Upbeat activists take stock of Arab Spring

Arab-speaking communities in Switzerland try to work closer together

Nearly two years after the start of the Arab Spring, revolutionary enthusiasm among Swiss-based activists has given way to careful reflection on how to best help build a democratic future amid the upheaval.

This content was published on December 13, 2012 - 11:00
Abdelhafidh Abdeleli,

Human rights and development campaigners agree it is extremely difficult to give clear assessments two years after the first uprising erupted in Tunisia.

But according to Rachid Moussali, founder and director of the Geneva-based non-governmental organisation Alkarama (Dignity), “compared with the past, fundamental freedoms are now largely respected, despite occasional violations in Egypt or Tunisia, for example.”

Khaled Saleh, a member of the Libyan National Council for Public Freedoms and Human Rights, concurred: “The situation has changed radically. There are greater freedoms. Laws banning demonstrations or membership of political parties have been annulled. And the path is open for greater freedom of expression.”

But cementing these new freedoms and establishing proper rule of law are huge challenges, especially in countries where the security services were for many years in the hands of “tyrannical regimes”, Mousalli told

Swiss-based activists remain upbeat. They welcome the fact that states have by and large managed to stick to political roadmaps. In general countries have moved from revolutionary to political legitimacy, although certain ambiguous situations remain, they say.

Obviously these new projects have many positive aspects, but they may contain “imperfections”, like the proposed Egyptian constitution, which does not take into account the United Nations Convention against Torture, cautioned Moussali.

Like other Swiss-based organisations, Alkarama has not simply watched dramatic events unfold from afar. The NGO has also been busy providing support, advising governmental and parliamentary institutions in Egypt.

But Swiss NGOs have not always had a smooth ride with this more active role.

“We were often witness to clashes between two very distinct sides: those defending freedom of thought and conscience and those who are motivated by revenge,” explained Safwa Issa, an activist for Vérité et Action (Truth and Action), a Tunisian human rights NGO based in Lausanne.


The Arabic-speaking community in Switzerland has launched a number of initiatives aimed at easing these tensions and seeking conciliation between groups.

“Before the revolution the efforts of the different Arabic-speaking communities were scattered. Today these same groups try to work closer together,” said Mohamed El-Jribi, president of the Tunisian Community in Switzerland (CTS).

Anxious to rebuild ties within the Tunisian community, the association organizes university seminars to explain to expatriates what is happening in their country. These have included presentations by visiting Tunisian parliamentarians to discuss the new constitution.

One recurring problem the CTS has repeatedly come up against is the question of illegal Tunisian immigrants who have come to seek a better future in Switzerland. Together with the Green Party and the canton Vaud authorities, the association has set up a project to offer migrants training and, if necessary, financial support to encourage them return to Tunisia.

In 2011 the Libyan community in Switzerland launched a totally different kind of initiative: a press agency based at Olten, between Zurich and Basel. This relied on Swiss-based correspondents, who helped inform Libyans about events in their own country.

“Our work was mainly about explaining the change in direction caused by the revolution and the democratic transitional process,” said the agency’s director Saleh Al-Majdoub.

As a result of the improved situation in Libya, the agency has transferred its activities to the north African state, where it spreads its messages via radio and TV broadcasts.

More NGOs

Poverty and social problems resulting from the revolts have led to more solidarity, which is today visible in the size and number of fundraising and aid projects in the region.

Recently there has been a growth in the number of Swiss-based charities and development NGOs working in North Africa and the Middle East.

These include Swiss-Egyptian Alternative Medicine Aid (SEAMA) based in Zurich, and Swiss-Tunisian Cooperation for Sustainable Development (CSTDD), which covers French-speaking Switzerland and aims to help the neediest in Tunisia.

The Paris-based Union of Syrian Medical Relief Organizations also has representatives in Switzerland, who help send medicine, medical material and other emergency aid to the war-torn country.

Arab Spring

At the beginning of 2011, Switzerland responded to political upheavals in North Africa by setting up a special support programme.

The Federal Migration Office, the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (Seco) and the foreign ministry are involved in the programme focusing on three key areas: easing the transition to democracy and improving the human rights situation; promoting economic growth and job creation and addressing migration issues and protecting particularly vulnerable persons.

An annual budget of around SFr57 million ($61 million) was set aside for this programme: around SFr4 million for democratic transition; around SFr47 million for economic development; and around SFr6 million for migration and protection.

Source: Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC)

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On November 30 the Swiss government submitted a request to parliament for SFr5 million to increase the funds available for humanitarian aid for the people of Syria. This still needs parliamentary approval.

The funding is destined for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) (SFr2 million),  the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, in Syria (SFr1 million), SFr1 million for UNHCR efforts in neighbouring countries (Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq) and an additional SFr1 million for the UN Children’s Fund, Unicef.

This additional funding would take total Swiss aid for the people of Syria to SFr19 million.

Switzerland is also considering the possibility of organising an international humanitarian aid conference on Syria at the beginning of 2013 in Geneva.

Source: Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC)

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