The Open Society Strategy: Breaking into the Arab World

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This is an article written by Guest Contributor and Political Analyst Julia Kassem. It was originally published in Al Akhbar.

A leaked document from the Open Society Foundations Arab Regional Office in Amman, Jordan details the foundation’s blueprint strategy for the Arab world in the aftermath of the Arab spring. The document covers a time frame from 2014 to 2017. The document was revealed on DC Leaks in 2016, and discloses the OSF’s plans for organizational activity in the Arab World. That election cycle, George Soros also made a $25 million dollar donation to the former Secretary of State’s campaign.

A commonly regarded theme the report discussed was the “fragmentation” of existing Arab civil society organizations.

A commonly regarded theme the report discussed was the “fragmentation” of existing Arab civil society organizations. The 2014-2017 ARO strategy discloses its focus on confronting the “biggest challenge the region faces”, identified as ‘the possibility of a transition to chaos or renewed authoritarianism.’

The ARO was enabled by the start of the Arab Spring, described as a “watershed” moment for the regional office. In the report, the office immediately “increased the size of individual grants and its overall grants volume” through a strategy that “created an alliance of leading local and regional organizations to re-grant funds and provide technical support to emerging groups and initiatives.” It describes itself as having expanded its “footprint” in the region during this time, opening up an office in Tunisia, the first country to oust its president during the protests.

The OSF included among its targets the League of Arab States (LAS) also known as the Arab League.

The OSF included among its targets the League of Arab States (LAS) also known as the Arab League. The report calls the LAS “the most dysfunctional and ineffective regional organizations in the Arab world” and mentions the ARO’s 2011 call for “direct engagement as convener of civil society organizations” around the LAS’s reform. By integrating the civil society organizations it supports under the ARO banner regionally, the OSF’s attempts at consolidating its influence is not isolated to a country but regional level.

It details how the OSF “responded quickly and discreetly” to the uprisings, building up the “prospects for democratic transition” through the Arab Transitions Fund (ATF), launched on cue in 2011 in response to the wave of protests that took off that year.

The report outlines the regional priorities for the Open Society Foundation post-Arab spring, aiming to directly build off the governance gap that befell the region in the outcome of the US-backed Arab Spring. It details how the OSF “responded quickly and discreetly” to the uprisings, building up the “prospects for democratic transition” through the Arab Transitions Fund (ATF), launched on cue in 2011 in response to the wave of protests that took off that year.

The strategy divides the Arab world into three categories of focus for the OSF, the first being “non transitional” countries. This category, which includes Lebanon, Jordan, Morocco, and “possibly” Algeria, consists of countries “yet to experience transformative political change” with the caveat of “civil society [...] using available space to press open society demands.”

Syria, Yemen and Palestine are categorized as “Revolutionary” or “conflict” set societies and Arab-Spring stricken Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt are categorized as “transitional:” countries where the regimes have been toppled but where advancement of open society is subject to new “challenges and old threats.”

Next, the report explicitly plans interventions in Syria and Palestine

With the goal of “ensuring transitions to free and open societies” consistent, the OSF planned first to build an “independent policy community” in the transitional countries of Egypt and Tunisia. Next, the report explicitly plans interventions in Syria and Palestine in creating a “regional humanitarian network focused on human rights.”

Despite its claims to fight authoritarianism, no Arab Gulf countries were named in the report, as the focus remained exclusively on the aforementioned nations.

Despite its claims to fight authoritarianism, no Arab Gulf countries were named in the report, as the focus remained exclusively on the aforementioned nations.

The use of developing large cultural foundations and organizations is recognized as a key focal point for NGOs in a holistic “transitioning” envisioned by OSF that begins with the restructuring of the legal, media and cultural frameworks, institutions and infrastructure. The four main target areas in the “youth activism,” “women,” “rights,” “media” and “arts,” were all noted as “fields of engagement” where the regional office could develop the social platforms to extend its influence.

In its post-2014 strategy, the Office disclosed that it would “continue to focus primarily on the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture (AFAC)” making multiple mentions of the Beirut based regional arts grantmaker. AFAC was identified as a “regional exemplar” type of organization that was of the “strongest partner” for the ARO for being among ARO’s key “influential groups with reach and reputation.” Along with the Arab Institute for Human Rights, Centre for Arab Women for Training and Research, and Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, the foundation disclosed that its interest in AFAC was due to its promotion of “open society values…a strong regional presence, enjoy[ment] of good institutional capacity, and..regional convening power.”

All the focus areas emphasized in the report were oriented around the regime “transitioning” through the nexus of policy and upending the constitutional and legal structures of the Arab states.

Legal organizations were identified as important partners for developing “strategic litigation, use of the media, and campaigning” while “monitoring” for objectives of attaining “transitional justice.” Of these key organizations included the Beirut-based Legal Agenda and PILNet (Public Interest Law Initiative in Transitional Societies) incubated at the University of Columbia in New York then established in Budapest, Hungary for work in the post-Soviet bloc in 2002. All the focus areas emphasized in the report were oriented around the regime “transitioning” through the nexus of policy and upending the constitutional and legal structures of the Arab states.

The US foundation, through outfit projects such as the Transition in Policymaking Project (TiPP) sought to auto organize any alternatives to the post-Arab Spring chaos that ensued in Libya, Syria, and Egypt. The OSF hailed the course of events: “For the first time in living memory, citizens in Arab countries can have a meaningful say in public policies and legal reforms underway in countries such as Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.”

By propping up OSF backed civil society organizations to supplant the demolished policy framework, the US-intelligence backed foundation blatantly disclosed its intentions in using such organizations as a direct front of intelligence operations.

By propping up OSF backed civil society organizations to supplant the demolished policy framework, the US-intelligence backed foundation blatantly disclosed its intentions in using such organizations as a direct front of intelligence operations. According to the report, the TiPP would aim to make “us the most knowledgeable actors when it comes to policy production processes and dynamics in target countries.”

Media

In order to ensure the success of soft war regime change, the media is a critical component of manufacturing consensus for the cannibalization of the Arab state.

Media was identified as one of the four main categorical focus areas which had a particular focus for OSF’s policymaking and transition initiatives. Media was to serve as a watchdog tool and opinion shaper, with special focus given to seeding these “independent broadcasters” in “postrevolutionary” Libya and Syria.

Regional networks such as Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism or the Lebanon-based Maharat foundation, established in 2005 and 2006 respectively, were identified as among main platforms for reshaping the post-conflict media scene respectively in reshaping a regional narrative aligned with Western “democracy” promoting objectives.

The report notes the problematic of regional media as “largely controlled by states or government interests” which represent a barrier to “the success of democratic transition.” In order to ensure the success of soft war regime change, the media is a critical component of manufacturing consensus for the cannibalization of the Arab state.

The main partners to OSF on the media front have been the Ford Foundation. It also jointly partners with European Union foundations, such as the European Endowment for Democracy, created in 2013 as an “independent” counterpart to OSF’s media financing activity. This partnership between EU-funded “independent” foundation fronts and OSF, itself a front for American foreign policy interests, would make itself manifest in the establishment of Daraj Media in 2017 and the continued financing of Legal Agenda.