While in common usage civil society is defined as a realm of social interaction that is autonomous from state control, it remains a vague and contested concept. Before thinking about a definition, it may be useful to ask some questions. What exactly describes civil society? How dependent or independent should or must civil society be? How transparent and democratic should its internal structures be? There is a Western concept of civil society which has dominated the idea of what Middle Eastern civil society must be, and this concept has clearly defined the EU policies towards the Southern Mediterranean countries, initiated with the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership in 1995. The experiences and events over the last 20 years in the region have shown the need to move away from normative Eurocentric approaches and the opening towards Islamic associations, un-institutionalized movements, networks and individual agents from different layers and worldviews.
Civil Society as a Tool of Democracy Promotion
In liberal Western thinking civil society has often been defined as an indispensable element, not to say a sine qua non of liberal democracy. While in common usage civil society is defined as a realm of social interaction that is autonomous from state control, it remains a vague and contested concept. Leaving aside non-European experiences, one can roughly distinguish between Anglo-Saxon and continental European traditions of civil society. Whereas in the former one civil society has been perceived as an independent civic control institution opposed to the state, in the latter, civil society is tied with the state through an “associative relationship” (Behr and Siitonen, 2013: 7-8). Montesquieu, Rousseau and de Tocqueville have ascribed civil society the role of an arbiter between state and society (Heidbeink, 2006: 16). The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, on the other hand, has seen civil society as a network of cultural institutions that functions as an instrument to enforce hegemony (2005).
The 1968 movements in the West and the growing dissident-movements against the communist regimes in Eastern Europe revived the idea of civil society as a sphere of civic autonomy, of self-organization and as a nucleus of democracy. From the 1970s on, civil society came to be seen as a relevant requisite for the demise of authoritarianism and the consolidation of liberal democracy. The concept gained popularity among academics and political activists and came to be “seen as both; an explanatory variable and as a normative idea” (Behr and Siitonen, 2013: 7).
The 1968 movements in the West and the growing dissident-movements against the communist regimes in Eastern Europe revived the idea of civil society as a sphere of civic autonomy, of self-organization and as a nucleus of democracy
The fall of communist regimes in Eastern Europe further boosted the idea of the democratizing potential of civil society. The longstanding struggle of Solidarnocs in Poland, environmental protests in Hungary, and the demonstrations in East Germany and Czechoslovakia were seen as empirical proofs of the democratic transformational power that emanated from civil society (Kopecky and Mudde, 2003: 1). While these civil rights movements in Eastern Europe certainly played a role in bringing down the communist regimes, they soon disappeared after the transitions. Anti-communist civil society demobilized relatively shortly after the first elections and many of its representatives entered the state (Kopecky and Mudde, 2003: 1). Instead, a myriad of new organizations focusing on democratization emerged. Many of them could rely on foreign support and funding. While the model of liberal democracy has become hegemonic in the democratization discourses, so has the idea of supporting and assisting civil society. But the EU’s conceptualization of what civil society is and what it should look like has been normative. Caught in a liberal paradigm, civil society per se has been perceived as a good force.
But what exactly describes civil society? Does the term only refer to non-governmental organizations in a narrow sense, or does it also include interest groups, such as trade unions and businessmen associations and even media? How dependent or independent should or must civil society be? How transparent and democratic should its internal structures be? And what about new formations such as thematic platforms or networks often linked through social media and social movements that have emerged over the last years? Although they do not fit into the standardized framework of associations, they do often fulfil the same functions as classical civil society organizations; they promote thematic issues and serve as a counterweight or even antidote to the state.
EU initiatives in support of democratic reforms or democracy consolidation have generally ignored not only different traditions, but also different dynamics, shapes and concepts beyond normative understanding. The gap between the EU’s claim to be a positive, transformative and democratizing international power and its activities on the ground is particularly wide in regard to the transformations in the Middle East. Civil society assistance has been part of the EU’s policies towards its Southern Arab neighbours since the beginning of the Barcelona Process (1995). However, the scope of civil society organizations in the Middle East that could benefit from EU funding and cooperation was limited.
“Western style” Civil Society in the Middle East
The Western conception of civil society found its way into Middle Eastern societies together with modernization modelled on Western development and the therewith connected emergence of new bourgeois elites, trained and educated in Western sciences and languages. At the turn of the 19th century, most of the Middle Eastern societies witnessed the emergence of students’ and women’s associations or trade unions. However, most of these civil society organizations remained limited to the few large cities and were often the domain of representatives of the Western educated elites.
