A Flawed Nexus?: Civil Society and Democratization in the Middle East and North Africa
"Tamarod" Movement Activist - Tahrir Square, Cairo

The MENA and Southeast Asia regions have undergone and continue to undergo massive political transitions.  Differences in the process and outcomes of their transitions can be viewed through the lens of a “civil society infrastructure” and the qualitative differences in both these regions. This essay series engages a variety of issues regarding the roles and impact of civil society organizations (CSOs) in these two regions during the transition and pre-transition periods as well as in instances where the political transition is completed. Read more ...


Following the end of the Cold War, a great deal of attention focused on the concept of civil society and its potential to contribute to the process of democratization in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Civil society—generally understood as the zone of voluntary associative life beyond family and clan affiliations but separate from the state and the market[1]—has become the subject of a substantial academic literature, as well as one of the focal points of policy-making for international actors. In particular, the belief that civil society plays a crucial role in the process of democratization became widespread. This was grounded in three factors. First, there was an assumption that civil society activism was conducive to democratization where authoritarianism existed, and to the maintenance of democracy where democracy already exists. Second, the experiences of Latin America and Eastern Europe in the 1980s and early 1990s seemed to demonstrate that the first assumption was well-founded. Much of the analysis of political transformation in both regions focused on the purported role of civil society in promoting and effecting democratic political change. In this perspective, civic movements, intellectuals, trade unions, student groups and a host of other voluntary associations came together to press their demands on narrowly based authoritarian regimes with considerable success. Finally, the dramatic increase in the number of civil society organizations in the MENA region in the post-Cold War setting, and the range of activities in which they were involved, led many to see these developments as necessary precursors of democratic political change in the region.[2]

The positive understanding of the potential role of civil society as agent of democratization in the MENA region filtered into policy-making.

The positive understanding of the potential role of civil society as agent of democratization in the MENA region filtered into policy-making. The 1995 Euro-Med Partnership initiative of the EU, which had the objective of achieving security in the Mediterranean through political engagement with Arab regimes, prioritized support for civil society activism. The attacks of September 11, 2001 prompted the EU and the US to place even greater priority on the need to promote democratization in the Arab world. The specific objective of the 2006 European Instrument for Democratisation and Human Rights (EIDHR) was “to strengthen the role of civil society in the promotion of human rights, political pluralism and democratic participation and representation.” In 2002, the United States established the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) with the promotion of civil society as one of its key objectives.

However, neither the increased prevalence of civil society organizations across the MENA (according to a recent report by the Arab Network for NGOs, there were in excess of 215,000 NGOs in existence by 2012[3]), nor enhanced support from external actors, had resulted in any tangible movement towards substantial democratic reform across the region in the first decade of the 21st century. The outbreak of the Arab uprisings in 2011 appeared, on first sight, to signal the re-entry of civil society into political life with compelling impact. However, closer analysis of the events of 2011 yields three conclusions. First, for the most part, established civil society organizations were not the drivers of the uprisings, whose initial stages were characterized by the emergence of new social movements that were leaderless, non-ideological and marked by the absence of conventional organizational structures. Secondly, with the exception of Tunisia, nowhere have the uprisings had a clearly democratic outcome. Thirdly, again with the exception of Tunisia, nowhere has civil society helped produce a democratic outcome. Indeed, in the case of Egypt, the Tamarod movement of 2013 had the opposite effect, calling in aid military intervention to overthrow a democratically elected, if deeply unpopular, president, with devastating effects on prospects for democracy in that country.

Despite this record, policymakers (although, increasingly, not academic commentators) continue to insist on the democratic potential of civil society in the MENA, and on the centrality of financial and other supports to civil society in order to promote democratic change. In the aftermath of the 2011 uprisings, the EU set out a new approach to the countries of the Mediterranean based on democratic transformation, economic growth and stronger partnership with the people with specific emphasis on support for civil society.[4] In a similar vein, US President Barrack Obama has spoken of support for civil society as a matter of national security and linked civil society to the broader struggle for universal rights, and accountable and effective government.[5] USAID’s Office for Middle East Programs (OMEP) characterizes civil society as part of the “demand” side of governance and a key partner in efforts “to strengthen transparency in decision-making, reduce public sector corruption, and more effectively manage national finances and natural resources such as water.”[6]

... evidence is lacking either for the pro-democratic orientation of civil society in the Arab world or its capacity to drive democratic reform.

