Civil society

What is civil society?

There have been various attempts to define “civil society”. The Centre for Civil Society at the London School of Economics describes it in this way:

Civil society commonly embraces a diversity of spaces, actors and institutional forms, varying in their degree of formality, autonomy and power. Civil societies are often populated by organisations such as registered charities, development non-governmental organisations, community groups, women’s organisations, faith-based organisations, professional associations, trades unions, self-help groups, social movements, business associations, coalitions and advocacy groups.

Definitions usually treat civil society as a separate social space, distinct from:

1. The state;
2. The family;
3. The market.

This is what gives civil society its importance. Civil society, in the words of Ziad Abdel Samad, executive director of the Arab NGO Network for Development, is “situated between state and market, monitoring the powers and roles of each to assure a balance between them”.

Discussion of civil society in a Middle Eastern context generally considers clans and tribes – which are influential in many Arab countries – to be classed as family. “Accordingly,” Abdel Samad continues, “just as civil society monitors the powers of the state and the market, it also has the potential to monitor tribal and clan relations in order to assure a balance among market, state, and family.”

That can only happen if the state recognises the value of civil society and provides a suitable framework for it to function properly. The Open Society Institute points out

The governmental and political structure of an open society may take many forms, but fundamental to them all is the principle that the state exists to serve the people, not the people to serve the state or the party that controls it. 

Achieving such a society requires laws that protect the rights of individuals to express their views freely and to come together freely to organise their efforts in pursuit of a common objective. The freedoms of expression, association, and peaceful assembly are the hallmarks of an open society. Law alone cannot create an open society, but no open society can exist unless the law gives meaningful protection to these and other fundamental freedoms. The law must recognise the right of individuals to join together to pursue shared interests or to pursue shared notions of the public good, free of state interference.

Problems of civil society

The right of people to act collectively for the sake of shared interests, purposes and values is one of the building blocks of a free and open society, and exercising that right is the essence of civil society activity.

However, most Arab governments seek to restrict civil society organisations. At one level the purpose of this is obvious: to keep a lid on political discourse and activity – especially any that might be perceived as a threat to the established order. At another level, though, it reflects a very old-fashioned notion of the function of government which treats citizens as if they were children in need of constant supervision.

A flourishing civil society promotes active citizenship, undermining the idea that the ruling elites know best – with the result, as Abdel Samad notes, that they become “defensive and jealous” at the prospect. Active citizenship also advertises that government is not all-powerful. Even charitable work, unthreatening and apolitical as it might seem, can be a sensitive matter if it highlights the state’s own failure to provide basic services. 

Restrictions on civil society

1. To operate legally, civil society organisations must be registered with the authorities, and registration can be denied.

2. Laws regulating non-governmental organisations often allow the authorities to meddle in their affairs – for example, by restricting their areas of activity or disqualifying “undesirable” people from running them.

3. Governments sometimes take over civil society organisations by infiltrating them with their own supporters. Alternatively, they may set up a parallel organisation with a similar name and purpose, and with more ample funding – a practice known as “cloning”.

4. There are often restrictions on receiving funds from foreign sources. This is a particular handicap for organisations in the poorer Arab countries, where local sources of funds may be extremely limited.

Unregistered organisations do exist in some Arab countries, depending partly on the nature of the organisations and how strictly the law is enforced. Kuwait, for example, has numerous unlicensed civic groups, clubs, and unofficial NGOs. The law is also applied loosely in parts of the Emirates.

In some countries non-governmental organisations try to get round the restrictions by registering themselves as businesses. In Jordan, the authorities seem to have got wise to this.

Source: What's Really Wrong with the Middle East, by Brian Whitaker (Saqi Books, 2009).