some democratic transitions work while others fail? The answer has less to do
with formal institutions and politics than with the dynamics within societies.
In troubled state after troubled state -- from Afghanistan, Nepal, and Sri
Lanka, to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Nigeria, Egypt, Iraq, and
Libya -- we see those charged with helping transitions focusing on how citizens
their state (in trying to find just the right election rules, for example),
rather than how citizens relate to one another. The importance of a functioning
social covenant among citizens is all but forgotten.
covenant needn't be formal, or even all that ambitious. It can be any working
arrangement, whether written or not, that brings together a country's various
ethnic, religious, clan, class, and ideological groups to build a more socially
cohesive state. A state supported by a strong social covenant will be better
able to manage the stresses of transition and lay the basis for an inclusive and
sustainable political process going forward. The key thing is that the major
groups within a society must agree on a way to work together. Forged from
negotiations between different groups, a social covenant builds a common identity, articulates shared values, and gives
political society a basic sense of purpose. No successful state can exist
without some societal consensus to undergird it.
particular, fragile states, where social divisions are generally much greater than other states, need covenants. However
much they differ in other ways, all truly fragile states have populations with little capacity to
cooperate in pursuit of public goods and weak (or dysfunctional) institutions.
Many such states have origins as colonial fabrications imposed on local populations. Viewed as
artificial impositions, such states often fail to create common national
identities, and typically have populations with stark differences in loyalties,
values, and even languages. (Nigerians speak more than 500 different tongues.
Their institutions, which do not reflect their own histories and accumulated
experiences, are weakly embedded in society and have little legitimacy.)
tests a state like a change of regime: They create power vacuums and unleash
powerful collective emotions. Competing political identities surge in
importance just as the formal structures of government are least able to manage
them. If a state isn't already resilient, the stresses that come with regime
change can easily lead to violence or even (in the worst case) rip the state
apart, as happened in Somalia in 1991 and may eventually happen in Syria, Iraq, and Libya.
Building social covenants injects legitimacy into the transition process, so
that the state has a fighting chance at gaining strength, weathering the
stresses of transition, and safeguarding its people's chances for a freer, more
peaceful, and more prosperous life. It also means that a more diverse set of
voices will be represented and considered when making crucial decisions about a
country's identity and institutions.
covenants are hardly a new idea, of course. In fact, they have long played a
crucial role in nation-building. Without them it's hard to imagine the rise of
some of the world's first coherent nation states (in England, Scotland, the
Netherlands, and Switzerland). The peoples of those places, as Daniel Elazar has written, "not only conceived of civil society in covenantal terms,
but actually wrote national covenants to which loyal members of the body
politic subscribed." In the United States, social covenants played a
prominent role in the establishment of early communities (such as those created
by the Puritans), individual colonies (especially in the north), and eventually
the whole country. The Declaration of Independence is at heart a covenant that articulates
a new relationship among a set of people sharing common values. Many cohesive
nation states have informal social covenants that have evolved over a long
history and which bring their people together around a common identity and set
the best recent example of how it can help to focus first on a "social
covenant" is South Africa. Its transition succeeded despite decades of
conflict and the long, sad history of apartheid. This makes it a model of sorts
for other deeply splintered societies. (In the photo above, black and white South Africans dance during a march in Johannesburg in February 1990.)
start-and-stop negotiations that slowly nurtured relationships, the key
representatives of whites (the National Party, or NP) and blacks (the African
National Congress, or ANC) worked together to reach bilateral consensus on the
key issues. Later, other groups joined the political negotiations. They
included some, such as white, right-wing parties and several leading black
parties, that had earlier refused to take part. In the last stage,
international assistance helped to bring in the last holdouts (led by the
mainly Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party).
final agreement -- the social covenant -- forced everyone to make major
concessions, placing constraints on the ANC, giving the NP a limited role in
government for five years, and carving out a special status for the Zulu
monarchy. Decentralization gave groups other than the ANC greater access to
power at the provincial level. The Truth
and Reconciliation Commission was
established by the first post-apartheid government to deal with politically
motivated crimes committed during the apartheid era. The work of the Commission
was designed so that it promoted reconciliation and limited prosecutions.
the crucial guidance of ANC head Nelson Mandela and other leaders, the country
achieved remarkable reconciliation among groups that had been in conflict for
decades, and established a new national identity based on a highly tolerant,
highly inclusive vision of South Africa as a multicultural "rainbow nation"
that brought people together in a way previously not thought possible.