The authoritarian revolutionary regimes that emerged in many parts of the Arab world after independence were eager to either co-opt or isolate any autonomous bodies within society. Depending on the structure of the regime, the extent of co-optation, subordination or control of civil society differed. In many countries a number of state-dependent pseudo-civil society organizations emerged.
The “Third Wave of Democratization” (Huntington, 1991) that had seized Eastern Europe and led to the fall of the communist regimes did not spark off fundamental political change in the Arab world, but it did not pass by without implications. The shifts in the international structure particularly forced those governments that were allied with the West to adjust their policies to the expectations of their Western allies. This stimulated some regimes, such as the Egyptian and the Tunisian, to implement modest political reforms. Although political liberalisation remained limited and some of the hesitant reforms were even reversed after the experiences of the Algerian elections in 1992, with events in the aftermath terrifying most of the Arab regimes, many regimes allowed the re-emergence of a controlled civil society sector (Günay, 2008: 297).
Some Arab liberal intellectuals, such as Saad Eddin Ibrahim, believed that the opening of this small and controlled space could be seen as a sign for the country’s future democratic transformation. Ibrahim regarded emergent civil society as an optimum channel of popular participation in governance. He argued that the reinforcement of civil society also implies values and behavioural codes of tolerating and accepting others and a tacit or explicit commitment to the peaceful management of differences among individuals and communities sharing the same public space or state (Ibrahim, 1995: 28-29). However, Ibrahim’s optimism proved to be wrong. His conception of civil society as a form of social contract, a buffer or intermediary between the state and society, assumed the rule of law, a condition which was hardly met by Egypt or any other of the authoritarian regimes. Instead, holding all powers in their hands, the regimes were able to alter the legal framework if necessary and controlled the financial means as well as the scope of operation of civil society organizations (CSOs).
Ibrahim’s conception of civil society as a form of social contract, a buffer or intermediary between the state and society, assumed the rule of law, a condition which was hardly met by Egypt or any other of the authoritarian regimes
Most of the organizations were co-opted and controlled by the state. The few that managed to maintain a certain degree of independence and criticism were often subject to harassment and repression. Many of the organizations operated in fields and areas, such as women’s rights that resonated with a liberal Western discourse and could therefore attract the attention of external supporters and donors. Most of the EU’s civil society assistance has concerned these organizations. But their dependence on external funding also made these organizations more vulnerable. On the one hand, the regimes could easily cut the flow of money and, on the other, they could easily discredit these organizations as they were generally lacking the support of a broad domestic constituency (Behr and Siitonen, 2013; Langohr, 2004; et al). External funding under these conditions also supported the emergence of pseudo-civil society organizations, often around single individuals with relatively good relations with the officials and a lack of internal democracy and transparency (Behr and Siitonen, 2013: 13).
Neoliberalism and the Rise of an Islamic Sector of Civil Society
The rise of civil society in the Arab Middle East correlated with international discourses and therewith connected foreign policy initiatives after the transitions in Eastern Europe, but it was also connected with the neoliberal state reforms that found their ways into the Arab world from the 1970s. In light of economic reform policies, civil society organizations became an indispensable pillar for upholding the “social contract”. While neoliberal interventions have affected societies around the globe, their effects on the developing nations of the South have been particularly drastic. Neoliberal restructuring, under the guidance of international institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have generally downsized state expenditure. This entailed the privatization of public enterprises and the state’s gradual withdrawal from social and welfare services. Neoliberal reforms have mainly affected the lower middle classes and the poor.
In contrast to the secular civil society sector that has been primarily rooted within the urban elites and has been engaged with more global issues, Islamic formations have been mainly rooted amongst the lower middle classes and in the poor suburban areas. Their social activities have often compensated the state’s eroding welfare services and have become indispensable for the survival of many less privileged people in remote and neglected areas (Günay, 2008). Whereas Western-style civil society organizations have referred to the liberal conceptions of citizenship, civic consciousness and social solidarity based on individualism, Islamic organizations have mainly referred to Islamic brotherhood as a guiding principle.
