Transformative Justice: A research bulletin – February 2015

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The Arab world was shaken in 2011 by a series of popular movements, collectively known as the ‘Arab spring(s)’, which have challenged long established authoritarian regimes. What will be the medium and long term impacts of these uprisings? Who is driving (and contesting) change, and what kind of change is being sought? This study addresses these issues in the context of the contested transitions in Tunisia and Egypt. It is based on the following premise: for these uprisings to deliver on their potential will require transformative change that emphasises local agency and resources, the prioritization of process rather than pre-conceived outcomes, and the challenging of unequal power relationships and structures of exclusion. Such change is here named transformative justice.

The study’s aim is to analyse the agendas of those driving and contesting change using an actor-oriented perspective. The project seeks to understand agendas for change, how these resonate with the transitional justice process (where there is one), and what other routes may exist to transformation. In particular it seeks to work with those most in need of transformation, the most marginalised and disempowered. Since the project began, the concept of transformative justice has been better elaborated, through a recently published paper.[1] This defines transformative justice (TfJ) in contrast to transitional justice (see box):

Transitional Justice   Transformative Justice
Predominantly legal approaches Multi-disciplinary and multi-sectoral approaches; predominantly social and political in emphasis
Grounded in international law, rights and norms Empirically and evidentially driven, grounded in context; some normative reference points e.g. PANEL principles
Prioritises civil and political rights Considers rights indivisible and interdependent, gives equal consideration to social and economic rights
Addresses acts of political violence against individuals Focuses on collective experiences of structural and systemic violence
Change driven by state-centric institutional mechanisms Change driven by multi-level processes, but emphasising processes created in communities at the local level
Defined and driven by their outputs: e.g. trial verdicts, truth commission reports Defined and driven by processes and process-outcome links
Victims and citizens participate as witnesses or spectators in eventsJustice and human rights understood in the terms outlined above e.g. legal, outcome driven, focusing on C-P rights Participatory approaches are more inclusive and sustained e.g. defining victimhood broadly and informing all elements of interventions, from initiation to evaluationJustice and human rights understood in the terms outlined above e.g. local, process led, C-P and E-S rights

The paper also seeks to develop broader definitions of transformative justice in political transition in terms of approaches that drive it and the tools that can produce transformation.

The research project, funded by the ESRC, is a qualitative study. It will collect a large interview data set (over 700 interviews) complemented by focus groups and basic quantitative analysis. The research will look at changing attitudes over time (conducting two sets of interviews, one year apart) and document a range of voices and perspectives. A second phase hopes to engage with victims and citizens more closely, and support them through action research modalities to better articulate their perspectives and to engage better with the authorities. An international Advisory Board is providing strategic direction to the project and members have participated in the researcher training. The research represents a partnership between a White Rose (Universities of Leeds, Sheffield, York) and Worldwide Universities Network (WUN) research collaboration on transformative justice on the one hand, and the American University in Cairo (AUC) on the other.

Since the research proposal was prepared, there have been dramatic political changes in Egypt that have seen the first democratically elected President toppled, to be replaced by a regime close to the military that has seen transitional halted and reversed. Project partners in Egypt, among them some of the nation’s most active rights activists, have seen the space for human rights work of all sorts narrow, as the authorities have launched an assault on all opposition. As a result, the TfJ project has had to reorient its focus, and in Egypt in looking at how transformation can occur even in the absence of political transition. This has led to a series of projects that interrogate space where there remains possibility for imagining change, despite the current situation. These projects are summarised below.

In Tunisia, in contrast, the promise of the revolution remains uniquely alive in the region. Early in 2015, after 6 months of internal preparatory work the Instance de la Vérité et Dignité (IVD, Commission for Truth and Dignity) began working. It holds the promise not only of delivering on what a truth commission traditionally promises, but through its identification of collective victims of systematic marginalisation,[2] promises a lens on transformative possibilities. In Tunisia the project will not only understand needs for transformation, but the potential of transitional justice mechanisms to deliver on them.

The research project began in January 2014 and will run until the end of 2016. 2014 saw the successful initiation of projects in both Egypt and Tunisia.

Research projects

In Egypt training was held in September 2014 with a range of partners to share the goals of the project and to increase capacities is qualitative research. The output of this was a set of concrete projects, within the highly constrained environment in Egypt, led by partners with years of experience in their areas of expertise and in particular geographical contexts.


In Tunisia, projects were finalised and training conducted early in 2015, with a set of projects that sought to both complement those in Egypt as well as be relevant for an environment where mechanisms such as the IVD are unfolding.

Research projects are summarised below, divided into themes that cut across both contexts:

Contested engagement with the state and its institutions

Egypt: Self-governance and secession from Governorates in Egypt In Dakahlia governorate in the Nile delta, a small rural town has recently sought to secede from the governorate – and be ruled directly by the President – as a response to the lack of provision of services. Having poor access to water, sewage and healthcare it is dependent upon effective access to the next community and has been demanding a road be built to facilitate this. The community has stopped paying taxes, refused access to local officials and begun strike action. More recently 6 other towns in the governorate have joined its protest. This seems to represent people becoming agents in claiming their social and economic rights, and finding novel repertoires of action – stimulated by the experience of the revolution – to do so.

Egypt: Urban community participation and mobilization in Ezzbet El Hagana In Cairo, a very large number of the city’s population live in informal settlements that are largely ignored by governance structures, other than when they are seen as a security threat. As a result they are denied services of any sort and have become an alternative space providing their own police, schooling, and garbage services, among others, beyond the state system. These represent necessary challenges to the state and give rise to a contestation of governance.


