The Counter-Power of Civil Society in the Middle East

Benoit Challand, the author of Palestinian Civil Society: Foreign Donors and the Power to Promote and Exclude (2009), is currently Visiting Associate Professor at the New School for Social Research.  He is affiliated with the University of Bologna where he has been teaching Middle Eastern politics since 2008. He has been Research Fellow at the Graduate Institute at the Center on Conflict, Development and Peacebuilding in Geneva, working on its Religions & Politics project. -Jeff

We are witnessing the emergence of the counter-power of civil society in the wave of revolts in the Middle East and North Africa.  It is embedded in nationalist revolts in which youth and trade unions have played and very well may continue to play important roles. I choose the phrase ‘counter-power of civil society’ to describe the ongoing developments in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain and Libya, and also the little covered protests in the Palestinian territories, because I believe that there is more to civil society than its organized form.  There is more to civil society than NGOs and the developmental approach which imagines that the key to progress is when donors, the UN or rich countries, give aid to boost non-state actors, in particular NGOs, in the “developing south.”  In fact, overlooking this, leads to a complete misunderstanding  of present transformations.

In western social theory, civil society is described by Hegel and Tocqueville (among others) as opposition to the State, or as an intermediary layer of associations between family and the State.  This has been the counter – power in the Middle East and North Africa.  Thus, when we read in this Sunday’s New York Times that “Libya has no civil society,” it is not only a conceptual error.  It makes it impossible to understand what is happening in the region.  It’s one thing to say that Libya does not have a national chapter of Human Rights Watch, or a cohort of service-providing NGOs. It is quite another matter to say that Libyan or Tunisian people cannot organize themselves on their own to cover their needs and express their autonomy, as they have done in the last weeks.

To escape western-centrism and avoid thinking of it as a residual category, I define civil society by saying that it is the source for collective autonomy. The rendering of autonomy in Arabic illustrates my point as the term is translated as tasayyir daati – that is the “self-impulse,”  or “self-drive.”

Cairo graffiti, translation from Arabic "ash-sha’b yourid isqat al-nithaam” the people want the fall of the regime © Unknown |

And indeed, once the initial spark was lit, it was as if the Tunisian people moved as a whole, into spontaneous protests. Egyptian, Libyan, and Yemeni people called for the fall of their respective regime. The slogan “ash-sha’b yourid isqat al-nithaam” [the people want the fall of the regime], appearing across the region, captures this social cohesion (the people) and the unity in the project.  The BBC also had a picture of a similar slogan on some governmental building in Libya last week.

These protests entail a radical break with the fragmented social structures existing in many Arab countries. Are these revolts or revolutions? Cornelius Castoriadis (1922-1997), the Greek libertarian Marxist exiled in France tried to answer a similar question in the case of the Hungarian 1956 revolt. To paraphrase his seminal The Hungarian Source (published in 1976 by Telos), one could say that this moment of self-organization in Egypt was coupled with a moment of radical re-imagination, by placing the nation itself at the heart of all these protests. Make no mistake: we are talking about the secular notion of territory, homeland (in Arabic ‘watan’) as opposed to the religiously tainted notion of an Islamic ummah.

Protesters camping out on the Pearl Roundabout in Bahrain, March 4, 2011 © Stepnout | Flickr

This secular re-imagining of the people as a united nation against its leaders is true for all of the ongoing revolts. Thus, sectarian, religious or class divisions are transcended into a call for national unity. This trait is valid for all ongoing protests:

– Think of the Egyptian Copts and Muslims protecting one another on Tahrir square while praying,

Bahrainis chanting that it is not about being Sunni or Shiite, but about the defense of the watan (“Sunni and Shiite Brethren! This country / nation (watan) is not for sale!”)

– Ibn Thabit, a Libyan rapper, invoking past resistance of Omar Mukhtar to Italian fascism as an example for the nation and for youth to take the street against Col. Qaddafi,

– or Palestinians youth calling (on a Facebook page called in Arabic “National Unity”) for a national protest on 03/15 to end their own political divisions.

This idea of spontaneity which translated here with the idea and practice of self-organization of the people on the street, can be seen both as the strength of these regional protests, and as their weaknesses. Revolution is, we are told by Castoriadis, the explicit self-institution of society, the expression of the capacity to choose the content and the form of the protests. While in Tunisia, it appears that there has been a real split inside the army, which enabled a fully-fledged expression of such a capacity, this soon was threatened in Egypt, where the armed forces own so much of the economic sector. By entrusting the army with managing the post-Mubarak transition, the people in Egypt have probably lost to another group its capacity to decide what to do and how to do it.

After decades of Orientalist depiction of the Middle East as essentially anti-democratic, it is with a great sense of elation that one witnesses the surge of spontaneous civil societies. Middle Easterners are no exception in their desire for equality and freedom. Yet, one needs to be cautious about the chance of their success, because there are too many counter-powers to civil society itself.  To which I will return in future posts.