In Tunisia, something akin to a social covenant was constructed years before
the Arab Spring. The four major opposition parties came together starting in
2003 to reach a consensus on what they would do if they ever got political
power. In their joint "Call from Tunis," they agreed on such things as the role of
elections, religion, Muslim-Arab values, and women in society. These
agreements, and the relationships built while forging them, allowed Islamic and
secular leaders to overcome their mutual fears and distrust, and laid the
groundwork for the relatively successful (though imperfect) transition that continues
today. Everyone has understood the need for compromise -- as shown by the
recently approved post-transition constitution, which has been hailed by
Islamists and liberals alike.
contrast, most transitions provide no opportunity for the various groups within
societies to develop relationships, build trust, and forge a consensus through
compromise on how they will live together and develop their countries in the
future. Instead, they rush into a competitive -- and all too often zero-sum --
fight for power through elections. This leads to an emphasis on the differences
among groups before strong social ties binding them together have been established
-- with often tragic consequences.
Egypt entered the Arab Spring with a relatively cohesive and institutionalized
state, its political leaders never attempted to establish a covenant. The
country is now correspondingly mired in a transition fraught with ongoing
sectarian political conflict. First the Muslim Brotherhood and then the
military sought to systemically exclude political rivals from any role in
shaping the country's direction. President Mohamed Morsi of the Brotherhood
sought to grant himself sweeping new powers in November 2012. Then, he
attempted to steamroll through a strongly Islamist constitutional draft that
enforced a rigid concept of Egypt's national identity and disregarded the
concerns of large sections of the population. A year later, after taking power
in a coup, the military sought to draft its own amendments of the Mubarak-era
constitution with a panel that excluded most of the Islamists. The army cracked
down hard on opponents, jailing thousands. Sadly, the rest of the region today resembles Egypt more than Tunisia.
the biggest challenges to forging social covenants is determining
whom to include and whom to exclude. The "winners" of any regime
change will look askance at the idea of working with members (or allies) of the
old regime, minority groups that played no prominent role in the changeover,
former extremists who want to join the process, and so on. Nonetheless, they
should overcome their reluctance in the name of greater stability and
legitimacy. In places such as Iraq and Libya, excluding members of the previous regime has weakened the capacity of the
state, while excluding members of the former dominant ethnic or tribal groups
has hardened social divisions and fed violence.
inclusive a new regime is, the more likely it is to be stable, sustainable, and
successful. There is always the possibility, of course, that some spoilers may
prove too dangerous, and will need to be isolated or confronted, possibly with
force. While the process of forging a social covenant ought to clarify who
these are, transition leaders will at times have to make judicious decisions to
ensure that their coalitions are "inclusive enough" to succeed. Of course, the state must always
have strict rules on violent rhetoric and hate speech, and its leaders,
especially those from the same social groups as extremists, should take strong
stands against violence and exclusionary actions and rhetoric. Violent
radicals, exclusionary democrats, secessionists, and members of the former
regime who refuse to accept the disposition of the new one will have to be contained
or mollified to protect the transition. In Tunisia, a reluctance to take proper
security measures against a radical Islamist movement came back to haunt the
first government elected after the transition, when members of that movement
attacked police officers, soldiers, and the U.S. embassy in Tunis, and
assassinated two opposition politicians. Figuring out who should be "in
the tent" and who must be kept outside it is one of the hardest tasks of
domestic actors must do most of the work of transition, international actors
can give substantial help in a few areas. Intervention in its various forms can be pivotal in supporting the negotiation process -- as it has been
in places as diverse as Mozambique, Guatemala, and the Philippines -- and
shaping the transition framework. More often than not, forging social covenants
will require long discussions that gradually build trust, bring in more
parties, find creative solutions and compromises, and design new ways of
governing and handing over power. Foreign aid can fill the gaps created by
short-term financial shortfalls, encouraging even would-be spoilers to "buy-in,"
and helping an economy reform, as has happened in post-conflict countries such
as Sierra Leone and Liberia. Technical assistance can help improve the capacity
of institutions so they can play more constructive roles than in the past.
International actors can also provide information about the ways other
countries dealt with similar challenges, helping local actors find solutions
that fit their own contexts.
agreements among the major groups have been reached, international actors can
also prove pivotal in monitoring commitments. When trust between parties is low
and local institutions are weak or missing, there is nothing like having an
honest referee. In this capacity, international actors can enforce standards
and agreements with rewards and sanctions; ask the World Bank or International
Monetary Fund to monitor economic reforms; and even deploy troops as a security
guarantee. Peacekeeping troops have played a pivotal role in places as diverse
as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia, Lebanon, and Kosovo. Outside
observers have been crucial to the legitimacy of elections across the globe. In
Bosnia-Herzegovina, the international community has stayed involved for two
decades to ensure the equity of policies.
Transitions are hard for any country. In fragile states, so much can easily go
wrong to inadvertently strengthen authoritarianism or permanent instability
while causing peace, freedom, and prosperity to suffer. Forging a social
covenant between key groups as early as possible is a must if an inclusive political
process is to take root and become widely accepted. Even if it remains
unwritten, a covenant can play a decisive role in transforming the social
relationships that form the bones to which the sinews of state are attached.