IEMed Mediterranean Yearbook 2013



Geographical Overview

Strategic Sectors


Mediterranean Civil Associations at a Crossroads: Challenges and Opportunities

Stefanos Vallianatos

Ph.D., Lancaster University,
Coordinator, Greek Network of the Anna Lindh Foundation
Research Associate, International Centre of Hellenic and Mediterranean Studies (DIKEMES)

The Mediterranean is experiencing a process of structural transformation, which is severely affecting its respective societies. The changes are the result of popular uprisings in the Arab world and of economic and financial crisis in the eurozone, and could be viewed as a failure of both the State and the market – in the way they function – and therefore their respective political systems: the autocratic and corrupt Arab regimes and the ‘generous’ clientelistic, inefficient and corrupt European welfare State, combined with inadequately monitored mechanisms and banking systems. Yet, these two poles, the State and the market, constitute the borders that determine the space of civil society activism: the critical sphere of voluntary associative life between the citizens and the State, which is separate from the market and beyond family and clan affiliations. Civil associations and activists have therefore emerged as key actors, whether leading the developments, like in Tunisia and Egypt, or responding to the pressures and hardships that their respective societies have been burdened with, like in Greece, Italy and Spain. The new scenario has certainly had a profound effect on these associations. They are facing severe challenges, but, depending on their character and expertise, these can be opportunities to reinforce their role and amend the framework they operate in.

Civil Society in the Mediterranean

Although a Western notion, civil society has found roots and flourished on both sides of the Mediterranean. While societal and historical development has determined the state of civil society, ideational factors, i.e. secular, liberal and religious approaches, influence the debate on its function and role, even with regard to the norms and values that it serves. Indeed, because of their varying historical entanglements with state-making and their contemporary experience with authoritarian regimes (like Greece, Spain and Portugal), the level of activism, organisation and social involvement differs among the southern European countries, and even more widely with those of the north and the countries from the former communist bloc. Not all fields of action are developed equally, such as, for example, the required know-how. Nevertheless, on the European side, civil associations enjoy a secure environment in which to function – provided by the State and protected by a clearly articulated legal framework –, funding mechanisms, access to a diverse media network, a shared conviction about their role in society and, therefore, a regulated channel of communication with the authorities at the local, national and EU level. Nonetheless, and notwithstanding the state of underdevelopment in certain areas, civil associations can be problematic, becoming part of the political establishment itself. In these cases they either serve as a Trojan horse for irrelevant purposes and activities (like in the case of many NGOs), or become organically linked to other establishments (like in the case of labour unions to particular political formations), thereby diminishing their credibility and effectiveness.

In the Middle East, although civil associations were primarily introduced during the colonial era, the Arab nationalist/reformist regimes were not favourable to independent civic activity and they were therefore either banned, severely repressed or brought under tight state control – thereby becoming a tool for autocratic governments. It was only in the late 1970s, under the pretext of economic and political liberalism, that civil associations began to flourish. This impressive proliferation was not evident in all sectors and rarely independent of the State. In fact, they continued to function in a legally insecure environment, with interventionism, harassment and oppression constituting the major obstacles to their effective management. Variations with regard to freedom of association meant that there was an unequal presence of all kinds of associations (including political parties, labour unions and even pro-democratic and human rights institutions), and so civil society remained fairly underdeveloped, inexperienced and localised. It was predominantly comprised of service-oriented and pro-status quo institutions, advocating conservative reforms, and with an overwhelming presence of Islamic organisations. The growing presence of secular associations resulted in a deep polarisation and a lack of coherence, as they did not share the same vision with the Islamists regarding the social and political transformation of their respective societies. They did, however, share access to the media, albeit limited, and potential for growth, through alternative funding, networking capabilities, and alternative communication venues.[1]

The Emerging Environment

The role of civil associations in the Arab Spring was vital – either through their active presence, like in Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco and Jordan, or, indeed, through their absence, like in Libya and Syria. The political outcome has been a process rather than a final stage of democratic rule, where the political system remains open for the formulation of its basic tenets, initiating debate among the stakeholders. The elections demonstrated the appeal of the Islamic groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Ennahda in Tunisia and the Justice and Development Party in Morocco, over the disorganised secular groupings, who do not enjoy the same nation-wide networks as the Islamists. What they do continue to enjoy are the ‘public squares,’ a continued, strong appeal among activists against their governments’ perceived mischief. The result is ongoing mistrust and tension between the two poles with regard to the future of their political systems, in the context of rapidly deteriorating economies, rising unemployment, dried-up investments, but at the same time, high expectations for the current political transition.[2]

The role of civil associations in the Arab Spring was vital – either through their active presence, like in Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco and Jordan, or, indeed, through their absence, like in Libya and Syria

The crisis in the Euromed zone has had a profound effect on the political and social environment: the political and economic systems have been discredited, the ‘welfare’ State has literary gone bankrupt, unemployment is skyrocketing and the economy is in deep recession. In response, the political elite have resorted to harsh austerity measures, rapid reforms, a restructuring of the public sector and its bureaucracy (including within the EU) and also a revision of the labour market’s framework – hence, civil rights, and in some cases even human rights, were threatened or violated. Regardless of the effectiveness of these measures, this was a top-to-bottom process, where the political system’s performance in communicating the reality, and initiating debate with the various stakeholders, was poor, therefore constituting a certain democratic deficit. Elections did not help, neither did they produce new ideas, hence, the overall result was an angry reaction and riots from various segments of society, but also polarisation, extremism and xenophobia – immigrants were the first group to be affected by the crisis, thereby triggering reversed migration. Widespread despair took root, jeopardising the social fabric. Finally, although not a direct effect of the crisis, access to public spaces (physical ones, cyberspace and media), is increasingly limited because they are being taken over by powerful private commercial interests; institutions with their own, in many cases, ambiguous agenda.

