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The International Journal
of Not-for-Profit Law

Volume 11, Issue 4, August 2009

A publication of the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law

Table of Contents

Letter from the Editor

Special Section: Restrictions on Foreign Funding of Civil Society

Closing the Door on Aid
Rebecca B. Vernon


Living in a Lie and Dying in Silence: The Trauma of Civil Society in the Middle East and North Africa
Ibrahim Saleh

NGO Law in Kenya
Rahma Adan Jillo and Faith Kisinga

State Policy Toward the Civic Sector in Poland
Marek Rymsza

Corporate Social Entrepreneurship
James Austin and Ezequiel Reficco

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Living in a Lie and Dying in Silence: The Trauma of Civil Society in the Middle East and North Africa

Ibrahim Saleh1

Veteran political activists and NGOs in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) express concern over the future of civil liberties. There is consensus that the region is currently witnessing a genuine crisis as a result of recent government efforts to crush political dissent in Egypt, Syria, Morocco, Tunisia, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Algeria, and Iran. Many in the development field believe that civil society is the key to effective defense of civil liberties, and they are disheartened by civil society in the MENA countries because it seems to be characterized by only weak and uncoordinated NGOs. However, occasional outbursts of public opposition to oppression and the increasing strength of radical religious organizations demonstrate that civil society in the MENA countries has deep potential for promoting change. The potential of civil society is strictly constrained by government policies and practices that restrict expression and alienate Arab publics from government, the media, the international community, and each other. To resolve the crisis and prevent violent responses to government oppression, governments will need legal reform that enables expression in the media and the public.

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,’” Martin Luther King Jr. said on August 28, 1963, from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Inspired by his words, we cannot keep living in a lie in the Middle East. We cannot overlook the urgency of the moment. The discontent of the mid-2009 will never pass until there is an invigorating outlet of freedom and equality. “The MENA lives in a lie and dies in silence” is not just a metaphor but also a reality in the absence of civil liberties.

The authoritarian regimes in the region have witnessed a blossoming of associational activity that resembles similar events in other autocracies prior to democratization, such as Egypt and Iran. The chronic failures of rulers to meet popular economic and political demands carved a public space in which new groups could “attract a following, develop a bureaucratic form, and formulate policy alternatives” (Entelis, 1999). Citizens were “drawn into political life to an unprecedented degree” as activists stirred waves of rage (Bellin, 1994), while complacent elites reeled from social unrest, amplified by sluggish economic growth and draining fiscal endowments (Henry and Springborg, 2001).

In that regard, it has become impossible to realize any sustained process of Arab democratization without establishing an effective civil society. In terms of both the total number of NGOs and their “density” (quantity of organizations per 100,000 inhabitants), Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories enjoy the largest and most active civil societies, the oil-rich Gulf countries the most enervated, and the other Arab countries fall in between.

A basic requirement when dealing with civil society is to consider some of its operational values such as “What is Arab civil society?” and “What counts as a civil society organization?” Civil society has become a buzzword in Arab discourse; public officials use the term “to promote their projects of mobilization and ‘modernization;’ Islamists use it to angle for a legal share of public space; and independent activists and intellectuals use it to expand the boundaries of individual liberty” (Bellin, 1990). Most Western political scientists and liberal Arab research institutes, such as the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies in Cairo, define civil society as “the place where a mélange of groups, associations, clubs, guilds, syndicates, federations, unions, parties, and groups come together to provide a buffer between state and citizen (Norton, 1993).

In that context, civil society actors must be secular in ideology, because the religion and the state were unified entities since the 18th century in the region. As religion is part of the culture, ethnicity, and social identity, it was citizenship. Besides, many of the regional societies have suspended their belief in the Arab nation and prioritized their Muslim faith. At times, their lexicon has turned "the Arabs" into a derogatory label, implying wastefulness, incompetence, and subservience, while others prefer to be known as Egyptians, Syrians, Jordanians, Moroccans, or citizens of another independent state, each with its own flag and own interests (Saleh, 2009b).

As a result, the public has been always been torn between the internal subjection to dictatorial governments as well as the external cut off from the world—a situation that has been extensively used by the extremists, by manipulating the the religious text to reach certain desires in the name of god and Islam. Such interpretation uses the slogan of “just war” to kill and sacrifice others from different religions with the pretext that they complying with the Islamic religious doctrine (Saleh, 2006).

