Welcome to the first of what may become an occasional series, of writing ‘from the archive’. This essay was first written in 1996 for my MA in Development Adminstration and Management at Manchester University. It was published in the magazine of the Ibn Khaldoun Centre in Cairo, Civil Society (October 1996), and in the journal Representation (Volume 34, Issue 3-4, 1997). Almost 20 years on, with so much and yet so little having changed in the Arab world and worldwide, it is ever clearer that Ibrahim was right at least about the “painfully long journey”…
“The end of 1995 and the beginning of 1996 are witnessing the promise and the peril of democratization in the Arab world. …the Arab world is joining, albeit reluctantly, what Samuel Huntingdon calls the third wave of democracy.” (Ibrahim 1996, 4)
Although he cites important elections in Algeria, Egypt and Palestine to support his view, Ibrahim accepts that these represent only “a few steps taken on the road of a painfully long journey” (Ibrahim 1995, 4) and that the path of Arab democratization will likely be neither smooth nor fast. This paper will argue that the prospect of joining the third wave of democracy may in fact be considered one of the perils of the road ahead, and that realizing the full promise of democratization for the people of the region will depend crucially on the extent to which Arab civil society is able to broaden the agenda for change to embrace a more substantive conception of democracy. With particular reference to the central role of civil society, this paper will seek to assess the prospects for substantive democratic transformation in the Arab world.
The concept of civil society will be introduced and defined in terms of its essential characteristics and an analytical framework presented by which to interpret a process of democratization in terms of the extent to which it conforms to the prevalent ‘transitional’ model of the third wave scholars, or to a broader ‘transformative’ model. Inherent perils of the transitional model will be discussed, and the central role of civil society identified as a distinguishing feature of the transformative model. Accounts of civil society in the Arab world will then be related to its defining characteristics and central role in transformative democratization to assess the prospects of the Arab world for realizing the full promise of its emerging democratization.
The idea of civil society has its roots in the writings of philosophers of the eighteenth century ‘Scottish Enlightenment’, but the concept has re-entered contemporary debates with the spectacular popular uprisings against totalitarianism in Central and Eastern Europe (Walzer 1995), and to capture “the emergence of an unprecedented worldwide phenomenon – men and women, groups and individuals, getting together to do things by themselves in order to change the societies they live in” (de Oliveira & Tandon 1995, 1).
Although a variety of definitions of civil society have appeared in recent literature, encompassing some differences as to what the concept may include and exclude, there is broad consensus over its essential characteristics. Diamond has defined it as “the realm of organized social life that is voluntary, self-generating, (largely) self-supporting, autonomous from the state, and bound by a legal order or set of shared rules” (Diamond 1994, 5). These ‘shared rules’ he regards as the “irreducible condition” of the dimension of civility, even in the absence of an effective legal order (ibid.), a view characteristic of the broad consensus that may be termed the “modern, liberal conception of civil society” (Schwedler 1995, 6). Going to the roots of those shared rules, Hyden’s interpretation emphasizes the place of ‘social capital’, the “normative values and beliefs that citizens share in their everyday dealings”, upon which basis acceptance of the legal order rests (Hyden forthcoming, 1). He views civil society as “the forum in which [these values and beliefs] are nurtured and developed” (ibid.). This paper will adopt Bratton’s concise but comprehensive definition, drawing on a range of contemporary theory:
“Civil society is defined… as a sphere of social interaction between the household and the state which is manifest in norms of community co-operation, structures of voluntary association, and networks of public communication” (Bratton 1994, 2).
It is pertinent to ask whether it is even appropriate to apply such a historically specific and essentially Western concept outside its cultural context? Wickham has argued that “efforts to locate civil society… reveal more about the preoccupations of Western scholars than they do about new social configurations in the Middle East today” (Wickham 1994, 509). Nevertheless, as Norton writes, “a categorical rejection of the idea of civil society in the Middle East is unwarranted, not least because the idea of civil society is fast becoming part of the indigenous intellectual and policy dialogues” (Norton 1993, 213). The extent to which the idea has gained currency in the region is described by Bellin:
“State officials in the Middle East use the term ‘civil society’ to promote their projects of mobilization and ‘modernization’; Islamists use it to angle for a greater legal share of public space; and independent activists and intellectuals use it to expand the boundaries of individual liberty” (Bellin 1994, 509).