The difficulty with all of this is that it rests on a flawed normatively laden conceptualization of civil society, which is refuted by the empirical evidence of how civil society is constituted and operates in the Arab world. As has been noted, at the theoretical level, the core assumption—building on a specific understanding of the recent political history of Latin America and Eastern Europe—is that civil society activism is positively correlated with democracy and democratization. However, a conceptualization of Arab civil society in liberal terms is destined to disappoint since liberal and democratic values have much shallower roots than would be required for successful challenge to authoritarian rule. Indeed, evidence is lacking either for the pro-democratic orientation of civil society in the Arab world or its capacity to drive democratic reform.

The limitations of a liberal understanding of civil society in relation to the MENA region has promoted the emergence of other approaches which better fit empirical reality. Some propose that civil society should better be understood in ‘neutral’ terms, in recognition that there is no straightforward relation between the ideology of civil society organizations and democracy—such movements are not, by definition, “good” for democracy and democratization.[7] This approach acknowledges the reality of a widespread Islamic civil society sector that may have little commitment, if any, to liberal norms, and equally little interest in the objective of democratic political change. It also recognizes that the tension between liberal and Islamic actors is one of the key characteristics of civil society in much of the Arab world—something that regimes have been happy to exploit in order to maintain their power. This is seen particularly clearly in the struggle for women’s rights in which liberal and secular groups have found it almost impossible to engage with Islamist organizations because of their conflicting visions of the role of women in society. The campaign to reform family law in Morocco in the early 2000s, for example, pitted the women’s rights movement against religious opposition to change. The resulting impasse was resolved by the intervention of the King to ensure the passage of reforms through parliament. In the process, the primacy of the monarchy was reaffirmed as was the divided nature of Moroccan civil society.[8] Regimes elsewhere have exploited the secular-religious divide in civil society. The overthrow of Mohammed Morsi by the Egyptian military in 2013 was actively sought by secular civil society activists.[9]

Divisions within civil society are easily manipulated by regimes to empty the sector of threat to the status quo. Thus the democratising potential of the sector is again diminished. This has led a number of scholars to suggest that the level of state penetration of the sector is such that civil society in much of the MENA region constitutes little more than a tool of incumbent regimes. The increase in civil society activism since the end of the Cold War may be seen as reflecting state-led processes of controlled political liberalization rather than the expression of autonomous associational activity on the part of citizens. Wiktorowicz has described the “web of bureaucratic practices and legal controls” which allows the Jordanian regime to monitor and regulate civil society such that it functions as an instrument of state control rather than an expression of collective empowerment.[10] This approach may overstate the extent to which civil society is little more than an an artificial creation of the state. However, its insights are borne out, at the very least, by the proliferation of organizations that are deeply penetrated by the state. Government-organized non-governmental organizations (GONGOs), royal non-governmental organizations (RONGOs), First Lady non-governmental organizations (FLANGOs) all constitute an important, sometimes effective, element of the sector across the MENA region. ‘First ladies,’ such as Suzanne Mubarak in Egypt, Leila Trabelsi in Tunisia as well as Queen Rania of Jordan, have each had close links with civil society organizations working in areas such as education, health and the rights of children.[11] But, any expectation that organizations so closely linked to incumbent regimes can operate as agents of democratic reform is likely to disappoint.

However, regulation and co-option of civil society are not the only tools available to regimes to neutralise any challenge from the sector.  Regimes routinely use emergency laws, harassment by security forces and arrests to isolate those who cross the line of “unacceptable” civic activity and to deter others from doing.[12] But the authoritarian context also determines the ways in which civil society organizations—whether secular or Islamist—interact with the state, as Jamal[13] points out. Regardless of their ethos, organizations require the cooperation of the state in order to carry out their work. Legislative restrictions regarding funding, permits to operate, and permissible areas of operation mean that in order to be effective civil society organizations must engage with the state. Not to do so would run the risk of closure by the authorities and render civic activism ineffective. But, in doing so, they must acquiesce in many of the practices that characterize authoritarian rule, further diminishing the capacity of civil society to challenge the status quo.

