“It has become impossible to realize any sustained process of Arab democratization without establishing an effective civil society,” writes Ibrahim Saleh. But civil society’s potential is “strictly constrained by government policies and practices that restrict expression and alienate Arab publics from government, the media, the international community, and each other.”
Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories enjoy relatively vibrant civil societies, he notes, while the oil-rich Gulf states have the most feeble, with other Arab countries somewhere in between. But political failure is a common trait across the region, he writes in the journal of the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law.
Individual civil society groups, largely focused on single issues, are incapable of mobilizing a critical mass of supporters. “Although NGOs can limit the depredations of authoritarian rule by publicizing abuses such as torture of political dissidents, they cannot directly challenge the state without popular support,” Saleh writes.
The way in which civil society is defined has significant political implications, he suggests:
If only secular democrats are considered to be part of civil society, then the civic sector appears weak and fragmented, unable to extract weighty reforms from autocratic executives……. On the other hand, should Islamists be included within the view of civil society, then traditional explanations behind the failings of people power lose persuasiveness; the “Arab street” appears passionate and popular as measured by the Islamists’ membership and resources, and on numerous fronts seems on the brink of mounting a frontal assault on the authoritarian state.
Across the MENA region, civil society activists are uniformly constrained by similar legal restrictions on freedom of expression, from codes regulating books and newspapers to laws governing political parties and national security.
Yet Arab regimes confront a dilemma, the National Endowment for Democracy’s Laith Kubba has observed, fearing loss of control to civil society while recognizing the urgency of reform as globalization and new communications technologies mean they can no longer control the flow of information.
“Only a narrow margin of freedom is permitted for privately owned media organizations, independent trade union movements, and public-policy forums,” he notes, “but even this restricted space offers real opportunities for democratic development.”