This paper is based on the premise that, by focusing on its essential characteristics and role rather than its particular institutional manifestations, civil society remains a valid tool of analysis for the Arab world.
‘Transitional’ and ‘transformative’ models of democratization
The table below presents a framework by which to interpret a process of democratic change in terms of two theoretical poles designated here ‘transitional’ and ‘transformative’ models of democratization:
|key features||‘transitional’ democratization||‘transformative’ democratization|
|goal||transition to, and eventual consolidation of, procedural democracy||substantive democracy embracing sustainable and equitable development|
|arenas||political||multiple – political, social, economic|
|levels||national||multiple – local to global|
|key actors||strategic elites||citizens, organized in civil society|
|relation of civil society to state||“watchful but respectful of state authority” – third sector||demanding of state accountability: first sector|
|key challenge||political institutionalization||state & corporate accountability to civil society|
The two models need not be considered to be in opposition to each other. Transition may be a means to the end of transformation, and the prospect of transformation may serve as motivation for pursuing transition. However, while a process of transformation is likely to give rise to some form of procedural democracy, a process of transition is unlikely in and of itself to result in a substantive democratic transformation.
The Promise and Peril of Democratization
According to Huntington, “the current era of democratic transitions constitutes the third wave of democratization in the history of the modern world” (Huntington 1991, 12). Since 1972, the ‘third wave’ has seen democracies more than double in number from 44 to 107, representing more than half of all countries, and reaching every region of the world (Shin 1994, 136). The notion of democracy has thus gained sufficient popularity among peoples and leaders worldwide to occasion triumphalist declarations in the West of the ‘end of history’, as the great competing ideologies are said to have been discredited, leaving democracy “the only model of government with any broad ideological legitimacy and appeal in the world today” (Diamond, Linz & Lipset 1989, x).
The body of literature that has emerged around this third wave may be distinguished from earlier scholarship by, inter alia, its optimism that democracy can be ‘manufactured’, and its often explicit aim to “provide advice for would-be democrats from an operational perspective” (Allison & Beschel, cited Shin 1994, 141). Certainly, few today would reject outright the principles of democratic governance, but how and to what extent they could, or should, be operationalized generates increasing controversy.
In his review of recent theory and research on the third wave of democratization, Shin 1994, 141) reports that a ‘procedural’ or minimalist conception of democracy is generally favoured over a more ‘substantive’ or maximalist conception that stipulates socio-economic advances as defining criteria. Diamond, Linz & Lipset further clarify that they consider democracy “a political system, separate and apart from the economic and social system to which it is joined” (Diamond, Linz & Lipset 1989, xvi).
Shin cites Karl’s explanation of this approach on the grounds that, were they not to adopt it, scholars would be “hard pressed to find ‘actual’ democratic regimes to study”, they would be unable to identify important, if incomplete, moves toward democracy in the political sphere, and they would also be unable to examine hypothesized links between different regime types and socioeconomic outcomes (Shin 1994, 141). Methodological justifications notwithstanding, can the “social agents” seeking “theoretical tools for understanding and altering conditions of oppression” that the third wave scholars seek to advise (Shin 1994, 141) justify such a procedural focus?
White asserts that “democracy, even in a limited procedural form, is a valuable developmental end in itself, because of the rights and freedoms it attempts to guarantee [although] it is widely recognized that fledgling democracies face a number of basic constraints which limit their capacity to deal with the deep-rooted intractable developmental problems” (White 1995, 79). Even if a procedural democracy could actually guarantee these rights, still there is a trade-off here that requires an ordering of priorities. In fact White’s remarks reflect an all too common logical weakness and fail to address powerful arguments against universal applicability of the procedural approach, such as those invoking cultural relativism (Blunt 1995) and ‘fundamental illiberalism’.
Those advocating a procedural democracy on explicitly instrumental grounds, however, face mounting evidence to contradict the implied causal relationships (as White has appreciated). Shin notes that “many of the countries of the third wave of democratization are now engulfed in grave political crises because democracy is not delivering economic prosperity, honest and efficient government, protection for human rights, peace and security” (Shin 1994, 166). Similarly, in the light of intractable social and economic problems, there is increasing public disillusionment with the democratic procedures of consolidated Western democracies.