Challenges and Opportunities

The abovementioned circumstances had a direct effect on how civil associations functioned, generating obstacles, but also opportunities, and laying down the challenge to adapt creatively to the new reality,[3] especially with regard to the following:

  • Funding: the process deprived many of vital resources (public funding, sponsorship and donations), especially affecting smaller local associations. Diversity of funding, however, is an option to explore, with European funding remaining consistent and concern over democratisation attracting international donors (in the case of the south). Moreover, they have been able to increase their efficiency and capacity with regards to funding, turn to other business models and explore new innovative ideas to develop sustainable practices.
  • Voice range: this is essential for civil associations to communicate their messages and actions to the wider public. The crisis in Europe affected the media’s capability in this area, while in the Middle East, the media is freer to perform this role; although it is still in an evolutionary stage. On both sides, alternative resources, like social media, offer a credible solution, allowing groups to develop their own communications networks, as well as interact extensively with other organisations. Likewise, the cost of relevant personnel (advertising and communications experts) and campaigns is reduced, with the availability of more efficient approaches.
  • Engagement with the public: while unemployment created a complex setting, i.e. more available skilled volunteers, but diminishing morale and income, the crisis and the uprisings in North Africa mobilised a wider segment of the population to engage in different ways, increasing the demands for civil associations to provide services and support and take on a more active political role.
  • Advocacy: interaction with policy-makers has been reduced, as they are locked into other priorities. The Finance ministry is now entrusted with managing these issues, hence the language of discourse is filled with economic terminology (return on investment, cost-benefit analysis, business plans), which the groups must also adopt. Meanwhile, there is an awareness of civil associations’ usefulness in implementing certain policies and achieving aims in the public sector. So, their role as intermediaries and policy advisors has been reinforced – an asset which threatens to jeopardise their legitimacy if not handled collectively and carefully.

Civil society’s strength depends on: (a) its thematic diversity and its broad geographic allocation; (b) its ability to mobilise a large segment of the population; (c) members acquiring specialised knowledge and vital skills (fund raising, project development, communication capacity), professionalism and effectiveness; and (d) members being active citizens rather than passive voters. To rise up to these challenges, civil associations have to meet certain conditions:[4]

  • They need to work collectively, nationally and regionally, applying extensive networking strategies in order to:
    • reach the widest possible constituency.
    • deal more effectively with a complex, competitive and constantly changing environment.
    • multiply the body of information, links and contacts, yet also ideas and practices from diverse fields.
  • To maintain their credibility, they need to collectively ‘clean up their mess’, i.e. develop and apply a code of conduct and mechanisms to block and expose the function of ‘fake’ institutions that are irrelevant to the cause.
  • They must maintain or sufficiently develop the key attributes of civil society, i.e. their autonomy (from the State, enterprises or political formations), the predominance of liberal and democratic norms and values, and a protective and operational legal framework.
  • They need to constantly acquire, maintain and disseminate useful skills, professionalism and effectiveness, yet also secure the means for highly specialised knowledge.
  • Although idealism is an essential feature of civil associations, to successfully maintain and further promote their role as intermediaries between the State and its citizens, they need to display pragmatism and flexibility, avoiding any ideological rigidity, in both the ideas that are put forward as well as their application.

Undoubtedly this is an opportunity to restructure the relationship between civil associations and policy makers, to reshape the political framework for civil society to perform not only a monitoring role, but also a more productive policy-oriented one. In the absence of creative and credible political formations, they can lead the way to a new ‘social contract’ for participatory, accountable democratic governance. The circumstances and the perceptions on the role of civil society are to its benefit, so civil associations can rely on the support of key global actors (although they should also work hard to maintain that). However, this is a continuous process and not an end game, and needs continuous evaluation, revision and enrichment if civil associations are to maintain their credibility and their bond to a critical mass and thereby uphold their pivotal role in Mediterranean societies.


[1] On civil society in the Middle East, see Niblock, Tim, “Civil Society in the Middle East”, in Youssef M. Choueiri, ed., A Companion to the History of the Middle East, Oxford, Blackwell Publishing, 2005.

[2] See Ülgen, Sinan, Brown, Nathan J., Ottaway, Marina & Salem, Paul, “Emerging Order in the Middle East”, in Policy Outlook Series, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, May 2012.

[3] For the impact of the crisis in Europe, see Institute for European Studies – Vrije Universiteit Brussel, The Impact of the Crisis on Civil Society Organisations in the E.U. Risks and Opportunities, Brussels, European Economic and Social Committee, January 2013.

[4] A number of notions and ideas mentioned here are the result of exchanging opinions with several stakeholders, yet especially with Dr. Richard Shoton, head of the British National Network of the Anna Lindh Foundation.