Canadians in the thick of Arab world’s democracy struggle
The Canadian Press
By Jennifer Ditchburn

OTTAWA – The Canadian government might be wringing its hands from the sidelines of the roiling Arab world, but individual Canadians are playing a central role in promoting democracy in the region.

One of the best-known names in supporting political and civil society groups is Leslie Campbell, the Middle East and North Africa director for the Washington-based National Democratic Institute.

Campbell was former chief of staff to federal NDP leader Audrey McLaughlin before embarking on his career with the institute 17 years ago.

He spoke to The Canadian Press from Yemen, having just come from Egypt and before a scheduled stop in Bahrain — three of the world’s hot spots. The institute even has a presence in Libya, where it has been trying to promote democracy.

Yemen’s news agency quoted embattled President Ali Abdullah Saleh this week praising the institute’s role in promoting democracy, following a face-to-face meeting with Campbell. Campbell was to meet with the leader of Bahrain’s largest opposition movement Thursday.

“In the Middle East, as you’ve seen with these transitions, it’s a struggle for dignity and freedom and democracy and accountability, and it’s not academic,” said Campbell, whose staff ventured daily into Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

“It’s a really hands-on thing. … You have to get your hands dirty. It’s not something done from afar.”
In Yemen, Campbell said his staff had worked to train political parties and helped encourage the creation of a coalition of opposition politicians now negotiating with the president.

In Egypt, staff helped train election monitors. In Bahrain, the institute helped the biggest opposition body to grow.

“How is it that we can go meet with the largest Shia leader in Bahrain? Well, it’s because we have programs with them. It’s simple, we have a long-standing relationship by providing training,” said Campbell.

“What’s important is that it’s a non-governmental relationship — it’s not about diplomats, it’s not about foreign policy, it’s about colleagues.”

Campbell says he longs for the day Canada might establish its own centre for democracy support, so he and others could work under the Canadian flag. He sat on an advisory panel in 2009 to study a Conservative proposal to create such a centre, but the idea was rejected by cabinet about six months ago.

A Conservative source said the idea is still alive within government, but was sent back by cabinet for more work. The Tory also said that some felt that the climate was not right for establishing the centre in the context of the political battle being waged over the state of arm’s-length body Rights and Democracy, and with the substantial costs that would be incurred by such an initiative.

“The fact that Canada doesn’t have a democracy and governance program, and the fact that there’s really no Canadian footprint that I can see in the Middle East, means that if Canada wants to play a role in the debate about the direction that these transitions take in the Middle East right now it’s doing so from a huge disadvantage,” said Campbell.

Another Canadian, Peter Van Praagh, was scheduled to land in Cairo this week to begin work with opposition politicians there on behalf of the National Democratic Institute.The institute had flown in Chilean legislators who had worked in the years following the departure of dictator Augusto Pinochet.

Van Praagh was a former senior policy adviser to Conservative cabinet minister Peter MacKay, and served as deputy vice-president of the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He currently works for the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

The International Republican Institute, also based in Washington, does similar work in the region. Jamie Tronnes, a former Conservative staffer on Parliament Hill, is deputy director of the Africa division. She has worked in Pakistan, Morocco and Beirut.

She crossed paths in Morocco with former Canadian Alliance aide Eric Duhaime and Gerard Latulippe, formerly with the National Democratic Institute and now with Canada’s troubled Rights and Democracy organization.

In Beirut, she helped train some politicians in communications before a round of municipal elections.
She said Canada helps the work of organizations like hers through general funding envelopes distributed through the Canadian International Development Agency. Tronnes says the Conservative government’s strong policy stance on human rights in certain countries resonates within burgeoning democracy movements.

Tronnes also supports the idea of a Canadian centre for democracy promotion.

“I love my job every day. I wake up every day and I have a purpose, and I love that. I meet people every day and I tell them that I have one of the best jobs in the world,” said Tronnes.

“I think there would be a strong call to Canadians who are like me, a little bit excited about this type of work, and who have political skills.”

Other Canadians working in the field include Craig Jenness, director of the United Nations’ Electoral Assistance Division. Jean-Pierre Kingsley, once Canada’s chief electoral officer, retired in 2009 from the helm of the International Foundation for Electoral Systems.

Canada has diplomats posted around the Arab region monitoring events, but some critics have said the Conservative government has handcuffed them by micro-managing their work and shaving their budgets.

Liberal foreign affairs critic Bob Rae raised eyebrows Thursday when, in response to a question about the Conservative government’s commitment to democracy promotion, he referred to “25-year-old Jihadis” working the Prime Minister’s Office.

“The people in the Prime Minister’s Office have probably never been to the country in question, they don’t know anything about it, probably in some cases couldn’t find it on a map and they’re the ones who are deciding whether these (diplomats) who’ve been in the field for 30 years are going to in fact be able to do their jobs,” Rae said.

“That is what I call a pathology. That’s a disease, this excess of control.”

Rae highlighted the efforts of Brian Mulroney’s former Conservative government in helping South Africa draft its post-apartheid constitution and help its new legislators.

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