ICNL Middle East Fellows discuss “Civil Society in the Middle East: Trends, Opportunities, and Obstacles”


On May 17, 2006, ICNL hosted a forum on “Civil Society in the Middle East: Trends Opportunities, and Obstacles.” The forum featured presentations by two of ICNL’s Senior Middle East Associative Rights Fellows, Ziad Abdel Samad and Mohamed Elagati, and was held at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Mohamed is the Executive Manager of the Development Support Center for Consultancy and Training (DSC) in Giza, Egypt, and Ziad is the Executive Director of the Arab NGO Network for Development (ANND) in Beirut, Lebanon.

Ziad argued that there were three types of legal regimes governing civil society in the Arab world. In the first type of regime, civil society is generally outlawed and no legal framework exists to regulate civil society groups. In the second, civil society is legal but subject to so many legal restrictions that there is effectively little space in which to legally operate. The third type of regime is one in which civil society laws are relatively liberal but civil society groups nonetheless fail to reach their full potential because of other, non-legal obstacles. Furthermore, although the legal system is very important from the freedom and strength of civil society, other factors such as the development of the country, public policies, cultural realities, and the level of centralization of power also play an important role. Strategies for enabling civil society and promoting legal reform must therefore be customized according to local conditions, and reform must be part of a comprehensive and coherent strategy of change embracing political, economic, social, and cultural sectors.

Mohamed focused on civil society in Egypt. According to Mohamed, Egypt’s civil society law historically reflected the nature of the governing regime in Egypt as a country with a long history of a centralized state. He described the three main characteristics of the current Law on Civil Society in Egypt (Law No. 84 for the year 2002), which gives executive administrative bodies absolute rights, creates severe punishments, and is full of undefined terms and open statements. All of these factors make the law a tool for the executive authorities in Egypt to control civil society, especially through the state security department (which, according to Mohamed, is the main player on this issue in Egypt). Mohamed finished his talk with a recommendation that civil society in Egypt create an alternative for the current law to put change of law on the agenda of reform in Egypt. For the international civil society community, Mohamed recommended “globalizing” the issues of human rights and freedom of civil society through multilateral mechanisms, in order to avoid any abuse within a bilateral process.

ICNL’s Senior Middle East Associative Rights Fellowship program brings four highly-qualified civil society reform specialists from throughout the Middle East to Washington, DC to conduct research on civil society and associative rights topics of their choice. The results of this research will be presented at a civil society reform conference in Beirut, Lebanon later this summer. ICNL appreciates the generous support provided by the US Department of State – Middle East Partnership Initiative in funding this program.