Civil Society Leaders Talk Freedom at Middle East Forum

Posted by Kent Patton
October 24, 2008
Civil Society Leaders Meet in Dubai

About the Author: Kent Patton serves as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs.

DUBAI, October 15 -- It was a late arrival into the United Arab Emirates last night after the long slog -- airport, plane, airport, plane, airport -- of travel to the Middle East.

As usual, it was warm and humid enough to steam up my glasses as I left the airport. If you’ve spent any time in the southern United States on a muggy night in August, you’ll know the feeling of air hung heavy with Gulf moisture.

My colleagues arrived a few hours earlier and we were all ready to see a year's worth of work, negotiations and planning unfold successfully. This year's Ministerial and Parallel Forums, both hosted by the United Arab Emirates and co-chaired by the G-8 president, Japan, come at an important time for U.S. policy in the Middle East and for our efforts to engage across the region on these very sensitive issues.

The first day of the Parallel Forum in Dubai started bright and early. The lobby was bustling with action. Nearly 200 people came from across the Broader Middle East representing a whole range of civil society in their countries. It was a remarkable sight to behold: activists, some of them veterans of prison and torture, gathering to discuss how to bring greater freedom to the people of the region. Their courage and humility is a constant reminder of the hard work it takes to build free and prosperous countries.

It was nice to see them all and to hear about how their work, programs, and projects have evolved. They are strong-willed activists, criticizing U.S. policy in one breathe and asking for our help in the next. We have passionate debates on every subject imaginable. They have no hesitation to condemn their own governments for corruption, negligence or bad governance; they also don’t hesitate to attack other civil society leaders for corruption, negligence, or bad governance. Their heroes are Mandela, Havel, Reagan, MLK, Ghandi, and other heroes of liberty. The civil society leaders attending the Forum are many of the same people I saw earlier this year when we -- BMENA, G-8, and civil society leaders -- gathered to establish benchmarks for progress and design strategies for successful governmental and civil society engagement. We've overseen some visible progress in the relationships between the BMENA governments and their respective civil society organizations, but there is still quite a bit of work that needs to be done.

We are glad to see a healthy turnout of the civil society representatives. They hit the ground running, fully engaged in the grassroots working level meetings. There will be some tough issues addressed and even some setbacks, but it’s heartening to see them have the opportunity to air some of their grievances, even if there are not yet institutions for redressing those same grievances.



New York, USA
October 29, 2008

Ron in New York writes:

Put Civil Society leasders in the seats of government and we will see ethical governance.

New Mexico, USA
November 2, 2008

Eric in New Mexico writes:

@ Mr. Patton, This wasn't exactly what bin laden had in mind when he called for a holy war against the infidel West....(chuckle).

"They are strong-willed activists, criticizing U.S. policy in one breathe and asking for our help in the next. We have passionate debates on every subject imaginable.."

District Of Columbia, USA
November 5, 2008

Moshe in Washington, DC writes:

I am very pleased to hear of a Middle East forum aimed at tackling the tough issues of freedom and civil society. The difficulty we constantly face in governance is the fact that the institutions that exist today must change, sometimes drastically, in order to promote freedom for its population. Change, no matter if it is for the better, is always difficult. Having buy-in from individuals who have the capability to create change is the first step towards moving the Goliath like institution of bureaucracy. The next step is applying the knowledge of global experience in building civil society. More importantly, accomplishing such application by utilizing local resources, knowledge, and innovation to create such change. I do hope that this forum was able to capture such local ingenuity and will be the means for initiating change abroad.


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