Agora Arab Digest- January 2015
The evolving relationship between citizens and parliaments in the Arab world- The
case of increasing Civil Society Engagement
More countries than ever before are working to build democratic
governance. Their challenge is to develop institutions and processes that are more
responsive to the needs of ordinary citizen. A fundamental aspect of a democratic
state is the right of its citizens to participate in decision-making processes. The
success of development and participatory governance depends on both a robust
state and an active civil society with healthy levels of civic engagement. Empowered
and active citizenship is an end in itself: essential for inclusive growth and national
ownership. Civic engagement refers to that process whereby citizens or their
representatives are able to engage and influence public processes, in order to
achieve civic objectives and goals1. Strengthening the pathways through which
parliamentarians are able to engage with grass root constituents is thus an
important component of broader political transparency and accountability
initiatives. Moreover, the role of the legislature as the elected representatives of the
citizenry indicates that they have a particular responsibility to act as a channel for
the voices of the population in the decision-making process – by listening to,
synthesizing and conveying views expressed at the constituency level but also
through parliamentary hearings.
This digest
ill look at the ole of
i il so iet
a d its elation to the
parliamentary process and how can it boost parliamentary representation
Parliaments and Civil Society
Pa lia e ts elatio ship
ith i il so iet is highl
o ple . Fi st, the e is
never just one relationship between the two. There are numerous civil society
organizations (CSOs) with disparate values, principles and approaches to their work.
Second, the relationship that one MP or parliamentary group has with one or more
civil society organizations will likely be very different than that of another.
Figure: National governance systems (from World Bank Global Monitoring Report 2
What is important is that parliament and its various parts (i.e. – committees,
parliamentary groups, MPs, secretariat) understand that there is an important role
for civil society in the work of parliament and that a productive relationship can and
must be developed. By engaging civil society, a parliament can be more effective and
Given that there are numerous such organizations, parliament cannot and
should not attempt to develop the same relationship with all such groups, but to
have a policy of positive engagement, respect and dialogue. These principles are
easier to achieve where there is one or a small number of forums or umbrella groups
that represent like-minded CSOs, allowing parliament to interact with these forums
instead of having to maintain a relationship directly with various CSOs.
With regard to the functions of parliament, CSOs can play the following roles:
As parliaments consider legislation it often times requires expertise and
knowledge. CSOs can provide detailed inputs into the review of draft laws. Oversight
by a parliament cannot be accomplished without considering the impact of
government actions and spending on those that are directly affected by choices
made by the government. In order to have a true perspective on this, parliament
must meet regularly with CSOs to understand what the members of CSOs are
e pe ie i g o the g ou d . It is o l th ough this process that a parliament can
understand fully the impact of government action and be able to properly monitor
such action.
Finally, as parliament has a mandate to represent citizens it should be a
natural connection to work with groups that speak on behalf of citizens. CSOs are
nothing more than a group of citizens that are like-minded with regard to a specific
issue and are advocates for those citizens. Parliament should be encouraging CSOs to
speak on issues and to advocate, as this will allow for the aggregation of opinions
and, where the CSOs are well organized, a conduit for dialogue and negotiations
with citizens. By enhancing both horizontal and vertical accountability systems, civil
society–parliamentary engagement can help develop a new political landscape both
nationally and globally, by strengthening the quality of national-level policy debates
and decision- making processes on the one hand, and connections and dialogue
between MPs and their grassroots constituents on the other3.
How can CSOs and parliamentarians interact?
Parliamentarians are the link between civil society and government. The
specifically, entails being in
contact with
constituencies, understanding their needs and encouraging citizen participation. Civil
society is a valuable conduit in ensuring this. Committees are avenues where the
government can communicate with the public and conduct the business of
Parliament in a transparent way. The dialogue between the public and parliamentary
committees is necessary to ensure a substantive debate on critical public issues.
Promoting Good Governance through Civil Society–Legislator Linkages
Consulting the public is another way in which civil society participates in the policymaking process. Parliamentarians can consult the public about significant shifts in
policy or when they need to gage sentiments prior to making such a shift. Such
partnership gives substance to public policy making and serves to illustrate the
pa lia e t s ep ese tatio of the pu li s i te est.
Synergies between CSOs and the Parliament
Parliamentary representation is about collecting, aggregating and expressing
the concerns, opinions and preferences of citizen-voters. Parliaments also provide an
arena for dialogue in which itize s dispa ate a d aried interests can be discussed4.
For MPs, effective representation requires engaging their constituents in continuing
dialogue in order to understand their views and perspectives, and to rely on their
knowledge on various topics. MPs must then utilize the powers vested in their office
(i.e. legislating, participating in debates, authoring questions, etc.) to voice the
resulting ideas.
CSOs and parliamentarians can collaborate in order to enhance the quality of
policymaking a d the atte ti e ess to the pu li s
eeds through four broad
1. Providing expert inputs; CSOs can play an important role in providing
individual legislators and legislative committees with much needed expert in
puts to inform parliamentary debates.
2. Promoting policy reforms through the profiling of civil society viewpoints in
parliamentary hearings; CSOs and parliamentarians can forge cooperative
arrangements in order to advance a shared policy reform vision, and put
pressure on the executive branch for change.
3. Coordinating outreach activities to enhance grassroots participation in policy
dialogues; In order to reach out to marginalized populations and promote
their involvement in the policy process, link ages may be forged between
NGOs and parliamentarians.
