, nonviolent movements as the most effective engine of durable change, the world's most influential natons must forge a new diplomacy engaging these groups even if it means upsetting authoritarian governments seen as allies.

What is civil society and why back it?

Civil society typically includes political activists and human rights defenders, but it also comprises representatives from the legal community, business, academia, and independent media. The vast majority of civil society groups seek change through nonviolent action - through public awareness, press, petitioning, and protest efforts. There is hard evidence that nonviolent groups can be potent forces to liberalising their governments.

In their 2011 book Why Civil Resistance Works, Erica Chenoweth and Maria J Stephan collected data on all known violent and nonviolent campaigns from 1900 to 2006. Defining success as achieving its own "stated goals (regime change, anti-occupation, or secession)" within a year of a campaign's peak and being recognised by regional neighbors, the study found nonviolent campaigns proved more than twice as effective as violent ones, a trend that increased over time in both success and frequency. All the nonviolent campaigns that mobilised more than 3.5 per cent of the population as participants succeeded. When facing violent state repression, nonviolent resistance was more effective than violent resistance, and it resulted in higher rates of democratic consolidation five years after the campaigns ended. The same skills necessary for building a large-scale nonviolent campaign are needed for durable democratic governance.

The vitality of nonviolent campaigns can be seen in the recent successful anti-regime Maidan movement in Ukraine, and the Saffron Revolution of Buddhist monks that prodded Myanmar's government to liberalise. Earlier, the Charter 77 Movement in the Soviet bloc demanded change based on the Helsinki Accords' human-rights benchmarks and external monitors bearing witness. Even preeminent realpolitik strategist Henry Kissinger highlighted these actors' importance in the Soviet Bloc's unraveling in the third volume of his memoirs.

Most civic movements need outside help to succeed. The United States and European powers have been the chief sources of support, from backing Serbia's Otpor movement to oust Slobodan Milosevic, to the colour revolutions, such as the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. The Global South's major democratic powers - such as Brazil, India, and South Africa - are loathe to become involved in other developing nations' internal affairs, despite the great legitimacy their help would offer. Despite modest support from the United Nations Democracy Fund and UN resolutions, the UN will not be a major source of help; it is stymied by authoritarian member states and these same Global South democratic governments. Leadership by economically and politically influential national institutions remains crucial.

Mark P Lagon, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Human Rights, Council on Foriegn Relations