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Civic activism in the Middle East

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How ordinary citizens challenge the status quo

For many years, the Arab people were considered a ‘passive people’, and ‘undemocratic citizens’. The recent uprisings prove these convictions false, however. The reason why we fail to understand the uprisings in the Arab world, is because our liberal Western conceptualisation of civil society and its role in bringing about democracy is not helpful in an authoritarian context.

By Iris Kolman

Until recently, the Middle East has not commonly been associated with the word, let alone the real­ity, of democracy. In fact, the Middle East was the only region that in its entirety failed to ride the Third Wave of democracy, a term coined by political scientist Samuel P. Huntington to classify democ­ratisation processes of the last decennia. Nevertheless, for years a number of scholars and poli-cy makers held on to the belief that Arab states would eventually make the transition to democ­racy. Although some still argue that the whole world can and will be democratic, others have become more and more critical of what they con­sider a ‘democratisation bias’. Around the turn of the century, Thomas Carothers, an expert on democratisation, called for the end of the transi­tion paradigm because ‘many countries that poli­cy makers and aid practitioners persist in calling ‘transitional’ are not in transition to democracy, and of the democratic transitions that are under way, more than a few are not following the model’ (Carothers 2002: 5). Consequently, numerous scholars of Middle East politics shifted their fo­cus to finding an explanation for the resilience of authoritarian Arab states.

Now, after recent events, the main puzzle chal­lenging scholars is how massive collective mobi­lisation finally did come about in one of the most repressive regions of the world. Many have recog­nised that dominant concepts and assumptions about the Middle East should be re-examined in order to solve this puzzle, especially with regard to our understanding of civic activism under authoritarianism. For years Arabs have been char­acterised as passive people unable to rip away the oppressive brace of dictatorship. Commonly pro­vided explanations were the lack of a properly functioning civil society and political apathy among citizens. It turns out that in the absence of representative institutions and independent civil society organisations Arab citizens did find ways to form political identities that were able to shift power relations and change the status quo. In light of the Arab uprisings it is time to re-examine the concept and practical application of civil society, with regard to the Middle East especially.

Civil society and democracy
Since the 18th century, Western scholars, starting with Alexis De Tocqueville, have stressed the positive and pro-democratic role of civil society activism. From their liberal perspective, civil so­ciety – the spheres of ideas, values, institutions, organisations and networks that are located be­tween the family, the market, and the state – bolsters an environment of pluralism and trust where subjects have the opportunity to become democratic citizens. These autonomous associa­tions are the vehicles through which citizens rep­resent personal interests, channel and mediate mass concerns, and hold states accountable. When civic activism appeared to have played a significant role during the social revolutions in Latin America and Eastern Europe, civil society strengthening projects soon became a key feature of democracy promotion initiatives in the Middle East as well. Since the Arab people failed to rise and overthrow their dictators in favour of democ­racy, scholars and policy makers alike concluded that Arab civil society was weak or even non-ex­istent. The awakening of civil society would thus be the decisive factor in challenging these resist­ant authoritarian regimes. The underlying theo­retical assumption of this liberal normative approach is that a strong civil society is condu­cive to the establishment of democracy under authoritarian rule and helps to maintain existing democracy. Over the past decade, however, a num­ber of scholars recognised that civil society plays a markedly different role outside of the demo­cratic context on which the concept is based.

Autocratic repression of civic activism
In democratic states civil society is the independ­ent creation of pre-existing civic orientations and beliefs, while today’s Arab civil societies are constructs of decades-old authoritarian and state-centralised policies. Steven Heydemann (2007) has shown that one of the most defining and suc­cessful elements of authoritarian upgrading – the ability of Arab regimes to exploit rather than re­sist broad social, political, and economic trends – is the effectiveness with which Arab regimes have appropriated and contained civil society. Arab autocrats bolster their hold on power by em­bedding civil society in the state through a com­bination of legalism, coercion, and co-optation.

It makes perfect sense that repressive states are unlikely to tolerate civic activism that has the potential to challenge the status quo. Consequently, the majority of civic associations and organisations in the Middle East reflects and strengthens the vertical ties that characterise patrimonial Arab states. In other words, the so­cial hierarchies that structure everyday relations are reproduced in dealings and interactions with the state and the state in turn guards and rein­forces the status quo. Still, there is a presence of social associations in the Middle East that do not support their respective regimes. Unfortunately, these associations generally lack the means and political power to instigate democratic change in states dominated by hierarchical power structures.

Power of the masses
Given the pre-occupation with first ‘Middle Eastern exceptionalism’ and subsequently authoritarian resilience, there has been a lack of scholarly inter­est in the forms of individual and popular dissent that were present in the Middle East. Asef Bayat (i.e. 2010) is one of the few who did focus on agency and change in the Arab world prior to the recent turn of events. Interestingly, he was, in compari­son with most of his colleagues, rather optimistic about a possible political transformation in the Arab world. According to Bayat, active citizenry would induce and sustain democratic reform in the Middle East by producing alternative ideas, norms, practices and politics that would weave into the fabric of society eventually leading to the subversion of authoritarian rule. The poten­tial for democratic reform lies in the fact that even authoritarian regimes have limited powers and can never completely stifle an entire society: the mass of ordinary citizens in their daily lives. It is interesting to elaborate on his approach to bottom-up politics in the Middle East, since re­cent approaches to civic activism in the region increasingly reflect his vision on agency and change.

