Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Arab Civil Society after the Arab Spring: Weaker but Deeper

Arab Civil Society after the Arab Spring: Weaker but Deeper

Middle East Institute

In the Middle East, academic trends often mirror the ebb-and-flow of regional politics. During the 1990s, many researchers took inspiration from the burgeoning Western scholarship on civil society, which saw voluntary associations and social capital as the hallmarks of healthy democracy. Drawing upon such work, Arab specialists generated exciting studies that dissected civil society―defined as the organizational sector of public life distinctive from the family, market, and state―in various Arab countries, such as Islamist charities, service providers, trade unions, student committees, and human rights NGOs.[1] It was not controversial to suggest that such civil society organizations could be the vanguard of a new democratic revolution in the Middle East, at a time when communism had not only suffered a millennial defeat but public intellectuals everywhere were calling for a return to social voluntarism and civic values.  Supporting civil society organizations also made its way into Western foreign policy, and soon giving significant foreign aid to (secular) social groups became a normalized part of the overall strategy of promoting gradual democratic change.

By the mid-2000s, though, the chiliastic moment had dissipated. As democratic transitions failed to materialize in the Arab world, regional observers lost faith in civil society. They saw how many autocratic governments employed a potent new mix of co-optation and coercion to stymie the many voluntary associations and NGOs that rallied for democratic reforms. [2] Thus until the Arab Spring, topics like political repression, electoral manipulation, and institutional survival were far more common than the study of civil society among social scientists in the Middle East.  The Arab Spring reset the cycle. As popular insurrections toppled long-serving autocrats in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen and unprecedented mass mobilization shook the streets of many other countries, observers of the Middle East have once again swung from the state back to society as the arbiter of change. New studies trumpeting the democratic potential of civil society have appeared, using language more guarded than their predecessors but brimming with no less optimism regarding the ability of civic organizations to imprint liberal change.[3]

Such theoretical oscillations between state and society say more about the proclivities of academic trendsetting than empirical realities on the ground. In reality, when conventionally defined as the formal organizational sector, civil society played just a minor role in these historic uprisings. True, trade unions participated in the the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, NGOs rushed to stabilize new governments in Libya and Yemen, and the streets of Morocco and Jordan did feature protests from Islamists, parties, and syndicates. Yet as hundreds of books now attest, the driving force behind the Arab Spring did not come from the usual revolutionary suspects.[4]  Neither leftists nor Islamists, neither Western-funded organizations nor human rights NGOs, and neither intellectual elites nor opposition parties sparked these national insurrections. The trigger instead came from the realm of informality―from everyday citizens who, linked by technology and united by common norms, managed to challenge their dictatorial status quo to a degree that civil society organizations had seldom alone achieved. 

Continue reading…