Tunisia: Group reparations in a developmental context: a case study of Gafsa The mandate of the IVD defines collective victimhood and holds the promise of collective reparations for those who have suffered systematic marginalisation. In Gafsa, where Tunisia’s phosphate is mined, citizens have suffered from both the impact of mining and a lack of service delivery as a result of marginalisation. This project will seek to understand how collective victims define themselves and what approaches to group reparations could look like.

Tunisia: Indirect victimhood and transitional justice process A victims’ group in Tunisia will work with the wives of ex-political detainees to understand their needs of the transitional justice process and follow their engagement with the IVD and other mechanisms in a longitudinal way. The project will seek to understand how such victims, suffering from the impacts of chronic social and economic challenges as well as the imprisonment of their husbands, seek to rebuild their relationship with the state.


Rural agendas for change

Egypt: Understanding agendas and strategies for change of the poor and marginalised in Upper Egypt A group of NGOs with long experience in Upper Egypt are working with women in rural areas to understand the challenges they face in light of the political changes that followed the revolution, and how positive change in their lives can be driven.

Egypt: The impact of corruption on local perceptions of change and transformation in Upper Egypt The revolution in Egypt had been preceded by years of urban and rural protest, over labour conditions, land issues and corruption. This project investigates attitudes to and participation in protests against corruption in Upper Egypt, asking why some peasants and labourers took part and others didn’t, understanding grievances and agendas for change, and potential for future mobilisation, as well as the difference in activity between workers and peasants.

Tunisia: The intergenerational transmission of marginalisation of rural women and potential for mobilisation and change Chronic social, economic and political marginalisation characterises the lives of women in some rural areas of Tunisia. This study seeks to understand how such victimisation impacts women across generations and what potential for change exist in their lives. It will also seek to understand the relevance – if any – of the ongoing transitional justice process and the broader political transition, for such women.

Activism and political transition

Egypt: Activism in political transition: survival strategies of NGOs in Egypt Human rights activist in Egypt have been targeted by a state that is unafraid to use violence and draconian laws to silence them. And yet activism continues. This project will work with activists in and beyond Cairo to understand how NGOs and CBOs working on different agendas of human rights, social rights and development agendas operate within the legal and logistical constraints in contemporary Egypt.

Tunisia: Activism in political transition: strategies in a time of plenty In Tunisia, an influx of international resources, human, material and intellectual, have fuelled human rights work, with an emphasis on transitional justice issues. This project will ask how activists manage the transition from working in a narrow political space to one where there is greater political space and support is plentiful, but it often comes with international agendas attached. How have Tunisian activists maintained their own perspectives in such circumstances? What have they gained and what have they lost as a result of the changes? How do they engage with the new, democratically elected government (critique, collaborate, etc.)?

Tunisia: Minority rights after revolution: Building a movement of transformation for social change Some groups did not have a high profile during the revolution and are neglected by processes to reverse long histories of rights violations. Among include migrants, ‘stuck’ in Tunisia between homes in sub-Saharan Africa and Europe. The wide ranging rights movement that has emerged following the revolution has yet to embrace such groups; this study ask what has changed in terms of activism around such issues, and what is required to ensure mobilisation that drive transformative change?

Egypt: Social media as a space for change Given the limits on activism and discussion of political change in public spaces, this project seeks to understand how the online space remains one that can permit the development of transformative consciousness. How have the vision, expectations and practices of youth using social media changed after January 2011? How does social media use relate to other forms of activism and to advancing a range of visions of citizenship?

The economics of transition

Egypt: Analysing the impact of the subsidies’ cut on the prosperity of citizens in rural and urban Egypt Attacks on the long-term subsidy policy have been a feature of neo-liberal reform in Egypt, and this appears to be unchanged by the revolution. This project seeks to understand the impact of subsidy reduction on Egyptians, using selected rural and urban contexts with a focus on Menofeya governorate, one of the poorest in Egypt. The research will be used as a basis to recommend alternative approaches to subsidy reform that address their iniquity in a way that benefits the poorest.

Tunisia: Transformative Justice in the Natural Resource sector in Tunisia: Transformation at the policy level and its impact on local communities in Tataouine Whilst there is evidence of change emerging in approaches to natural resource policy in Tunisia, it is unclear if and how this will impact communities in areas where such resources are exploited. This study will work with one such community to understand their demands of future policy on natural resources and how these demands could translate into broad policy approaches.

Status of the research

In Egypt the first phase of data collection is coming to a conclusion. Most of the data from the initial qualitative element of the seven projects has been collected and much of it has already been transcribed for analysis. Data analysis will begin in the next months, support both by international researchers and those collecting data in Egypt. This will be followed by a meeting in Cairo in June such that analysis progress can be shared and the second phase of the research collectively planned.

It is expected that the first outputs of the Egyptian projects, in terms of policy briefings, will be available in the autumn of 2015. Academic outputs will follow.

In Tunisia, research has recently begun and data taking is likely to be complete in summer 2015. A similar approach to analysis will be taken, with responsibilities divided amongst collaborators, with the aim of seeing initial outputs by the end of the year.

[1] Paul Gready and Simon Robins, From Transitional to Transformative Justice: A New Agenda for Practice, International Journal of Transitional Justice, (2014) 8 (3): 339-361.

[2] Tunisia: The legal definition of collective victimhood and transformative reparations,


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