This serves geopolitical and economic objectives. The terms “Islamic-fascism” and “Manifest Destiny” serve to degrade the policies, institutions, values, and social fabric. The enemy in both cases is characterized as evil, with a view to justifying military action, including the mass killing of civilians. It is not limited to assassinating or executing rulers, journalists, and politicians, but rather extends to entire populations. It purports to break national consciousness and the ability to resist the invader. It denigrates peaceful Islam or the respect and tolerance to others manifested in religious and non-religious societies (Saleh, 2009b). That is why civil society activists must also be civil in their behavior, legally recognized, and supportive of democratic reform.

One can explain the failure of civil society in two ways: First, individual civil society organizations have not mobilized a critical mass of supporters throughout society. For example, although NGOs can limit the depredations of authoritarian rule by publicizing abuses such as torture of political dissidents, they cannot directly challenge the state without popular support. However, popular support is limited because most NGOs are dedicated to single issues and cannot mobilize support for broad reforms (Nasr, 2005).

Second, certain NGOs suffer from widespread apathy among their members. In Egypt, for example, board elections for trade unions seldom elicit more than ten to fifteen percent voter turnout. Second, the controversy over Islamists’ role in democratic reforms reflects the difficulty of measuring the effectiveness of Arab civil society. If only secular democrats are considered to be part of civil society, then the civic sector appears weak and fragmented, unable to extract weighty reforms from autocratic executives (Alterman, 2004). On the other hand, should Islamists be included within the view of civil society, then traditional explanations behind the failings of people power lose persuasiveness; the “Arab street” appears passionate and popular as measured by the Islamists’ membership and resources, and on numerous fronts seems on the brink of mounting a frontal assault on the authoritarian state (Bayat, 2003).

At a time when the MENA countries are full of potential for developing its human resources, the oppressive political systems, the lack of awareness, and the absence of strategic vision have caused social unrest, political agitation, and a setback of civil liberties, not to mention a severe brain drain.

As a consequence, a persistent malaise has developed in the relations between the media, the public, and the government, in which all parties involved feel there is little shared interest. This situation has caused a cohort of veteran political activists and media personnel to express regret and concern over the future of political and civil liberties in the region (Saleh, 2009a)

All MENA states have similar laws and legislation restricting freedom of expression and diffusion of ideas. Yet the problem goes far beyond the law’s content. Codes related to publishing books and newspapers create other limitations to civic freedom. Common examples include MENA penal codes, journalism regulation laws, printing laws, civil servant laws, political parties laws, and national security laws (Bassiouni, 2007).

During the second half of the 20th century, the MENA region aimed at unifying the general framework of its respective legislative processes, particularly through multilateral cooperation within the League of Arab States. In 1981, at the Second Conference of Arab Ministers of Justice in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen, the “Sana’a Strategy” unified domestic legislation through a series of integrated codes, including civil law and procedures, penal law and procedures, juvenile law, prison standards, combating information technology crime, matters related to personal status, and judicial organization and regulation (Saleh, 2009a).

The League of Arab States also formed a committee to unify legal and judicial terms, structures, and processes to achieve a more integrated and harmonized legal system. Concurrently, to implement the recommendations of this committee, the League of Arab States established the Arab Center for Legal and Judicial Studies in Beirut.

It is also noteworthy that during the session of the 2005 Arab Summit in Algiers (Algeria), the Pan-Arab Parliament in Damascus (Syria) was established to demonstrate that the consecrated Islamic Shari’a represents a solid foundation for Arab jurisprudence, while utilizing other legal systems employed in the region, such as the Latin system in Egypt and other North African states and the Anglo-American system in Sudan.

Such perpetuation of government control across the region has led to a sense of misinformation and suspicion among the public. It has perpetuated a general feeling of falsehood that some have termed “collective fraud,” which is a systematic and knowing suppression of unwelcome truths by a set of experts who either “shade” reality or acquiesce to such shading. This prevalent situation in many parts of the MENA has resulted in media distortions, untruths, evasions, and biases collectively produced and maintained by willing journalistic lies.

To reinforce their politicizing solidarity, Arab governments have never allowed media to evaluate critically national domestic policies or those of friendly governments. Besides, media nearly never delve into national or local issues because these are the issues that most threaten their governments’ authority and legitimacy.

