Hivos International

Civil Society

With mass protests in Syria in full swing, and violence reaching unprecedented levels, it may at first seem peculiar to release a volume of papers that document and analyse the inner workings and fate of Syria’s civil society as it manifested itself on the eve of the uprising in early 2011. The current clashes between armed groups and the regime, their sad trail of human casualties and suffering, and the regional and international intrigues affecting Syria’s current plight all appear to be deserving our more immediate attention.

This article is a summary of the book Civil Society and Democratization in the Arab World (Routledge, 30th September 2010).

This book illustrates that the popular view in political sciences and policy making that civil society activism plays an important role in processes of democratization is for many reasons not valid for Arab countries. Building on Jamal’s work (2007), this study by Francesco Cavatorta and Vincent Durac discusses the authoritarian and sectarian wider political context of countries such as Algeria, Morocco, Jordan, Yemen and Lebanon. These contexts have specific effects that tend to move away from the conventional wisdom that civil society activism generates democratizing trends. More significantly, civil society activism in authoritarian and sectarian settings strengthens the authoritarian regimes.

Crisis is a much-overworked word in social sciences generally and in politics in particular. Phrases such as ‘democracy promotion is in crisis’ or ‘civil society can never be a force for democratization’ are simplistic overstatements. However, one cannot deny that there are serious challenges on the road to democratization, both of a conceptual and of a practical nature. The second issue of the newsletter of Knowledge Programme Civil Society in West Asia deals with the challenges faced by the concept of civil society and the much-debated concepts in the ‘democratization industry’.

Crisis is a much-overworked word in social sciences generally and in politics in particular. Phrases such as ‘democracy promotion is in crisis’ or ‘civil society can never be a force for democratization’ are simplistic overstatements. However, one cannot deny that there are serious challenges on the road to democratization, both of a conceptual and of a practical nature. The second issue of the newsletter of Knowledge Programme Civil Society in West Asia deals with the challenges faced by the concept of civil society and the much-debated concepts in the ‘democratization industry’.

This publication is part of the working paper series of the Knowledge Programme Civil Society in West Asia. 

On a daily basis scores of Syrian activists upload their YouTube footage of protests and the regime’s atrocities, hoping that someone will watch them, become outraged, and act in ways to support the uprising. Given the regime’s information blackout, a lot can be learned from these video snapshots. Yet otherwise the eerie silence from Syria has been deafening. Rarely are Syrian activists given a voice to express their grievances, wishes, desires, aspirations and dilemmas. It is against this background that this newsletter has given the floor to some of such Syrian writer-activists who, despite the high risks involved, continue to publish their commentary in the Arabic-language media. It is in the power of their stories that these Syrian and Arab authors prove themselves to be true revolutionaries.

This publication is part of the working paper series of the Knowledge Programme Civil Society in West Asia.

Despite the sustained and genuine efforts of committed civic activists, and a ‘surge’ of civil society organisations and democracy promotion over the course of the past two decades in the Middle East, hopes for genuine and far-reaching democratic reforms have reached an apparent dead-end.

In Libya, political civil society is a novelty. Mostly banned under Muammar Gaddafi, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have mushroomed in post-2011 Libya thanks to newly acquired freedoms. The influx of foreign donors to the previously isolated country, providing technical and financial assistance, has contributed to building up the capacities of the Libyan NGO sector.

In the aftermath of Egypt’s revolution, controversies  over foreign funding to Egyptian civil society organisations (CSO) have  become even more politicised. This has resulted in the prosecution of a  number of international and Egyptian NGO workers. Because CSOs are a  critical part of the democratic transition, the Egyptian public needs to  engage in a transparent debate over the role of foreign funding.

The issue of ‘foreign funding’ to local civil and political society, and the political agendas associated with it, remain a highly sensitive issue in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) following the ‘Arab  Spring’. By mid-2012, it has become clear that the ouster of aging  dictators has not abolished either their regimes or their practices. Branding civil society activists and organisations who receive foreign funding as agents of the West aiming at regime change is a common tactic that contributes to perceptions of a presumed ‘conspiracy’ behind foreign funding. The recent campaign against local and international NGOs in Egypt illustrates how the notorious ‘foreign funding dilemma’ retains a sadly pressing relevance.

This paper investigates relations between the Syrian regime and the Sunni sphere by providing a brief policy oriented analysis of regime - sphere relations and their role in the resilience of the Syrian authoritarian regime. It adds to the emerging appreciation amongst scholars and practitioners in the field of civil society that civil activism does not necessarily have a positive impact on processes of democratization and/or socio-political liberalization. It does this by questioning the extent in which civil actors are independent in the Syrian authoritarian context and assessing what influence this has on stabilizing the Syrian authoritarian system. It argues that Sunni civil activists can (unintentionally) support authoritarianism by being drawn to the very regime that suppresses them – mimicking a moth drawn to a flame. Second, based on the outcomes of the research it provides recommendations aimed at international NGOs that hope to engage with civil actors in Syria. The paper focuses on the Sunni sphere as this has proven to be the largest and most resilient sphere of civil activism in Syria and in the Middle East in general.

This publication is part of the working paper series of the Knowledge Programme Civil Society in West Asia.

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