Osaghae, in contrast, considers democracy to be “not simply about form or means; it is also about ends, which have to do with its inherent capacity to enhance development” (Osaghae 1995, 189). Since “development is a total and all-inclusive process whose political, economic and social aspects are concomitant and mutually reinforcing” he asks, “can any aspect of it be meaningfully studied in isolation?” (ibid., 185). As states are ‘rolled back’ to transfer ever more decision-making power to markets, the value of a democracy defined in terms of political procedures becomes ever more ambiguous, and the need for democratic accountability to extend also to the economic sphere becomes ever clearer.
Similarly, processes of globalization bring into question the value of a democracy defined in terms of the nation state. Even in consolidated democracies, increasing regional and global connectedness of states and markets means that national governments no longer enjoy exclusive political and economic sovereignty in their own territory, and that their decisions and policies may affect the decision-making capacity of other states beyond their borders. Moreover, democratic procedures at national level become increasingly meaningless in a context where transnational economic and political power grows ever stronger, free from democratic accountability. As Held writes, “democracy at [regional and global] levels is an important condition for the development of democracy within national and local communities” (Held 1993, 14).
A product of the procedural approach is that democracy may be regarded as primarily a “product of strategic interactions and arrangements among political elites (Shin 1994, 139). As Osaghae remarks, however, “by hinging the success of the entire transition process on the whims and caprices of the elite, [Diamond] unwittingly undermines the whole purpose of democratic transition” (Osaghae 1995, 191). A democracy in which the citizens are not the key actors is surely not worthy of the name.
Conflicting interests are at stake in determining the key actors. In the wake of the much heralded ‘triumph’ of western liberal (and capitalist) democracy over its competitors, wealthy industrialized nations and international financial institutions have felt justified to pursue a project of democratization abroad, by even coercive means ranging from aid and trade conditionality to military intervention. Thus choices of political, economic and social organization, paths of democratization, are intimately linked to international as well as domestic power relations. Those international and domestic elites that enjoy political and economic power tend to perceive their interests to be best served by pursuing a limited procedural and capitalist democracy. Indeed, in the conventional economic wisdom of a zero-sum game in which actors aim to maximize a narrow conception of their individual utility, pursuing a more transformative democratization (or no democratization at all) may be irrational. From the point of view of the politically and economically disempowered, however, and those who reject the conventional economic wisdom, such a procedural democracy may be seen to be at best irrelevant, if not actually against their interests.
With the developmental problems characterized by Korten (1990) as the three great crises of poverty, environment and social integration becoming ever more pressing, globally and in the Arab world, in spite of the rapid advances of democratic procedures worldwide, an exclusive operational focus on limited procedural democracy may be seen to be perilous indeed.
The role of civil society
Schwedler writes “Although the existence of civil society in the Middle East (or anywhere) does not mean that countries are on the verge of democratization, it does illustrate that citizens are both willing and able to play a role in shaping the state policies that govern their lives” (Schwedler 1995, 2). As Diamond observes, however, “most transitions have been… negotiated (if not largely controlled from above by the existing authoritarians)” (Diamond 1994, 4). Thus, civil society is regarded among third wave scholars as a facilitating, though not necessary, factor in transition to a procedural democracy.
The functions of civil society do not differ between the transitional and transformative models, but the extent to which civil society is able to effectively perform those functions will be critical in determining the path of democratization followed. Diamond has identified ten unique democracy-building functions of civil society, and five features of the internal character and structure of civil society affecting its capacity to perform those functions (Diamond 1994, 7-11). These functions and features may be as valid for either model of democratization, but it is among Diamond’s four caveats that his preference for the transitional may be distinguished. He stresses that “societal autonomy can go too far… the state itself must have sufficient autonomy, legitimacy, capacity and support” (ibid., 14); and that “civil society must be watchful but respectful of state authority” (ibid., 15).
