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Challenges to Civil Society in the Arab World

By Ronald Meinardus *

It is a widely held perception that political development in the Arab world has come to a standstill as governments in power are ostensibly not prepared to open up the process to democratic participation. We have become accustomed to elections in which the results are known well before the casting of the ballots by citizens who in their great majority have lost confidence in the exercise of voting.

Still, it is a misperception that no political dynamics is at work at all. It is useful to view domestic politics in the Arab world in a historical perspective. Seen through this prism, one may discern two major societal developments in the past ten to twenty years with an epochal effect on the political sphere: The first such development has been the destruction of the media monopoly of the ruling regimes. This process started with the appearance of satellite television which effectively eliminated the control of the national governments over information and opinion, a process that continued with the emergence of the Internet and modern Social Media, which potentially give every citizen the power to produce his or her own mass media. The result of all this: Today, there is a pluralism of published opinion with a novel quality of – uncensored - political debate in the Arab world.

The emergence of civil society is the second epochal development. While no consensus exists regarding the definition of civil society, there is wide agreement among scholars and observers (and activists) that civil society is made up of groups of citizens and organizations independent of government that take up an intermediary role between the private sphere and the state. Importantly, these civil society organizations (or non governmental organizations) pursue a public cause. Also, there is general agreement that civil society entails a normative – in the sense of value-based – component. At a recent international conference in Potsdam, Germany, civil society leaders from the Arab world and Europe agreed that tolerance, plurality and liberty are values that define civil society today.

This normative fixation leads to an important discussion which is particularly relevant in the Arab world: How to deal with such non-governmental organizations not supportive of the stated liberal values? Arab participants at the Potsdam meeting observed that this is the case with numerous religiously inspired and motivated groups in this part of the world.

Often liberally oriented civil society groups find themselves sandwiched between authoritarian governments and radical Islamist groups, whose democratic credentials are not clearly established: “The Islamists need to clarify their position regarding human rights, democracy and pluralism, before we could recognize them as joint civil society partners”, says Dr. Azmi Shuaibi, a former minister from Palestine and now a senior member of a non governmental organization in Ramallah.

In many Arab countries non governmental organizations have assumed an important role in their respective societies. With governments not capable of providing important services in such areas as health, housing, education or job-creation, NGOs have moved in to fill the gap: veritable parallel systems have been the result – one system of social services provided by the government sector and an alternative system organized and sponsored by non governmental actors. In both cases, political strings may be attached to the delivery of the services to the citizen. From the vantage point of the government this has lead to an erosion of state authority.

Apart from groups that focus on delivering social services there exist a large number of non governmental organizations with a clear political agenda such as the promotion of human rights or the protection of minorities. In some Arab states, these NGOs (or advocacy groups) have assumed a role similar to that played by political parties in developed democracies. Some have become spearheads in the struggle for democracy and human rights. It is not surprising that they are not popular with the rulers - and, indeed, the governments have not been sitting at their hands. Over the past years, they have undertaken various efforts to limit the elbowroom for non governmental organizations. Also in Egypt, the government is discussing legislation which civil society groups regard as potentially harmful for their freedom to operate.

The freedom of association is a basic human right enshrined in most constitutions. It is a essential political right as it constitutes the legal base for citizens to organize in groups with an aim to advance their causes and interests in the public sphere. In other words, freedom of association is the precondition for non-violent political participation and, thus, political reform.

Quite obviously Arab governments are aware of this strategic nexus and are turning the screws. “Until now we have seen no political will to reform the authoritarian approach to any exercise of the right to freedom of association or to other internationally guaranteed political rights”, says the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network in its annual report on freedom of association in the Euro-Mediterranean region.

This assessment is a predicament for the prospects of democratic reform in this part of the world. However, as the political, economic and social problems continue to grow so will the people affected by these problems continue to find ways and means to express their grievances and demand their rights. At this crossroads, governments are well advised to perceive civil society not as an enemy or threat but as a partner. In the end, Arab governments will have little choice but to reach out: Civil society has become too strong to be ignored.

* Dr. Ronald Meinardus is the Regional Director of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Liberty (FNF) in the Middle East and Northern Africa (MENA), Cairo. Back to top

Published in Daily News Egypt , June 21, 2010.
Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Liberty in Egypt :