Making a Democracy

As they work to create a democratic constitution, Egypt's new leaders could learn from post-apartheid South Africa.

Recent developments in Tunisia, Egypt, and increasingly throughout the rest of the Arab world have certainly been encouraging, and they raise the critical question of what happens next. How will these states be able to make the transition from the discredited authoritarian regimes of the old order to the new, democratic systems that people throughout the region are demanding?

The problem is that authoritarian regimes, by definition, do not possess the mechanisms necessary for peaceful democratic transitions. There is generally no constitutional framework for genuine democracy, and political opinion has been repressed for so long that nobody really knows which group or party enjoys genuine support.

The obvious solution is to hold an election -- but with which participants, on what basis, and within what constitutional framework?

South Africa's constitutional negotiations in the early 1990s may provide an instructive example for these new democracies to study. During the South African process, parties with long histories of hostility and suspicion came together and forged a new constitutional system under the most difficult circumstances. The negotiations included both the African National Congress (ANC) led by Nelson Mandela, and its traditional arch-opponent, the ruling National Party, under my leadership. Other participants included the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), the South African Communist Party, and parties representing the 10 black "bantustan" governments that had been established under apartheid.

Selecting the players for constitutional debates won't be quite so easy in Egypt. Change in South Africa had been expected for years. It was a foregone conclusion that the ANC, representing most blacks, would win the first democratic election. In Egypt, however, change came unexpectedly -- and nobody knows whether the Muslim Brotherhood, the left, or the present ruling party will emerge as the dominant group. Nonetheless, the South African experience demonstrates the necessity of inclusion.

Despite repeated crises and walkouts, these talks succeeded in producing a nonracial, democratic constitution that is widely regarded as one of the best in the world. How did we do it?

The negotiations had three distinct phases.

The first, preparatory, phase followed my speech to Parliament on Feb. 2, 1990, during which I announced the formal end of the apartheid system and Mandela's release from prison nine days later. This phase included three preliminary meetings in Cape Town and Pretoria that dealt primarily with granting immunity to ANC rebels to enable them to return from exile and suspend the group's decades of armed struggle. In Egypt it will also be necessary to determine how previously proscribed groups, like the Muslim Brotherhood, will participate in the transition.

The preparatory talks also dealt with the escalating racial violence that presented a serious obstacle throughout the negotiations. We addressed the problem by adopting a National Peace Accord on Sept. 14, 1991. The accord established a National Peace Secretariat, a National Peace Committee comprising all the accord signatories, and a national peace commission under the chairmanship of Judge Richard Goldstone, chief justice of the Supreme Court, to investigate and report on violence and intimidation.

The second phase of the negotiations, the multiparty Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA) talks, commenced on Dec. 21, 1991, with the adoption of a declaration of intent. The declaration sketched the broad outline of the kind of state that all the parties wanted, including: a united, democratic, nonracial and nonsexist political system; a constitution guarded over by an impartial judiciary; a multiparty democracy based on proportional representation; separation of powers with appropriate checks and balances; acknowledgement of South Africa's diverse languages, cultures, and relations; and a Bill of Rights with equality of all before the law.

The CODESA negotiations dealt with myriad thorny issues, including the creation of a media and political climate to allow free participation, the reincorporation of black homelands, and ensuring free and fair elections. By far the toughest negotiations involved setting up the new constitution. The main problem was the ANC's insistence that the constitution should be drawn up by a duly elected national convention, while minority parties maintained that agreement on the constitution should precede the first elections. The impasse was resolved toward the end of the process by the ingenious device of adopting an interim constitution under the terms of which the first election would be held. The newly elected Parliament would then adopt a final constitution. To allay minority fears, the final constitution would also have to comply with 35 immutable constitutional principles.

On June 17, 1992, constitutional talks collapsed over failure to reach agreement on the percentages by which the final document would have to be adopted -- and because of escalating violence. It was widely suspected that ANC leaders were under pressure from the group's more radical elements about the concessions they were making during the negotiations. The walkout may have been a means to calm down these aggressive factions so that the process could move forward. I don't believe ANC leaders ever truly meant to derail the process, though publicly they said they would make the country ungovernable through mass action. Eventually the talks resumed without drastic measures such as imposing martial law, thereby demonstrating the importance of patience, even under the most trying of political deadlocks.