These caveats must be understood in the context of a transitional process with the end goal of consolidated procedural democracy. Thus, when the transition in the political arena is accomplished, the onus is on civil society to temper its claims and legitimate the new democratic regime. In the context, however, of “the growing realization that neither the market nor the state alone can meet the challenges of equitable and sustainable development” (de Oliveira & Tandon 1995, 3), a strong and autonomous civil society must be a necessary and central condition for transformative democratization. Rather than the ‘third sector’, civil society is considered the only legitimate ‘first sector’ (Tandon 1992, 38), and “the appropriate role of the state is to create enabling conditions for civil society to ‘manage’ the public affairs of the community” (ibid., 39). To achieve a transformative democratization, therefore, civil society will need to make its legitimization conditional on full state and corporate accountability to civil society, and the extension of democratic transformation throughout economic and social as well as political spheres, and at all levels, local to global. The strength and autonomy with which it performs its functions may therefore be considered primary indicators of the potential for such a democratic transformation.
Civil Society and Democratization in the Arab world
Adopting Bratton’s definition, we may identify civil society by its essential characteristics of structures of voluntary association, networks of public communication and norms of community co-operation.
As Norton has observed, “the region is replete with voluntary organizations, trade unions, human rights groups, women’s associations, minority rights groups and various other social organizations” (cited Schwedler 1995, 10). He notes in particular the women’s movements of Algeria, Egypt, Kuwait, Yemen and the Palestinians; the businessmen’s groups and professional associations of Jordan and Egypt; the diwanayat (meeting groups) of Kuwait; and the peace movement, labour unions and election-monitoring organizations of Lebanon (Norton 1993, 209). Numbers of associations are increasing, for example Lone writes that Arab NGOs have increased from 20,000 in the 1960s to 70,000 in the 1980s (Lone 1995, 20). According to Ibrahim, Egyptian civil society alone comprises over 22,000 organizations including 23 professional syndicates, 3,000 clubs, 4,000 co-operatives and 14,000 NGOs, having been invigorated by participation in successive international events, particularly Cairo’s 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (Ibrahim 1995, 5).
Networks of public communication within and across states are expanding in their reach and their capacity to elude state control, as new technologies such as fax, satellite television and the internet are rapidly gaining ground in the Arab world, as elsewhere. Also, as Norton observes, “hundreds of thousands of labour migrants, moving back and forth across the region, carry powerful images of change and dissent” (Norton 1993, 206). Although domestic radio, television and print media are still subject to extensive state interference and control, independent views are increasingly heard from growing ranks of autonomous research organizations and ‘think-tanks’. Egypt’s Ibn Khaldoun Centre for Development Studies, for example, produces a monthly bilingual newsletter ‘Civil Society and Democratic Transformation in the Arab World’, and has been sponsoring a weekly prime time spot on national television (Khalifa 1995, 160).
Norms of community co-operation are more elusive in attempts to identify civil society in the Arab world, and raise considerable controversy over where to draw its boundary, in particular in relation to Islamist organizations. While arguably “it is individual movements, and not Islam itself, that are the obstacles” to democracy (Schwedler 1995, 24), authors such as Ibrahim categorically exclude Islamist organizations from civil society, although they may often use its channels to pursue their goals (ibid., 12). The question essentially is whether to include as legitimate actors within civil society all those organizations that adhere to the ‘rules of the game’, or whether to exclude those that seek to change the rules when they have gained sufficient power. In terms of the functions of civil society, certainly Islamist organizations have been “among the most effective means of challenging government authority and responding to citizens’ needs and concerns” (Schwedler 1995, 14), as highlighted in Egypt by their uniquely swift and effective response to the 1992 earthquake.
Regardless of where the boundary of civil society is drawn, to what extent may religious or secular associations, and their relations between themselves and with the state, be considered to display the essential norms of civility? Certainly the violence of some groups, notably in Algeria and to a much lesser extent Egypt, lies well beyond the bounds of civility. Non-violent intolerance is also endemic, however, as illustrated in Egypt for example by the campaign against Nasr Hamed Abu-Zeid resulting in a 1995 court ruling to divorce him from his wife on the grounds of apostasy (CHRLA 1996, 19). Even secular grassroots community development associations in Egypt have been accused of being based on “a strict hierarchy of intolerance and oppression”, reflecting a culture of deference in which it is improper (aib) to question or criticize (Rifaat 1993, 17). As Norton observes, in the region “civil society is often undermined by a deficit in political toleration” (Norton 1995, 33). Tolerance and civility are by no means absent, however, and if social capital can be nurtured and developed through participation in voluntary associations and networks of communication (Hyden forthcoming, 1), increasing participation in many parts of the region offers reason for optimism that such norms of community co-operation will become more the norm.