Understanding civil society in terms that empty the concept of normative content and acknowledging the multiple ways in which the authoritarian context works to limit the democratizing potential of Arab civil society tends towards some bleak conclusions regarding prospects for democratic political change in the MENA region. But, this is not to suggest that civil society has no role to play in bringing about that change. The uprisings of 2011 were characterized by the very limited role played by formally established and hierarchically structured organizations, and the protagonists of the uprisings were not to be found in mainstream civil society. But, as Challand[14] observes, there may be more to civil society than its organized form. Traditional understandings of political activism, focused on conventional notions and modes of engagement, missed the extent to which activism was taking place “under the radar” and in novel forms. As the events of 2011 revealed, new activists with no strong political or ideological affiliations, mobilizing along non-hierarchical lines in ad hoc structures, proved to be possessed of real effectiveness when regimes wavered in moments of crisis. Newly mobilized civil activism prompted dramatic political change across the MENA region. That this was not the unilinear progress towards democracy that observers hoped for, reveals once more the limits of seeing Arab civil society as outsiders would wish it to be, rather than as it is.


[1] Amy Hawthorne, “Middle Eastern Democracy: Is Civil Society the Answer?,” Carnegie Papers: Democracy and the Rule of Law Project, 44 (2004), pp. 1–26.

[2] Francesco Cavatorta and Vincent Durac, Civil Society and Democratization in the Arab World: the Dynamics of Activism (London: Routledge, 2010), pp. 8-9.

[3] Arab Network for NGOs (nd), “The role of Arab NGOs in promoting culture, arts and creativity,” http://www.shabakaegypt.org/ckfinder/userfiles/files/report12_eng.pdf.

[4] European Commission, “A Partnership for Democracy and Shared Prosperity with the Southern Mediterranean” (2011), eeas.europa.eu/euromed/docs/com2011_200_en.pdf.

[5] The White House, “Remarks by the President at Clinton Global Initiative” (2015), https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/09/23/remarks-president-clinton-global-initiative.

[6] USAID, “Democracy and Governance” (2015), https://www.usaid.gov/middle-east-regional/democracy-and-governance.

.[7] Amy Hawthorne, “Middle Eastern Democracy: Is Civil Society the Answer?,” Carnegie Papers: Democracy and the Rule of Law Project, 44 (2004), pp. 11; and Petr Kopecky and Cas Mudde, “Rethinking Civil Society,” Democratization, 10:3 (2003), p. 11.

[8] Francesco Cavatorta and Vincent Durac, Civil Society and Democratization in the Arab World: the Dynamics of Activism (London: Routledge, 2010), pp. 60-65.

[9] W.J. Dorman, “Egypt’s ‘civil society coup’ and the resilience of the post-1952 order,” Open Democracy (2013), https://www.opendemocracy.net/arab-awakening/wj-dorman/egypts-civil-society-coup-and-resilience-of-post-1952-order.

[10] Quintan Wiktorowicz, “Civil Society as Social Control: State Power in Jordan,” Comparative Politics, 33:1 (2000), p. 43.

[11] Vincent Durac and Francesco Cavatorta, Politics and Governance in the Middle East (London: Palgrave, 2015), pp. 174-176.

[12] Amy Hawthorne, “Middle Eastern Democracy: Is Civil Society the Answer?,” Carnegie Papers: Democracy and the Rule of Law Project, 44 (2004), p. 10.

[13] Amaney Jamal, Barriers to Democracy: The Other Side of Social Capital in Palestine and the Arab World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007).

[14] B. Challand, “The Counter-Power of Civil Society and the Emergence of a New Political Imaginary in the Arab World,” Constellations, 18:3 (2011), p. 275.