On Sept. 26, 1992, the government and the ANC opened the way to the resumption of negotiations by adopting a "record of understanding" that endorsed most of the agreements that had been reached during the CODESA process. One of the main problems we experienced was maintaining the inclusivity of the process. As soon as the ANC returned to the talks, the IFP and right-wing parties walked out and did not return until the eve of the elections. It will also be essential to ensure that whatever happens in Egypt, the process includes all parties with significant support.

The final phase of the negotiations consisted of a multiparty negotiating process, which reached agreement on an interim constitution and the mechanisms required for free and fair elections. It was agreed that the final constitution would have to be adopted by a two-thirds majority of the newly elected parliament, failing which it would have to be approved by a 60 percent majority in a national referendum. The interim constitution was approved by the negotiating forum on Nov. 18 and adopted by Parliament on Dec. 22. The first national democratic elections took place on April 27, 1994, and ushered in South Africa's present nonracial constitutional democracy.

The process could not have been a success without a number of key factors. First, the South African political system was operating under a constitution throughout the entire process -- whereas the situation in Egypt following former President Hosni Mubarak's resignation is still unclear. That kind of continuity meant that there was no hiatus in the functioning of the courts, public services, commercial agreements, or property rights.

Second, the process was entirely South African. We did not require the intervention or mediation of any foreign powers -- though their support for the process was often invaluable. Homegrown solutions are often more durable than those that are imported or imposed from abroad.

Third, we benefited from the support of outside constitutional advisors, who were often academics and legal experts. All parties welcomed the impartiality of these advisors, enabling them to resolve deadlocks that arose from time to time.

Finally, it helped a great deal to have a man of Nelson Mandela's stature as a partner in the process. Following the assassination of Chris Hani, leader of the South African Communist Party on April 10, 1993, Mandela played an indispensable role in calming his followers and preventing widespread conflict. Although our relationship was often severely strained, such as when he publicly and wrongly accused me of supporting violence by security forces against unarmed protesters, from the beginning we both believed that there was a basis for trust and productive cooperation. We remain friends to this day. It's unclear whether there are any leaders of Mandela's stature within the Egyptian opposition movement, but his would be a fine example to follow.

The current situation in Egypt is, of course, sui generis. It remains to be seen which individuals and parties will emerge as leaders. Clearly, the armed forces will need to play a crucial role in creating and protecting the arena for political transition. But what will happen after that? To the extent that our experience is at all relevant to the historic transformation process under way in the Arab world, South Africans will be happy to help.



There Is No Neutral

If NGOs think they can claim neutrality in Afghanistan, they're fooling themselves.

Clear. Hold. Build. These are the unquestioned ABCs of the counterinsurgency strategy that won the war in Iraq and now hold the hope for delivering victory in Afghanistan. Clear and hold are military operations, but "build" is increasingly the purview of the development world, which considers the notion of choosing sides in a conflict anathema. Yet as U.S. troops eventually draw down in Afghanistan, the work of development professionals -- the building -- will only become more important in securing U.S. war aims.

No one denies that NGOs accomplish vital work in some of the most dangerous places on Earth, but their commitment to nonaligned status suggests that most believe that tasks focused on improving human lives can somehow be apolitical. This perspective overlooks the political and cultural beliefs that cause harm to innocents in the first place. And though providers of humanitarian aid would like to operate in a "neutral space," there is no such location in the contested battlegrounds of an insurgency.

While the United States and its allies go to great lengths to respect the "neutral" space desired by NGOs, their enemies do not. Insurgent organizations often seek to gain control of these spaces through intimidation and coercion of the population, which allows them to operate with impunity from such areas. So-called neutral spaces, therefore, often make it harder to fight brutal enemies such as the Taliban. And support that NGOs provide to these areas can often be diverted to strengthen the enemy.