Although authoritarian Arab regimes are suffering deepening crises of legitimacy as citizen and international pressure for democratic accountability mounts, civil society remains severely constrained by the state across the Arab world.. In some cases civil society has effectively been totally repressed or co-opted, for example in Sudan (Lesch 1995, 71) and Ba’athist Iraq (Humadi 1995, 51). Even in Egypt’s relatively free and vibrant civil society, most NGOs are subject to the stifling Law 32 of 1964 which requires them to refrain from ‘political’ activity, and empowers the Ministry of Social Affairs to replace their elected councils (Al-Sayyid 1993, 236). Furthermore, the new Press Law 93 of 1995 represents “the most repressive in two centuries of Egyptian press history” (Ragab 1995, 593) and has been interpreted as a further manifestation of “the state’s tendency to reign in the democratic margin it grants and impose more restrictions on active civic institutions” (EOHR 1996, 16). Civil society remains resistant and resourceful, however, as illustrated by the growing number of Egyptian NGOs now functioning with relative autonomy as non-profit limited liability firms under the Companies Law. It is also becoming increasingly politicized, as illustrated in Egypt by the domination of elections of the medical, engineering and lawyers associations by the Muslim Brotherhood (Ibrahim 1993, 304).
In spite of the reluctance of the Arab regimes to grant greater individual and associational freedoms to their citizens the domestic and international forces for liberalization, in particular the economic imperatives (Richards 1995, 39), are showing no signs of abating. Although time-honoured measures of repression are still routinely adopted against dissenters, “the scope of failure is so broad that few rulers today have pockets deep enough or jails large enough to cope with the problem in traditional ways (Norton 1993, 206). Even in the desperate case of Iraq, the variety of independent associations that have sprung up in the imposed ‘safe haven’ in the north, and the growing Iraqi civil society of the diaspora, particularly in London, indicates that civil society will take every opportunity it can to assert itself.
In the context of ever mounting pressures worldwide for truly accountable democratic governance by which to address the major social, economic and environmental crises of the times, a transitional model of democratization based on a narrow procedural conception of democracy may be seen to be not only an inadequate response to the demands of the rising civil society, but a perilous distraction from the real democratic transformation that is required.
A democracy of elites, restricted to the political sphere of the nation state, is not only a poor shadow of the democratic principles that have been fought and struggled for by citizens around the world, such a democracy that does not allow a central role to civil society is inherently unable to meet the needs of society. US Senator Bill Bradley has, with regard to America, likened society to:
“a three legged stool that is fundamentally out of balance because two of the legs – the capitalist marketplace and the government – have dominated our public life at the expense of the third leg: civil society. The cost of this neglect… has been the proliferation of social problems that neither government nor business is fully equipped to address” (Lampe 1995, 91)
His analysis is as valid for society globally, and for nations and local communities of the Arab world and elsewhere, as it is for the United States.
Certainly, in the Arab world we are witnessing just the first few steps on what is likely to be a long and hard road of democratization. As a vital strategic region in the yet pre-democratic international arena, the role of civil society in the Arab world and globally will be especially important in holding state and market sectors, domestic and international, accountable to local citizenry. Arab civil society, although still severely constrained by state regulation and sorely lacking in the key norms of tolerance and civility, is significantly expanding and strengthening in terms of its associational structures and its local, national and international networks of communication.
Only time will tell the path that the emerging Arab democratization will take and, perhaps more than that of any region, Arab civil society will rely on global forces of citizen solidarity to broaden the agenda for change to bring about a truly substantive democratic transformation. It is thus incumbent on true democrats everywhere to play their essential role as fellow citizens in building a truly democratic system of global governance within which substantive local democracy may thrive in the Arab world, and worldwide.
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