In this political context, what is perhaps most disturbing is the unfortunate rise of a soft form of destructive self-censorship among journalists. For example, basic information such as demographic statistics is treated as if it were a state secret, and it is almost impossible to report on the inner working of governments. This is reinforced by the fact that most of the media personnel and journalists lack professional training. Informing the public is not valued, and there is a reckless use of power by senior bureaucrats (Kienle, 1998).

It is thus very common to find that journalists and editors are co-opted by officials and business interests, while others who expose their governments’ corruption or heavily criticize their regimes’ practices are often subject to arbitrary arrests or threats or acts of violence. The fear of such retribution leads to poor government transparency, allows corruption to remain ingrained, and serves to prevent any meaningful discussion of issues that could lead to policy reform.

Thus, force and violence are used to silence those who have doubts about what to believe, especially when the public’s dependence on the state news is paradoxically creating periodic “crises” of acute form. Such crises can take the form of a moral panic or an alarm over security; or they may be part of a longer-term, more diffused sense of crisis over Arab or Muslim identity.

In this context, NGO leaders and activists have expressed four main criticisms. The first is that MENA governments only half-heartedly endorse freedom of expression and the press while ignoring other basic human needs. . The second is that MENA governments take a superficial approach to freedom and democracy, which results in the marginalization of the interests of the majority to preserve the ruling minority’s interests. The third problem is the governments’ overemphasis on major regional issues such as the invasion of Iraq, Islamophobia, and the “resentment and tyranny” motivated by hatred for the Arab-Israeli Conflict. And the fourth problem deals with the simplistic official analysis of the multifaceted complexities that produce a perception of fear of the Green Danger, or the establishment of a radical Islamist state in Egypt and other MENA nations (Saleh, 2006).

In the MENA, ministers of information execute the agenda of their states to control the media and shape their content by enforcing harsh laws with imprisonment and physical violence. In the last decade, the complexity of the media has ballooned as new means of expression have proliferated between the Internet and other mobile communications. However, the growing complexity has not overwhelmed Ministers’ ability to regulate expression. Ministers have developed techniques to monitor the messages of the mushrooming new media scene, especially on the Internet; to block the emerging activism of the expanding population of a predominately poor, illiterate youth; and to limit the growing audience for radical Islamist groups in the media, especially on TV, by offering news coverage of events through a prism of individual and collective humiliation and resentment. As a result, the media portray the distorted reality created by this prism; and to compete with each other, they exaggerate the distortion. Despite emergent signs that regime reform may indeed be gaining ground in the region, regnant regimes have much to lose in terms of power and wealth, threat of bloody insurgencies by jihadists, and retribution from those who replace them (Saleh, 2009a).

MENA states are generally characterized by a combination of oversimplification of terminology and concepts with empty rhetoric paying lip-service to freedom of expression and information diffusion. Free speech is severely restricted in the midst of internal subjection to governments on the one hand, and the external separation of the MENA from other regions of the world on the other hand, a separation that is reinforced by stereotypical negative images that cast MENA populations and governments as savage and barbarous.

Such government maneuvers are symptomatic of a tactic called “scare and confusion” (Shaheen, 2006). The regional media environment suffers from brutal enforcement of censorship and assiduous self-censorship. At the same time, members of the public view themselves as victims of two forms of media colonialism: one imposed by their own national governments and the second by the United States and its allies. Oppressed populations see their national and international oppressors working hand in hand to threaten their livelihood and to humiliate them. The underground voices of dissent are channeled into and through radical Islamist movements. These movements are not favorable to media freedom either, though they try to use media to promote their cause.

An unprecedented spate of mass protests swept the region in 2006. Some progressive and radical circles perceived the protests as a public awakening after long years of stagnation. It was also interpreted by the government as proof that the Muslim Brotherhood movement had infiltrated civil activities and syndicates—Al-Zawaheri, the second-ranking man in al Qaeda, for instance, became radicalized while jailed in Egypt (Shahine, 2006).
This reality provides an ironic twist to the non-aligned pan-Arab political rhetoric of the fifties and sixties that was ushered in by Gamel Abdul Nasser, according to whom nationalized Egyptian media purported to speak for all Arabs. In the post-Nasser period, pan-Arab rhetoric was left to journals and newspapers located in London or Paris, where a Western-educated intelligentsia debated post-Marxist or postmodern constructs rather than pushing for individual rights and freedoms in their own countries.
Though it is difficult to assess the patron states’ intentions, the fact remains that regional media tend to violate internationally recognized journalistic ethics and norms. In fact, the tension between the propriety of showing gruesome images on the one hand, and the protection of freedom of speech and the right to know on the other hand, will remain unresolved unless effective media education policies for journalists and for the general public are put in place.