One can distinguish between two different types of Islamic civil society organizations. On the one hand, there are those Islamic organizations that were established at the beginning of the 19th century. Founded by pious people from the educated middle class, their aim has been to spread Islamic teaching and provide social, health and educational services. On the other hand, there are a large number of newer Islamic associations and organizations. Most of them emerged in the late 20th or the beginning of the 21st century. These new Islamic associations are usually smaller and rather active in one particular area. Many of these associations are engaged with youth trainings, human development or humanitarian aid (Allam, 2012). In contrast to the older organizations, they have been more integrated in global discourses. But the Islamic sector has not only comprised associations and organizations, but also a large number of un-institutionalized informal religious networks, independent mosques and street sheikhs and broad-based social movements. These Islamic formations might correspond even less with the classical Western liberal concept of civil society than Islamic associations, old and new, but as a realm of social interactivity, autonomous from state control, they have become an impressive and important factor in shaping social relations, providing welfare and charity services and in alternative governance models.
These potential agents of social and political change have remained outside the radars of the European Union. While Western donors have almost exclusively supported secular Western-style CSOs, many Islamic associations, organizations and movements have received financial support from different sources in Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
EU Policies towards the Mediterranean
The Euro-Mediterranean Partnership (EMP), initiated by the Barcelona Declaration in 1995, has tried to improve cooperation and exchange between Europe and its southern neighbourhood. However, strongly informed by security concerns, the EU has sought to provide a multilateral framework for the governance of the Mediterranean, mainly in order to manage irregular migration, and to guarantee trade, prosperity and peace (Pace, 2010: 433). The underpinning logic of the EMP was that the liberalization of trade within the framework of European rules and norms would stimulate higher growth rates and economic development, which in turn would spark political reform and increase security. Assistance for civil society in the Middle East constituted an important part of the EU’s indirect promotion of democratization in the region. As an asset of its soft power, the EU has funded civil society activities and networking primarily in the areas of women’s rights, good governance and intercultural dialogue. Although these initiatives were mainly to the benefit of Western-style civil society organizations that operated with the regimes’ allowance, it nevertheless introduced a new discourse (Behr and Siitonen, 2013: 12). The political dimension of the EMP, however, experienced a setback after 2005 when Islamist parties made substantial gains in elections. President Sarkozy’s creation, the Union for the Mediterranean, mainly built on economic cooperation and left political issues aside.
In the wake of the uprisings in the Arab world and the fall of the authoritarian regimes, the EU engaged in a process of self-reflection and self-criticism. Štefan Füle, Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy, openly admitted that the EU and its member states had fallen prey to the assumption that authoritarian regimes were a guarantee of stability in the region (Füle in Tocci, 2011).
Assistance for civil society in the Middle East constituted an important part of the EU’s indirect promotion of democratization in the region
After a state of shock, the EU reacted by revising the European Neighbourhood Policy. This did not mean a fundamental rethink and review of the essence and ills of the ENP, but rather entailed the adaption of some mechanisms, new programmes and mottos. Yet neoliberal conceptions still provided the framework for economic development policies. The ENP has remained trapped in the logic of enlargement and security and has not been able to develop any alternative (Colombo and Tocci, 2012: 90).
The EU’s strategies, programmes and initiatives developed in reaction to the Arab transformations have hardly responded to the needs and expectations of Arab societies.
Deeply rooted in neoliberal European discourses and experiences, the EU’s initiatives have not only failed to consider the dynamics within rapidly changing Arab societies, but they have also ignored the protest movements and other formations and platforms that emerged in reaction to the crisis, mainly in Southern European member states.
The focus on European experiences with democracy as a point of reference suggests a universal linear line of development that puts liberal democracy, as a genuinely Western value, at the top of an evolutionary civilizational process and leaves Arab and other discourses and narratives out (Sadiki, 2004).
A normative understanding of what civil society is and how it should be structured, based on European historical experiences, inhibits any reaching out and dialogue to/with Islamist actors in the region. Islamists, often without any distinctions, are considered to be enemies of democracy. Consequently, bilateral government programmes and EU initiatives, but also peers from within European civil society, have almost exclusively established contacts with secular civil society organizations. But any effective involvement in democratic transitions beyond the Western sphere needs to entail a strategy in regard to concepts of civil society and other agents of change that are beyond European/Western conceptualizations. This entails the need to move away from normative, Eurocentric approaches. In regard to the Middle East, this would mean an opening towards Islamic associations, un-institutionalized movements, networks and individual agents of change from different layers and worldviews.