Street politics
Contentious collective action has long been part of the Arab region’s political history, for instance labour protests or protests and protests in sup­port of the Palestinian cause; nevertheless real opportunities for sustained collective mobilisa­tion rarely occur under authoritarian rule. This has everything to do with the fact that, under or­dinary conditions, autocrats express little toler­ance for independent and organised dissent. Neoliberal restructuring has further curtailed the popular capacity for revolt by, for instance, increasing the fragmentation of labour and by shrinking the public sector. Consequently, the subaltern – the urban dispossessed, women, the globalising youth, and other urban grassroots – are left to their own devices to fulfil their social and material needs and expectations. These mar­ginalised individuals seek ways to better their lives outside the institutional mechanisms; they look for the uncontrolled spaces – the zones of relative freedom – and appropriate them. Because these informal groups do not have an institution­al clout of their own, the ‘street’ gets to be the site for conflict with the authorities over the control of public space and order. A pivotal dimension of these street politics is that public space becomes the place where people forge identities, enlarge solidarities, and extent their protest beyond their immediate circles.

These (imagined) solidarities or passive networks are a key feature in the formation of what Bayat has labelled social nonmovements:

‘ The collective actions of noncollective actors; they embody shared practices of large numbers of ordinary people whose fragmented but simi­lar activities trigger much social change, even though these practices are rarely guided by an ideology or recognizable leadership and organi­zations’ (Bayat 2010: 14).

In other words, social nonmovements encompass the ordinary practices of ordinary people in their day-to-day life. Through this passive activism social nonmovements have a significant trans­formative impact on society by weaving their logic into the fabric of society, into norms, rules, institutions, and relations of power. The crux is that these passive networks and social nonmove­ments can turn into organised social movements when the opportunity arises. While the direct practices of the subaltern in pursuit of social gains takes place at an individual level, the de­fence of these gains often takes place through collective action. Thus, a common threat can transform passive networks into active commu­nication and organised resistance. Although more research into these questions is required, the above approach would seem to fit the particu­lars of the Arab uprisings rather well. It is there­fore unsurprising that Bayat’s vision is reflected in recent research on civic activism in the Middle East. More and more scholars stress the need to look at alternative forms of political expression that occur parallel to the state apparatus and out­side traditional organizations.

Why we misunderstand Arab civil society
The recent turn of events in the Arab world has renewed scholarly interest in the complex character of state-society relations in authoritarian contexts. The uprisings were not led by traditional civil society groups and associations but rather the product of mass dissatisfaction and loose horizontal networks. A returning question is therefore whether the Western liberal concep­tualisation of civil society is adequate to the un­derstanding of civic activism in and beyond the Middle East. General discourse on civil society has rendered meaningless other types of civility that do not match the liberal normative perspec­tive. Instead of perceiving the Middle East as having either a civility deficit or the ‘wrong’ kind of civility, it should be recognised that there are different ways to produce civilities outside of the boundaries that characterise mainstream debates on civic behaviour and civil society. Moreover, it has not provided useful insight into the com­plexity of the social processes that underpin or prevent political change in authoritarian con­texts. Most importantly it failed to identify the – political and apolitical – practices and spaces among ordinary citizens which allowed for the formation of alternative identities.

A new non-normative approach
Although an increasing number of scholars recognise that civil society plays different roles depending on the political context, there is still a normative bias inherent in the understanding of civil society because it continues to be framed around the assumptions of democratisation. Francesco Cavatorta (2013) argues that the focus should therefore be on the variations of civil soci­ety activism within authoritarian regimes instead of whether or not they promote democratisation. Civil society is neither good nor bad and thus needs to be approached as a neutral variable. Only then will it be possible to truly understand the various modes of engagement under ever changing authoritarian rule. In this context it is ever more impor­tant to acknowledge the reciprocal relationship between the social and political arenas. If any­thing, the Arab uprisings have shown that nei­ther societies nor states remain static over time and that a-political activism can eventually have far-reaching political consequences.

 

Iris Kolman follows the master International Develop-ment Studies at the University of Amsterdam and is co-writer of From Resilience to Revolt: Making Sense of the Arab Spring, a report by the University of Amsterdam commissioned by the Dutch Ministry of Security and Justice.

 

Literature

Aarts, P. et al. (2012). From Resilience to Revolt: Making Sense of the Arab Spring, Amsterdam: University of Amsterdam.

Bayat, A. (2010). Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East, Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Cavatorta, F. (2013). Civil Society Activism Under Authoritarian Rule. A Comparative Perspective, New York: Routledge.

Carothers, T. (2002). The End of the Transition Paradigm. Journal of Democracy, Vol. 13, No. 1: 5-20.

Heydemann, S, (2007). Upgrading Authoritarianism in the Arab World. The Saban Center for Middle East Policy at The Brookings Institution, October 2007.

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

Volpi, F. (2011). ‘Framing Civility in the Middle East: Alternative Perspectives on the State and Civil Society’. Third World Quarterly, Vol, 32, No. 5: 827-843.

 

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Dit artikel verscheen in idee nr. 6 2012: Trust in people’s own power, en is te vinden bij de onderwerpen activisme en mensen onderling.

Laatst gewijzigd op 22 november 2018