Markets limit communication within the countries and thereby alienate regional publics. Members of the public grow desperate at the lack of coverage of national problems and the distorted coverage of terrorist proclamations and acts.

The worrying point here comes from the erosion of civil liberties in the MENA and the increasing gap between publics and governments. An additional alarming point is the nature of change, as it might come through the turbulence of a revolution that could be bloody and confusing—bloody because so much is at stake for the regional actors, be they government officials, radical Islamists, or progressive activists, and confusing because nobody is quite sure who the actors are and what interests they represent.

In a region where many people are still suspicious of change and resist innovation, including basic rights like political participation, the risks of living in a lie are magnified. This is not to say that agents of change don’t exist: there are many progressive civil movements, like Kefaya (Enough) in Egypt, that are fighting against governments’ corruption. But the extreme and radical voices are also becoming louder and louder. At the same time, the marginalized discontented public is a world unto itself, largely detached from other sectors in society and loath to engage with them (Saleh, 2009).

The absence or ineffectiveness of laws allowing the practice of the right to expression and free opinion allows governments to close many newspapers and put many journalists in prison, accused of crimes such as insult and defamation. Many administrative obstacles also stand in the way of effective media by impeding journalists’ access to official information. These obstacles hinder the practice of fair and independent journalism; they also lead some journalists into the “false information” trap by publishing inaccurate news and advocating different types of crusading journalism, which makes them subject to imprisonment or fines.

The 2007 decision of the Cairo Misdemeanor Court to imprison the Editor-in-Chief of Al Dostour (The Constitution), Ibrahim Essa, and the journalist Sahar Zaki, along with a citizen from Warak accused of insulting Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, stands out as a case in point of living in a lie. Many other lawsuits have been filed against Al Fajr (The Dawn) newspaper, headed by Adel Hamouda. Another illustration is the case of the executive editor-in-chief of Sout Al Omma (Voice of the Nation), Wael Al-Ibrashy. He was referred to the criminal court in the judges’ crisis, when the newspaper expressed ire over widespread electoral fraud during the first presidential elections. Because of legal irregularities such as unfair trials of opposition figures, attacks on members of the judiciary also escalated (Amin, 2006).

The “Arab street” has become an extension of another infamous concept, the “Arab mind,” which also reified the culture and collective conduct of an entire people in a violent abstraction. It is another subject of Orientalist imagination, reminiscent of colonial representation of the “other,” which has been internalized by some Arab selves. The Arab street is seldom regarded as an expression of public opinion and collective sentiment like its Western counterpart, but is perceived primarily as a physical entity, a brute force expressed in riots and mob violence.

Governments only understand the Arab street as a site of violence and only respond when it is poised to imperil interests or disrupt grand strategies. Such perceptions enable Western policy-makers to flout Arab public opinion with increasingly unequivocal support for Israel while proceeding to dismantle the Palestinian Authority, or in another context by waging war on Iraq.

But street politics in general and the Arab street in particular are more complex. The Arab street is not mere brute force. The Arab street is primarily an expression of public sentiment, but its modes and means of articulation have gone through significant changes since  2006, when regional governments, such as Egypt’s, started changing the social contract by ending 50 years of subsidization. Such change has further deteriorated the economic and social conditions, which has caused the long years of silence to be replaced by vibrant and angry public. Street politics is the modern platform of contention par excellence. The street is the chief locus of politics for ordinary people, those who are structurally absent from positions of power. Simultaneously social and spatial, constant and current, a place of both the familiar and the stranger, the visible and the vocal, the street represents a complex entity where sentiments and outlooks are formed, spread and expressed in a unique fashion (Saleh, 2008).

When traditional social contracts are violated, Arab publics have reacted swiftly. The 1980s saw numerous urban protests over the spiraling cost of living. In August 1983, the Moroccan government reduced consumer subsidies by 20 percent, triggering urban unrest in the north and elsewhere. Similar protests took place in Tunis in 1984, and in Khartoum in 1982 and 1985. In summer 1987, the rival factions in the Lebanese civil war joined hands to stage an extensive street protest against a drop in the value of the Lebanese currency. Algeria was struck by cost-of-living riots in the fall of 1988, and Jordanians staged nationwide protests in 1989 over the plight of Palestinians and economic hardship, forcing the late King Hussein to introduce cautious measures of political liberalization. And the best example is when King Hussein lifted subsidies in 1996 that provoked a new wave of street protests, leading the king to restrict freedom of expression and assembly (Andoni and Schwedler, 1996).

