Although there is no consensus among contemporary scholars on what constitutes civil society, most of them (Kaldor, M. 2003; Dahlgren, P. 2008) agree that civil society includes a wide range of formal and informal groups such as associations, syndicates, federations, clubs, unions, guilds, and social movements that are autonomous from the state and bound by legal order or a set of shared rules. Diamond (1997) states that these groups usually include citizens acting collectively in a public sphere to express their interests, exchange information, make demands on the state and hold state officials accountable. The question is to what extent the above characteristics of civil society, which are mainly Western-oriented, comply with the Arab context.
The concept of “civil society” in the Arab world seems to suggest a different notion from the one conventionally used in the West (Karajah, 2007). First, while the chief building blocks of the modern Western society lie in encouraging individuals’ initiatives and their effective roles as citizens, the contemporary history of the Arab world reveals a focus on leaders and states where enhancing the status of the regime is favored over encouraging individual initiatives and contributions in the political life. This explains the fact that most Arab civil society groups are charitable organizations whose main aim is to provide material help to the less privileged among the Arab populace. Additionally, many of these civil society organizations are related to the state and they might even be considered “semi-governmental” institutions as Al-Halfi (2007) pointed out. Generally, the concept of civil society in the Arab world entails different definition from the one that exists in the West; this is due to the environment where it operates which is characterized by low rate of volunteerism as well as the lack of autonomy which is a product of the state dominance. In any rate, this overview cannot be generalized to include all Arab states as there is a considerable variance among them in terms of the extent to which civil society institutions have evolved.
Al-Sayyid (1995) categorizes Arab states into three groups based on the degree of respect to freedom of associations. The first group includes countries that allow a reasonable margin of freedom of association in which political parties are authorized and the establishment of professional associations is permitted such as Mauritania, Tunisia, Morocco, Jordan, Algeria between 1988 and 1991, Yemen, and Kuwait. The second group includes countries where various civil society associations exist but they are heavily controlled by the presence of a dominant or single party. This group includes Arab countries that used to be- or still- deemed radical such as Libya, Syria, Iraq and Sudan. The third group comprises countries where freedom of association is not witnessed either for political parties, professional associations, or trade unions. This group includes most Gulf countries, except a few such as Qatar, Kuwait and UAE.
Based on Al-Sayyid’s typology, I identify three types of relationships between Arab civil society and Arab political systems. The first type reveals an embryonic civil society with a relatively friendly relationship with the political systems within which they operate. The second type discloses a relationship of suppression from the part of political regimes; the third type divulges a non-existence of any relationship owing to the non-presence of civil society institutions. The type of relationship between civil society and political systems does also suggest that there is a connection between political liberalization and the emergence and growth of civil society. In other words, there is a mutual enhancement between the process of democratization and the development of a strong civil society in which each one contribute into stimulating and developing the other.
Despite the disparity between Arab states in the development of an active civil society, Ibrahim (2008) has generally considered this development a promising one and identifies many factors that have contributed, and will contribute, into the growth of Arab civil society. I categorized these factors into internal and regional. The internal factors include the growing number of new socio-economic entities such as trade unions, professional associations and social movements. In so saying, most Arab governments find controlling these steadily growing organizations a difficult task. The regional factors refer to the prolonged regional armed conflicts which have drained states’ resources and weakened their power. These factors have pushed the agenda of civil society forward in many countries, but the progress remains sluggish taking into consideration that the Arab experience of civil society is relatively new and it goes without saying that new experiences often encounter numerous challenges.
The first and foremost challenge which encounters civil society in the Arab world is the inability of its components to communicate their ideas and put their messages across. This is mainly owing to the state’s control of the media which goes beyond the national level to include collective measures to control the transnational broadcastings. Lacking a communication platform through which civil society can address Arab constituencies remains the key challenge that hinder the development of the sector. Without such a communication tool, civil society can not uncover the oppressive practices of Arab regimes against human rights orgnizations; additionally, they cannot effectively raise peoples’ awareness on certain pressing issues of direct concern to Arabs. In short, without a powerful communication tool, civil society in the Arab world can hardly fulfil the aforementioned functions and, therefore, it is difficult to talk about empowering civil society in the Arab world and its potential contribution in the democratic transtion throughout the region.
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