Liberated Mideast Societies Searching for Civil Society

Can the Arab world develop the civil society structure necessary to mediate between the people and regimes so as to nourish democracy?

Civil society is under attack throughout the Mideast, with regimes from Israel to Iraq well aware that a robust civil society, i.e., an organized array of private institutions independent from the government, constitutes a core bulwark for the defense of democracy against the abuse of power by the regime. The rapid formation of political parties in post-Mubarak Egypt is one step toward the construction of a healthy civil society. Another is the convening for the first time since 2004 of Le Front des forces socialistes (FFS) in Algeria. Additional, albeit possibly more ephemeral, examples are given by the many new Facebook pages designed to organize dissent. A stellar example that recalls the days of Lech Walesa is the recent formation of an independent Egyptian labor organization.

Pavel Demes of the German Marshall Fund provides an intriguing discussion of civil society in Eastern Europe to discover lessons for Arab reformers trying to protect nascent democratic tendencies:

First, we learned from the European experience that democratic breakthroughs can occur surprisingly fast, but that the development of a true culture of civic participation takes time.  Two decades after the collapse of communist regimes, some nations are still struggling to overcome the legacy of the past. Second, although foreign financial and material assistance, coupled with sensible expertise, was very important in developing and strengthening civil societies in these countries, the courage and creativity of local reformers and democracy activists were crucial. Third, even in countries that are geographically close or culturally similar, national specificities and public sentiments mattered greatly in the development and impact of civic groups. Last but not least, solidarity and cooperation among democracy activists and democratic governments was critical in sustaining the course toward more prosperous and stable societies that respected human rights and freedoms.

Civil society independence is a key barometer of the health of democracy. Both a civil society under attack by the government, e.g., union-busting by Republican politicians in Wisconsin doing the bidding of billionaires who want cheap labor, and the existence of an atomized society in which people are too complacent to bother joining civil society organizations both constitute threats to liberty. The emergence of a healthy civil society will be one of the crucial factors influencing the course of the Arab Revolt of 2011.