4. Securing longer-term agreements through alliances with political parties
and/or securing a quota of seats in the legislature. CSOs may thus succeed in
securing more formal representation in the legislature and shape the policy
Challenges for CSO–legislator linkages
A number of significant challenges exist when tackling the issue of civil
society engagement and parliamentary representation namely limited funding
where financial constraints limit the ability to invest in capacity strengthening in CSO
human capital, especially research skills and technical knowledge necessary for
policy advocacy activities. Limited political space is a further example of challenges
where the governments need to be open to civil society participation in the policy
Promoting good governance and enhancing parliamentary representation
through civil society engagement could only be established through:
 Strengthening CSO understanding of the workings of parliament, its role in
the policy process and the party political imperatives that underlie much of
the decision-making process and behaviour of parliamentarians;
 Adapting to high MP turnover;
 Being aware of executive pressure on parliamentarians;
 Overcoming donor bias in promoting engagement with the executive rather
than the legislative branch of government;
 Improving the quality and duration of funding to parliamentary strengthening
Promoting Good Governance through Civil Society–Legislator Linkages
Promoting Good Governance through Civil Society–Legislator Linkages
The case of civil society engagement in the Arab States
Events of the Arab spring have affected the political dynamics of the region
and provided for a period of reshaping the political landscape of the region, with an
underlining theme of inclusion and participation, and a wave of transitions towards
more democratic systems of governance. Parliaments are important actors in these
transitions, as they play a particularly critical role in rebuilding trust and
e o
e ti g
itize s - state relationship in such environments, therefore
supporting political settlements and reducing the potential for renewed conflict.
Citize s e pe tatio s i this egio a e ofte
e y high according to a poll
conducted in 2012 by global partners. The challenge for parliaments is to improve
voter understanding of the work of Parliament, to provide greater opportunities for
voters to engage with the parliamentary process and for MPs to develop new ways
of deali g
ith ote s
e uests i a st ategi
e . The Le a ese Pa lia e t
organizes specialized regional developmental workshops covering electoral
constituencies with the participation of relevant MPs, civil society organizations and
international agencies in order to increase civil society participation.
Tra slati g citize s’ co cer s i to parlia e tary actio - How do MPs use the local
concerns of citizens to initiate responses in Parliament by using parliamentary
mechanisms to find collective solutions?
MPs tend to be judged by voters on what they do locally, and therefore tend
to try and respond to every individual request for help directly. However, it is
i possi le to
eet ea h a d e e
articulati g the pu li s
ote s eeds. The i il so iet pla s a ital ole i
o e s to the pa lia e t a d
o se uti el
to the
government. The key challenge is to engage CSOs to find national solutions, which
benefit all citizens, rather than trying to deal with each case on its own.
Parliamentary action towards improving the relation with civil society
organizations can be summarized as follows:
 Conduct meetings with civil society organizations in order to listen to their
views on topics that are being discussed in parliamentary committees and in
plenary sessions;
 Work on creating / establishing a department in the parliamentary
administration for relations with civil society organizations;
 Train civil society organizations on legal and organizational procedures of
 E phasize
o e
a d outh o ga izatio s de a ds su h as i p o i g
women and youth representation, quotas for women, youth policies, etc.
Case studies
Women representation in Egypt
Egyptian women were angered by the percentage allocated to their representation
in the future parliament according to the new law. The Egyptian Feminist Union
which comprises 200 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) is reiterating against
this through a campaign which intends to galvanize and empower women, to
establish strong fundraising and lobbying groups and increase their participation in
parliamentary and municipal elections. This initiative has led the Ministry of Social
Solidarity to grant permission for the Feminist Union to fundraise as of January 2014.
Egypt: Women Council Opposes Proposed Women Representation in Parliament
Civil Society in Bahrain
Bah ai s i il so iet has t aditio all
ee see as o e of the st o gest a d
active among those of the Gulf States. The establishment of the General Trade Union
in the 1950s resulted from attempts by young, nationalist-oriented activists to
halle ge the e ils of the status uo i the ou t . More recently, the General
Committee for Bahrain Trade Unions (GFBTU), founded in 2002, sought to
consolidate the labour movement to launch more effective actions to strengthen
o ke s
ights. Bah ai s thi k
i il so iet has thus
ea t sig ifi a t politi al
mobilization by diverse segments of the citizenry.
The relationship between Parliament and civil society in Algeria:
The political scene in Algeria and the concept of civil society in the country were
developed during the second half of the eighties of the last century. The political
power back and the national assembly then promoted civil society through the
official media outlets in order to expand its power base and help them to accomplish
the transition in and out of the economic and political crisis of the regime's unilateral
Civil society engagement with the Parliament- The Kingdom of Morocco
The Moroccan constitutional law or internal systems to the Houses of Parliament do
not regulate the relationship between civil society and the House of Representatives
or House of Councillors, except for the representation of trade unions in the second
chamber. However the civil society now plays a major role in parliamentary work
both in terms of legislation and representation through an increased engagement in
policy processes. This is notable witnessed through its increased contribution to
modify the family law, political participation of women, or by introducing
amendment to the Citizenship Law
Recommended readings:
1- The Global Parliamentary Report - The changing nature of parliamentary
2- The Evolving Relationship between Citizens and Parliaments in the Arab
Wo ld - Regional Seminar Report
3- Guideli es o Citize s E gage e t fo De elop e t Ma age e t a d
Public Governance