To make the confusion worse, the Arab governments have money, talk about completely new themes, and use incomprehensible terminologies such as “Mushrooming Terrorists” to avoid or block any serious attempt of change. During the first years of the transition after decolonization and independence, there was an exponential rise in the number of civil society groups and a call for democratization. However, years later the Arab countries are still excluded from real “international civil society.” Wars for independence have been replaced by a multitude of more localized conflicts. And the new system benefited from ever-cheaper communication technologies that increased local interdependence and interconnectedness. For example, the Arab public still prefers to pay high taxes but to have the government take care of social services and enjoy subsidization in almost every aspect of life.

Furthermore, many people are still suspicious of and resistant to new things, even basic rights such as political participation. Most members of the Arab public do not participate in associational life, and lack of participation correlates with highly pronounced general mistrust. But the picture is complicated by marginal developments; in some cases, no doubt, they have been capable of initiating or participating in tremendous social change. For example, the liberalization of the media in many parts of the region such as in Lebanon, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and Egypt resulted after offshore media financed by businessmen attempted to overcome the political patronage. In today’s public agenda, many civil movements like Kefaya (Enough) in Egypt courageously fight government corruption. But the critical voices are also becoming louder and louder. As noted above, the marginal, discontented proletariat plays little role; it often seems detached from other sectors in society.

The most significant problem facing the Arab public is that its members are usually not rooted in communal solidarity but in small, unmanaged, scattered structures. This raises many dilemmas about their legitimacy, accountability, and cultural relevance. Ambiguous public consideration often results in lack of cooperation from both business and government.

Globalization plays a role as well. Citizens in the MENA countries need to develop their own cultural responses to globalization either through the introduction of a reenergized religion or through overcoming the current impediments of real cross-cultural dialogue by engaging their counterparts in non-MENA regions.

At the end, the only way to stop living in the lie and dying in silence is by opening up to the world and enriching instead of diluting or erasing local identities.

Khalil Gibran said in his poem “Freedom” that freedom can only be attained through harnessing our desires for freedom. He said, “You shall be free indeed when your days are not without care nor your nights without a want and a grief.... And how shall you rise beyond your days and nights unless you break the chains which you at the dawn of your understanding have fastened around your noon hour? In truth that which you call freedom is the strongest of these chains, though its links glitter in the sun and dazzle your eyes....

“If it is an unjust law you would abolish, that law was written with your own hand upon your own forehead. You cannot erase it by burning your law books nor by washing the foreheads of your judges, though you pour the sea upon them.

“And if it is a despot you would dethrone, see first that his throne erected within you is destroyed. For how can a tyrant rule the free and the proud, but for a tyranny in their own freedom and a shame in their own pride? And if it is a care you would cast off, that care has been chosen by you rather than imposed upon you. And if it is a fear you would dispel, the seat of that fear is in your heart and not in the hand of the feared....

“And thus your freedom when it loses its fetters becomes itself the fetter of a greater freedom.”


1 Ibrahim Saleh, Isaleh@aucegypt.edu and librasma@gmail.com, holds a PhD in Political Communication & National Development. Saleh is a Fulbright Scholar and Senior Media Expert in the Media Sustainability Index, the Middle East and North Africa. Saleh is also the Chair of Journalism Research and Education Section and Global 'Partner Organization of the UN Alliance of Civilizations Media Literacy Education Clearinghouse. In addition, Saleh is the Liaison Officer of the Academic Council on the United Nations System and the editor of the special issue on media and religion, Journal of Arab Media & Muslim Media Research. Co-founder of the Arab-European Media Observatory, Saleh won the World Association of Public Opinion Research for the best research paper in 2007, entitled “Sitting in the Shadows of Subsidization in Egypt: Revisiting the Notion of Street Politics.” He is the author of Unveiling the Truth about Middle Eastern Media, Privatization in Egypt: Hope or Dope? and Prior To the Eruption of the Grapes of Wrath in the Middle East: The Necessity of Communicating Instead of Clashing.

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