Examples of NGOs proclaiming their neutrality are legion. Doctors Without Borders states that it is neutral and does not take sides in armed conflicts. InterAction, an umbrella group of more than 165 organizations, affirms that its members are "not acting as an instrument of government foreign policy." And the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, another very large umbrella group, explains that it is "essential to provide neutral and impartial assistance to all populations."

Many NGOs active in Afghanistan have also refused to endorse the international coalition's political priorities. The director of the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office advised its members not to engage in civil-military coordination activities because NGOs had "nothing to gain and much to lose" by interacting with the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), which is only interested in "leveraging advantage from your activities."

The international community continues to funnel tremendous amounts of resources to development groups in Afghanistan, even while they refuse to endorse its political priorities. Last December, the United Nations in Afghanistan launched an appeal for $678 million for humanitarian aid, noting that NGOs would play a large role in reducing the suffering of the Afghan people. This assistance would be provided, stated the U.N. coordinator there, "according to the core tenets of humanity, impartiality and neutrality."

In official documents, the United States and many of its allies tend to accept and endorse these positions of neutrality. U.N. guidelines affirm that there should be a "clear distinction" between humanitarian actors and the military so that NGOs can function in a neutral operating environment. And though Washington applies enormous resources to working on the political and economic reconstruction of Afghanistan, it also warns provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs) that humanitarian assistance "must not be used for the purpose of political gain, relationship building or 'winning hearts and minds'." Yet the ability to initiate and sustain successful reconstruction efforts requires developing good relationships among the people. And the rationale for the PRTs is nested within a broader set of political goals for Afghanistan -- goals not shared by the Taliban.

Neutrality not only requires turning a blind eye to hostile organizations, but also risks enriching and strengthening bad actors physically and psychologically. Neutral assistance provided in areas that bad actors control is often diverted to armed groups, which also seek to take credit for any assistance that does make it to the population.

The very fact that an aid organization can travel safely in a contested province often means that insurgents have calculated that it is in their interest to allow the organization safe passage. The fact that an NGO-built school remains standing -- while an ISAF school is destroyed -- is likewise because insurgents have made a political calculation. NGOs suggest that their neutrality means that they are not participants in the conflict, but this is simply not the case. Indeed, a report by eight NGOs operating in Afghanistan affirms that insurgents deliberately target ISAF-built schools in order to reduce support for the United States and its allies.

Insurgents measure their success in terms of their ability to operate among the people -- even if, as is often the case, they are doing so using intimidation and coercion. In a counterinsurgency campaign, it is impossible to ignore that improving the daily lives of people -- by insulating them from fear, improving their security, building schools, aiding the local economy -- will also affect political outcomes. This is the very nature of counterinsurgency warfare.

While the U.S. Army and Marine Corps have developed new operational concepts in order to operate in these contested political landscapes, the NGO sector has, for the most part, not undergone such a reassessment. By eschewing the development of a political strategy to underpin the provision of aid and assistance, its effects will likely be short-lived. By not empowering good actors, neutral NGOs make it harder to make the most of resources at hand.

This issue will only grow in importance. The White House's December review of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan confirmed the importance of building "sufficient Afghan capacity," improving civil-military integration, and continuing support for Afghanistan's development. A critical component in the United States' ability to meet these objectives is the work of NGOs. The State Department's first-ever Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review also reaffirmed the importance of NGOs, noting that they will play an "ever-greater role" in international affairs.

In Afghanistan, the United States has relied on an ad hoc hodgepodge of contractors, civil-military units, and NGOs to perform the reconstruction work essential to defeating the Taliban. But it's high time that U.S. policymakers ask themselves the difficult question of why the Pentagon and the State Department use "neutral" parties -- actors who by their own statements do not openly endorse the goals the United States is striving for -- to deliver services that are key to winning the war.

Clearly, aid workers should be lauded for the great personal sacrifices they make. They show extraordinary courage and commitment. Many have given their lives. But the inherent decency of a profession should not absolve it from scrutiny, nor shield it from debate.