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    The Heart and Soul of Arab Change Is Strong Civil Society

    When the East European dissidents of the 1980s were struggling against communist authoritarian regimes, they returned to the concept of civil society. What Eastern European intellectuals and civic actors understood by civil society was not just the 18th-century concept of the rule of law, but also the notion of horizontal self-organized groups and institutions in the public sphere that could limit the power of the state by constructing a democratic space separate from state and its ideological institutions.

    Recent democratic awakenings around the Middle East and North Africa have demonstrated once again that civil society can help to provide the independent space that is needed – to use Sir Isaiah Berlin’s famous distinction, for “negative” rather than “positive” liberty. What united Tunisians and Egyptians in their democratic uprisings, as is the case today with the people of Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, Oman, and Iran, was freedom from interference and a struggle against the concentration of arbitrary power.

    For those Egyptians who gathered for several weeks in Tahrir Square, freedom meant putting an end to the unjust accumulation of power by President Hosni Mubarak and his regime. In so doing, they were constantly negotiating their desire for democratic governance based on secure civil society. Despite their heterogeneity, groups from Arab civil society that were leading the protests found a common enemy embodied in Arab authoritarian personalized regimes. The democratic protesters from Tunisia to Tehran have been demanding governments based on public accountability and popular sovereignty.

    Actually, if we take a closer look at the young people who launched these demands, it is clear that they represent a “post-ideological generation.” For this young generation of Arabs, the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the great Islamist movements of the 1980s and 1990s are history. However, what their slogans express is mainly a demand for democracy and not necessarily secularism.

    As such, the democratic revival in the Arab world is occurring not necessarily through political ideologies in search of post-independence models of state-building (for example Kemalist or Arab nationalist) for their societies, but in terms of shared adherence to civic values that are fully compatible with the necessary pluralism of civil society. Interestingly, in such ethnically heterogeneous nations, a civil society allowing individuals to collaborate as individuals on non-ethnic and democratic lines appears as a real paradigm shift. Yet, civil society structures in some Arab countries (as in the Persian Gulf region) might not be sufficiently robust to contain future ethnic and tribal conflicts.

    A civil society strategy, in other words, should assume that democratic passion is not enough to contain civil strife. Democratic passion cannot become real democracy until civil society becomes strong enough to control the state from the bottom up. It is in the institutions of civil society – a free press, trade unions, student and intellectual movements, private firms, publishing houses and so on that the future of a democratic society is written.

    Many analysts fail to imagine what models of social, political and economic organization could result in the near future from these mass mobilizations around the Middle East and the Maghreb. Pessimism about the prospects for the post-Islamist Arab world is centered on this issue. In Western Europe, civil society took centuries to emerge from the bottom up, while Arab societies need democracy immediately. This said, without civil society democracy is lame. But without democracy, civil society is blind.

    What does seem certain, however, is that within the political framework of each of these societies in ebullition, a new generation of civic actors will have a major part to play in writing the new rules of the game in the Arab world. Without a doubt, this will entail ruptures with old systems and with illegitimate and corrupted regimes. The focus on constitutional changes accompanied by citizens’ rights, political representation and the accountability of governing bodies affirms the new political attitude that emanates from civil societies in the Arab world. This new political culture is the heart and soul of the change that Arab citizens have initiated in their countries, noticeably without violence or foreign intervention.

    It is still too early to venture into speculation about what the future of the Arab revolts might hold, and whether unrest around the region will lead to the emergence of democratic regimes. There is also no reason to think that this wave of democratization would happen in countries like Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain in the same way as in Tunisia and Egypt. Unlike Egypt and Tunisia, countries like Libya and Saudi Arabia do not possess civil society frameworks with the capacity to force out their leaders without engaging in a civil war.

    Also in Tunisia and Egypt, the army saw itself as a mediator between the regime and civil society and in the end decided to take the side of civil society. But unlike its neighbors, Libya lacks not only the mediating hand of a military institution; it also has no trade unions, no political parties and no nongovernmental agencies.

    Though free and democratic elections are not likely to be held soon in the Arab world, the spread of freedom and democracy there is unquestionably a positive development for the future empowerment of civil societies in the Middle East

    The Daily Star

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