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Defining “civil society” and its role in a changing region

mardi 1er juillet 2014, par Bassam Kantar

Civil society group, Kafa, demonstrate for a domestic violence law. (Photo : Marwan Tahtah)


“Civil society is not an end in itself. It is a basic step to transition to a vibrant democratic society,” this was the conclusion of a study addressing the controversial issue of the definition and role of civil society in light of what it called “transformations in the Arab region.”

What role do we want “civil society” to play ? This question was posed at a meeting organized in Beirut on June 25 by Euromed Civil Forum-Lebanon and the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung Academic Foundation, which brought together representatives of organizations and scholars to discuss a draft study prepared by Habib Maalouf.

The study aims to define civil society, determine its nature and objectives, and understand the commonalities and differences within the largest representative cross-section possible in the Arab region and beyond. The study and the dialogue around it are intended to produce a charter, or social contract, or a list of demands that would be adopted and promoted in the Arab and Euro-Mediterranean regions.

The study aims to propose creative ideas about desired changes to regimes and define the relationship between society and the state, specifically between Arab and European societies and Euro-Mediterranean states. These ideas should also influence Euro-Mediterranean relationships, agreements and partnership projects.

Maalouf points out that “defining the nature, entity, objectives and demands [of civil society] is not simply about combining organizations and their objectives, particularly those specializing in certain sectors. Rather, it is about defining the role of society, the role and nature of the state and regimes as well as civil society’s relationship with them and with the private sector. It is also about providing theories on desired and acceptable economic, social and moral systems.”

Maalouf bases his analysis of civil society on what he describes as “transformations in the Arab region or Arab mass movements whose directions and fate are still unknown.” He affirms “the need for the forces of so-called civil society to develop common positions and goals, whether they are participating in this mass movement or are passive recipients, whether they are acting or reacting.”

It is against this backdrop that the draft study was prepared and is meant to facilitate the discussion and to serve as an intellectual background for this mass movement. It entails, in addition to a project of defining certain terms and concepts, specific demands to be discussed.

Maalouf established with a number of environmental activists the Lebanese Environmental Party in 2005 and it seems that his academic background as a philosophy professor influenced the content of the study. A number of sociology scholars, however, were not pleased with this, including Sari Hanafi, a professor at the American University of Beirut. Hanafi argued that the study reinstated a discussion of concepts about civil society and the nature of their relationship to Arab cultural heritage, as they are imported from Western thought. He pointed out that the academic debate on the subject has moved beyond this point a long time ago. Maalouf’s response was that the philosophical concept does not ignore the discussion about concepts but develops it and tries to adapt it to the present, which is essential for civil society organizations in the Arab world.

Maalouf pointed out that civil society was conceived of through Western thought as a sphere distinct from political bodies and state power on one hand and from individual interests and the dictates of the market on the other. But does this “distinction from political bodies” mean excluding political parties from civil society ? Does the focus on the aspect of volunteering mean that sports clubs for example are an active part of civil society, like human rights and environmental organizations ? Maalouf gives sports clubs in Lebanon as an example of the problematic nature of including them in the sphere of civil society, especially since they have lately become part of the power struggle and of the sectarian and financial conflict on one hand and an outlet for advertising and marketing products on the other. This has undermined their affiliation with and commitment to society’s general causes and turned them into a site for political, commercial and sectarian conflicts.

A big part of the discussion revolved around the problematic nature of excluding political parties from the definition of civil society based on the nature of political parties in the Arab region, which are different in their structure from the concept of political parties in the West. Political parties in the Arab world rally around a leader rather than a party that engages in democratic action. This renders them unable to play a reformist role in any electoral system that contributes to a peaceful transfer of power and produces a political and administrative cadre capable of governing away from sharing spoils and quotas and away from conflicts that often devolve into violence and lead to struggles that take the form of armed, tribal or sectarian strife.

The study concludes that reviving civil society requires a breadth of vision and action provided only by politics and by setting one’s sight on the state. Political, economic and social issues today are intricately interdependent. Civil society has no choice but to engage in political action and to have principles, values and ideals that it aspires to achieve. Perhaps it is not necessary to join political parties but it is definitely necessary for civil society organizations to dive into the political struggle over how to run the state, instead of focusing on “civil discourse” about individual issues. It is also necessary to get over their fear of holistic discourse and thought. The interconnectedness of issues and the public interest require a more comprehensive discourse. As such, it might be useful in the foreseeable future for civil society activists to engage in political work more deeply without turning civil society into a power-seeking entity, but rather holding on to its place between the state and the market. This, however, does not absolve civil society organizations of the need to better organize their ranks, improve their discourse and enhance their representation of the community.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

(26-06-2014 - Bassam Kantar)

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