MENA Director Testifies on Capitol Hill on “Democracy and Governance in the Middle East and North Africa”

On November 7, 2017, International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa Zeinab Abdelkarim provided testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa. She was invited to speak to Members of Congress about “Democracy and Governance in the Middle East and North Africa,” in particular about impediments to reforms and what Congress and the administration can do to better achieve democracy and governance goals in the region.

Abdelkarim’s oral testimony is below:

Madam Chairman, Acting Ranking Member Connolly, and distinguished members of the Subcommittee: on behalf of IFES, I greatly appreciate the opportunity to share with you our Middle East and North Africa (MENA) programs, and discuss the greatest challenges to democracy in the region.

IFES’ work in the MENA region focuses on building the foundations that are essential to the development of civic culture and effective, resilient democratic institutions. With funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development, U.S.-Middle East Partnership Initiative, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, and international donors, we work with a wide spectrum of local partners. This includes the judiciary, the legislature, civil society, independent media, and the institutions responsible for managing the electoral process.

For example, in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen, IFES has supported electoral processes such as boundary delimitation, voter registration, voter education, vote counting, and out-of-country voting. In Lebanon, Yemen, Morocco, Libya and elsewhere, IFES has assisted locally-driven constitution-building and election reform efforts. IFES has also worked on greater access to the political process for persons with disabilities, women, youth and other marginalized groups in countries like Syria, Libya, Morocco and Lebanon. Over the years, IFES has increased its collaboration with governmental and regional organizations, including the League of Arab States and the Organization for Arab Election Management Bodies.

We operate in extremely challenging environments where, widespread and deeply rooted political unrest persists. Factors that played a major role in the 2011 uprisings, such as struggling economies, unemployment, inadequate access to justice, and ineffective governance, are not sufficiently addressed. The breakdown in security and rising volatility caused by ongoing civil wars, the rise of extremist groups, and foreign interventions are daunting factors that do not promise stabilization or democratic development in the short term.

Despite these challenges, there is still a widespread desire for fundamental democratic ideals. And despite violent and ruthless suppression, the people of the MENA region have not surrendered their democratic aspirations.

Unfortunately, U.S. assistance to democracy and governance programming in the region has declined. We must re-evaluate the ways in which democracy is supported and sustained. Instead of short-term solutions, the U.S. must aim for a long-term democracy assistance strategy and continue to promote a broader notion of democratic governance that includes tolerance, consensus and peace-building processes, human rights protections, and capacity building for social and economic development.

Our strategy should be grounded in realistic expectations about the pace and course of change. We must leverage existing international frameworks, bilateral agreements, diplomacy and development to cultivate and create space for prosperity, peace, and security.

U.S. support for fundamental rights and democratic norms must be unequivocal. Therefore, pressure must be maintained on governing elites to be responsive and accountable to their citizens, and to genuinely pursue democratic freedoms, access to justice, and the rule of law, regardless of the governing system they choose to implement.

Furthermore, democracy assistance must complement, but not be eclipsed by, counterterrorism efforts and military-to-military cooperation.

We ask the U.S. Congress to continue its support for democracy programming, especially when many countries in the region will likely see national and local elections in 2018, including Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, Tunisia, and possibly Libya. Strengthening national institutions will help to make elections more legitimate and responsive – rather than destabilizing – events.

Last but not least, we continue to lean on Congress’ support for robust funding levels for democracy programs, and encourage you to leverage your oversight role in ensuring appropriations are obligated and spent.

With that I end my remarks, and thank you once again, Madam Chairman, for the opportunity to testify. I am happy to answer any questions that you might have.

Along with Chairman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), the hearing was attended by Congressman Steve Chabot (R-Ohio), Congressman David Cicilline (D-R.I.), Congressman Gerald Connolly (D-Va.), Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), Congressman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), Congressman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), Congresswoman Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), Congressman Brad Schneider (D—Ill.), Congressman Thomas Suozzi (D-N.Y.), Congresswoman Ann Wagner (R-Mo.), and Congressman Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.). Abdelkarim was joined on the panel by Scott Mastic, vice president for programs at the International Republican Institute; Leslie Campbell, senior associate and regional director for Middle East and North Africa programs at the National Democratic Institute; and Dr. Robert Herman, vice president for international programs and emergency assistance programs and multilateral initiatives at Freedom House.

To read Abdelkarim’s written testimony, please click here.

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