CIVICUS Civil Society Index

An international action-research project by and for civil society

‘Imitation of the West’? Civil society in the Arab world

Posted by civilsocietyindex on February 22, 2010

This article was written for e-CIVICUS no. 475, the weekly CIVICUS newsletter, and is based on analysis by Mark Nowottny, Jacob Mati and Julia Sestier from the CIVICUS Civil Society Index team. It follows CIVICUS involvement in a regional conference organised by the Foundation for the Future in January 2010.

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On Thursday 28 January 2010, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi declared in a televised address to the General People’s Congress that the idea of civil society “is a bourgeois culture and an imitation of the West that has no place here [in Libya]”[1]. Gaddafi’s statement last week drew particular media attention because it came on the eve of a proposal due to be announced by his son, Saif al-Islam, which would have permitted the creation of NGOs.

Gaddafi’s comments were grounded in Libyan history, and specifically within the unique context of Jamahiriya (‘direct democracy’ or ‘state of the masses’). In this proclaimed view of society, popular local councils and communes rely on mass citizen involvement to run the country, blurring and removing the supposedly Western distinction between the state and civil society. Nevertheless, the sentiments which underpinned Gaddafi’s comments – and specifically the notion that the idea of civil society is rooted in a culturally alien agenda – are ones which civil society activists across the Arab world have long found themselves confronted by. Against this challenging background, what role exists for international organisations in promoting the growth of civil society in the Arab region?

In search of authenticity

It has long been asserted that a number of countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) possess vibrant civil societies grounded in centuries-old histories of Islamist philanthropy. But in the late twentieth century, organisations emerged which were also increasingly recognised as part of a broader civic, human rights and pro-democracy movement. In doing so, they cast a very different light on existing ideas about what it meant when citizens came together with shared interests.

The deliberate distinction between, on the one hand, ‘culturally authentic’ civil society organisations and, on the other, those whose origin was supposedly rooted in the West, at times became a central and well-practiced argument used to discredit the pro-democracy movement. Curiously enough, the civil society organisations considered to be authentic tended also to be those that did not threaten to undermine the authority of a series of repressive governments.

Nevertheless, the argument that the idea of ‘civil society’ simply does not apply to the Arab culture remains a convincing and compelling one for many. In a number of Arab countries, CSOs find themselves distrusted and disliked, not only by government but also sometimes by the private sector, by the media, and even by academia. More importantly, popular opinion itself seems often to have turned against civil society.

In response, certain CSOs suggest that culturally relativistic arguments, in which they suffer from being portrayed as the outsider, are obscuring the real issue: that people across the Arab world are increasingly articulating and demanding their rights, from the grassroots upwards. But while asserting that this process is entirely organic and authentic, many of these same CSOs nevertheless do receive funding from foreign donors to continue their work. The tension between, on the one hand, the need for financial sustainability and, on the other, the desire to avoid a crippling blow in public perception, continues to be an uncomfortable and often unresolved situation for many CSOs in the region.

How, then, can international organisations seek to support the growth of civil society and civic space in the Arab region, without in the same breath undermining the potential public support base of some CSOs?

Drawing the bigger picture

One answer lies in creating space for indigenous CSOs to arrive at a common, and evidence-based, understanding of civil society in the region. Indeed, on the very same day that Gaddafi made his statement, a lower profile but perhaps equally important meeting was taking place at the Dead Sea in Jordan. Hosted by the Foundation for the Future, the conference discussed one such way to enhance the room for civil society through strengthened support for regional research on civil society organisations[2].

Amid overwhelmingly normative arguments about the relative virtue of CSOs, the need for empirically based research and objective insights has perhaps never been greater. As Ziad Abdel Samad, Executive Director of the Arab NGO Network for Development (ANND) and a member of the CIVICUS Board, put it during the conference, “the actual use of research by CSOs, which is still very limited, could enhance their interventions, effectiveness, policy impact, credibility with official parties – even dialogue among themselves”[3].

But why specifically does research matter? One school of thought suggests that the emergence of NGOs as part of an uncompromising human rights and pro-democracy agenda may actually have contributed to the polarisation of opinion about civil society. On the one hand, some support has been won for recognition of an important regional agenda. Meanwhile, massive popular support for other forms of civil society organisations has been lost, as evidenced in part by Gaddafi’s statement, which only tapped into wider sentiments.

Research, however, can perhaps help clarify that such NGOs do not necessarily represent the entire realm of associational life. Indeed, evidence[4] emerged in the conference in Jordan that in places, the presence of NGOs has had a detrimental effect on overall associational life, in places even reversing its vibrancy. The implication is that the controversy surrounding the role of NGOs, Western or otherwise, in the Arab region may be obscuring the bigger picture of everyday associational life; of family and clan associations, of sports clubs, of unions, of service providing CSOs, and of philanthropic organisations. A more accurate picture of this reality, in other words, could help build bridges and move away from the polarisation of opinion around civil society, from which it continues to suffer deeply.

