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    Civil Society and the Men with the Guns

    Every time I go to a conference or workshop on civil society and non-governmental organizations in the Arab world, I come away with the same mixed feelings of despondency and pride. I am despondent because decades of work and tens of millions of dollars of local and foreign money that have been spent on strengthening civil society have had very limited impact on the quality of life of ordinary citizens in our region. Civil society institutions continue to be almost totally at the mercy of state power and controls.
    Yet I am proud because tens of thousands of Arab men and women nevertheless continue to strive for better societies where citizens can form associations and organizations to work in that vast public space between the family and the state. The quest to develop a thriving civil society reflects the desire to create – and is an indispensible part of – a society governed by the rule of law, defined by social equity, and propelled on a trajectory of growth, pluralism and prosperity through the development and the unleashing of the full talents of all citizens.
    This was brought home to me once again this week when I attended a two-day conference in Jordan organized by the Foundation for the Future, one of the groups spawned by the G-8 process that has attempted to prod democratic governance, human rights and reform in the Middle East by supporting civil society initiatives. Efforts to attain that aim remain more impressive than the achievements. Some outstanding presentations based on solid research and serious analysis emphasized several points that we have know for decades: civil society institutions are a critical component of a stable and credible democracy; many wise and brave men and women in our region work hard, against great odds, to promote such institutions; yet Arab civil society remains structurally stunted, for various reasons.
    The slow pace of progress for civil society – as opposed, say, to the development of the private sector, ATM bank machines, shopping malls, smuggling networks, Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises, or information and communication technology – is due primarily to the resistance of the prevailing power structure to real change that leads to power-sharing with others beyond the contours of ruling elites and their guards and business associates. We know this and have known it since soon after the birth of the modern Arab state system was overtaken by the advent of the security state, where power is closely monopolized in the hands of a few men, who control, pay and are supported by many other men with guns.
    Civil society institutions – NGOs, along with professional and business associations, religious and tribal groups, and advocacy organizations with a narrow focus – essentially fall into one of two kinds of bodies: they are utilitarian and service delivery organizations that respond to a specific need (for example, pre-schools, care for the handicapped, professional standards for barbers and hairdressers, or environmental protection); or, they operate in the more contested realm of national values, policy-making and asset allocation (for example promoting human rights and democracy, enhancing political parties and parliamentary performance, the status of women, the rule of law and accountability, or civilian oversight of the security sector).

    Civil society groups in the first category tend to do well, and in some cases are even consulted by the state, because they do not threaten the state’s monopoly over power, and even relieve the state of some service delivery obligations (care for handicapped, helping the poor, protecting wildlife, and so on). Organizations in the second category, however, have minimal, if any, impact because of their core actions: they tend to question and defy the norms and policies of the state; they demand to hold the state accountable for its actions; and they seek to play a role in setting national policies and allocating resources.
    The fundamental dynamic at play in the interaction between civil society and the state in the Arab world is the tension between knowledge, norms and power. Civil society and NGOs succeed in very narrow confines when they play a utilitarian role that complements but does not intrude on the authority of the state. They have virtually zero impact or credibility when they try to modify the exercise of state or elite power. It remains the case that those that seek to make a difference in the Arab world have to peacefully but forcefully contest the monopoly of power by the state – the sort of nonviolent challenge that Solidarity mounted against the Soviet-supported Polish state in the 1980s, which ultimately led to the collapse of the Soviet system.
    No wonder, therefore, that every time civil society and NGO activists launch a new initiative or organization, they must first get permission to do so from the men with guns who hold power in our region.

    Rami KHOURI
    The Daily Star

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