Following the exhilaration and subsequent disappointment of the Arab Spring, the North Africa, Middle East and Sahel region – which extends from Mali to Afghanistan – has become greatly destabilized by civil wars in Syria, Libya and Yemen, which are three of the most dangerous conflicts in the world. Diplomatic interventions by Russia, the United States, the European Union, the United Nations, the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) and the Arab League and others in all three conflicts have not been able to secure a breakthrough in peace talks. In Syria, the peace process remains fragile and lacks the legitimacy needed to lead to a sustainable peace agreement, while mostly concentrating on humanitarian access, and faces perceptions of lack of credibility amongst all stakeholders. In Libya and Yemen, fragmented and non-inclusive political processes are taking place, and some of the main parties to the two conflicts are not seriously engaged in them. While these peace processes stall, the socio-economic and humanitarian consequences are worsening, and international and regional tensions are also growing.
Unlike other parts of the world, in the Middle East and North Africa, regional and sub-regional organizations (OIC, Arab League, GCC and the Maghreb Arab Union) have not played, in recent years, any meaningful role in conflict mediation in their region, and as a result they became largely side-lined and irrelevant. The Arab League is effectively paralyzed and in disarray, a situation that reflects the disunity and continuing bickering among its members. The GCC, which until recently had the potential to evolve as an effective sub-regional organization, is now divided and unable to play a mediation role as some of its members are themselves becoming parties to armed conflicts in countries such as Yemen and Libya. The Arab Maghreb Union is dysfunctional and only exists by name. Two of its members, Morocco and Algeria, have been locked for decades in a bitter dispute, and their borders have been closed for the last 26 years. As a result, all mediation efforts in North Africa have been largely led and managed by international and western actors with a high turnover of diplomats who often have limited knowledge of the region.
In contrast, the most successful and promising transition that emerged from the Arab Spring is in Tunisia, a country where four local civil society organizations won the Nobel Peace Prize for their successful mediation efforts that helped advance the peaceful democratic transition. They accomplished this without any foreign intervention or UN involvement.
Notably absent from all foreign-led conflict mediation throughout North Africa and the Middle East are the people of the region who are most affected by these interventions and who will live with the long-term consequences. It should be noted that countries in the MENA region are proud to have produced a wealth of experts, thinkers, diplomats, academics, and senior political leaders who are often well recognized internationally but nevertheless are rarely given the opportunity to contribute to foreign-led mediation in their own region.
Most regions in the world have well-established regional think tanks conducting research on peace processes and conflict prevention and mediation, and while there are a number of independent and credible policy-oriented research institutes in North Africa and the Middle East, to our knowledge, none specifically specializes in mediation and conflict resolution. While diplomatic efforts continue to face complex challenges relating to access, impartiality and influence, there is little policy research or analysis in the region on how to systematically engage with the most contentious or fractured warring factions, without whom mediation processes often fail. In addition, despite the intensity of these conflicts and their devastating consequences on millions of people, there have been hardly any efforts to promote Track Two efforts from within the region.