The role of CIVICUS

CIVICUS World Alliance for Citizen Participation, represented at the meeting by Research Officer Jacob Mati[5], recognises and supports this prominent role for knowledge generation and dialogue about civil society in the region. The CIVICUS Civil Society Index[6] (CSI), a participatory action-research project implemented by and for civil society organisations in the region, encourages the development of a better collective understanding of civil society. Although the project enables international comparability, this understanding is nevertheless rooted primarily in the experiences and worldviews of those who lead the research. In the MENA region, this ownership of the civil society agenda could not be more important.

In 2003-2006, the CIVICUS Civil Society Index was implemented in three areas of the MENA region: Lebanon, Egypt and Palestine. In Lebanon, for example, partners implementing the project concluded that “a crucial issue for the future of Lebanese civil society is the extent to which major civil society actors will be willing and able to move beyond sectarian confines, embrace internal organisational democracy and accountability, and reach out to the young generation, which is fervently pushing for political reforms”[7]. For the implementing partners, the CSI created space for discussion and cast new light on Lebanese civil society at a critical juncture in its history.

Importantly, the project also brought to light the specific situation of Lebanon, avoiding the generalisations so often brought to bear on the Arab world. And in the 2008-2010 phase, implementation of the CSI is now accordingly being targeted in a much wider range of MENA countries, including Bahrain, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Djibouti and Sudan. One hope among project partners is that the analytical country reports and policy action briefs which will pull together the research later this year will set out a series of country-specific roadmaps for civil society strengthening. These roadmaps, crucially, are based on empirical research, and may therefore be rather better suited to walking the tightrope of public opinion in MENA countries. In short, a collective, evidence-based understanding of civil society can be critical in helping activists to navigate a route between normative and politically-charged arguments about their value, and introduce a degree of stability and renewed confidence to their work.

The CIVICUS CSI is only one such research initiative, and CIVICUS, like many other global organisations, has perhaps not always engaged with the region as well as it might have. Implementation of the Civil Society Index project by under-resourced national partners, for example, has continued to face significant practical difficulties. Global organisations, meanwhile, can sometimes be unprepared to engage with the region linguistically and culturally, particularly when they perceive the threat of occasional clashes with their own core values.

The Foundation for the Future conference at the Dead Sea, opened by the Jordanian Minister of Political Development and attended by a representative from the League of Arab States, and the United Nations Development Programme, can only be one small step towards a programme of integrated support for the region’s civil society research and self-reflection. Indeed, there will inevitably be many more turns in the road before all Arab CSOs can exist, engage and express themselves without fear of being accused of being Western puppets.

But one thing is clear: the world is changing, and new generations of citizens in MENA countries are demanding to have their voice heard. Neither they, nor their active presence in the non-governmental, civic, sphere, will disappear quietly. And while Gaddafi busied himself last Thursday with obsolete rhetoric, something rather more productive was taking place at the Dead Sea in Jordan. The region’s researchers came together to begin a conversation that could just help the region’s next generation reach a common understanding of what citizen participation means, and of how to better support and recognise its role. Perhaps ultimately, such research can help the region move beyond an unhelpful and destructive dichotomy between ‘Western’ and ‘Arab’ civil society.

[1] See for example:


[2] For full details of the Foundation for the Future conference, titled “Research on Civil Society Organisations: Status and Prospects”, visit

[3] Ziad Abdel Samad, ‘CSOs: Status, Challenges and Democracy in the Arab World’, paper delivered in Jordan, 26-28 January 2010. Available online at Ziad Abdel Samad is Executive Director of the Arab NGO Network for Development (ANND), a CSO network active in 12 Arab countries. Its main objectives are CSO empowerment and enhancing their role in advocacy on social and economic rights.

[4] Papers delivered at the conference are available at

[5] Jacob Mati, ‘Bridging research, policy and action in civil society strengthening initiatives: lessons from a decade of CIVICUS Civil Society Index implementation’, paper delivered in Jordan, 26-28 January 2010. Presentation available online at

[6] More information about the CIVICUS Civil Society Index, its implementation, its objectives and its methodology are available on the CIVICUS webpage at and on the project blog at

[7] Finn Heinrich (ed.), CIVICUS Global Survey of the State of Civil Society. Volume 1: Country Profiles, Kumarian Press, USA: 227.


One Response to “‘Imitation of the West’? Civil society in the Arab world”

  1. Nadia said

    Leave lebanese to live in peace and then you will see how Lebanon will become

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