Civil Society in Complex Environments

A Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: Arab Civil Society

The International Journal
of Not-for-Profit Law

Volume 9, Issue 3, July 2007

By Ibrahim Saleh 1

The Arab world is currently struggling to maintain cultural integrity and religious identity in the face of globalization. This critical phase is magnified by a split between the public agenda and the media agenda. This article offers a comparative tool for assessing the Arab world in terms of civil liberties, rule of law, anticorruption and transparency, and accountability and public voice. Most important, it outlines the dichotomy between patron states and discontented publics.

The Arab world is not monolithic. Although most Arabs share a common geography, religion, language, broad culture, and history, the Arab world is made up of different states, governments and peoples, and ethnic groups. To be sure, the Arab world has a dominant culture that distinguishes it from, say, the West; however, it also has subcultures . Although most inhabitants adhere to Islam, believers in Judaism, Christianity and other religions also live in the Arab world.

The self-image of Arabs is in tension. The romantic, sentimental attachment to idealized beauty of Arab culture increasingly confronts a rebellion against the rigidity of the classic aesthetic. In this new spirit of cultural revolt, both conservatives and liberals focus solely on their own perspectives.

News media have become entangled in the struggle, to their own detriment. Rather than counteracting state efforts to keep the public ignorant, the Arab media distort news coverage in ways that advance government agendas and, in turn, reinforce hawkish extremism instead of fostering tolerance.

Arab media, further, have emerged and developed alongside growing poverty, illness, and illiteracy, all of which tend to create a public subject to manipulation and unprepared for intelligent debate. A rising “group think” in the regional disparities within and between countries has further fueled fears of economic marginalization.

The problems of the Arab media result from several factors: a weak economic base, with high costs of production and printing; heavy political patronage; cultural fragmentation; geographic concentration; and low credibility and prestige. In addition, Arab media laws and regulations are unclear, which has contributed to the media’s subjugation to dictatorial government as well as their low standing outside the Arab world.

Yet grounds for hope remain. With the media’s help, ignorance and silence may give way to discontent and demands for emancipation and political freedoms.


Some veteran political activists and media personnel have expressed concern over the future of political and civil liberties in the Arab world. They believe that the region faces a genuine crisis in light of the recent crushing of political dissent, which raised two interrelated queries: What is the public agenda? And what are the interrelated future scenarios in the region?

The backdrop, of course, is the fact that most of the media are quasi-governmental and under autocratic leaders. Governments continue to use the media for cosmetic rather than authentic development. This contributes to the massive gap between heads of states’ rhetorical commitments to democracy and freedom, on the one hand, and the reality of their often whimsical pursuit of personal gain, on the other. Consequently, many people in the Arab world are more concerned than ever about the policy directions of their governments.

Four basic problems in the Arab world have widened the gaps between Arab governments and their people.

First, endorsements of freedom and liberty are rarely reflected in national liberation, development, dignity, justice, and other basic human needs.

Second, this superficial approach to freedom and democracy reinforces those who believe that leaders in the Arab world are aiming to keep their autocracies by pleasing the West, especially the United States. This happens at a time when most Arab people reject the idea that the United States has any special status empowering it to promote freedom or any other value around the world.

The third prevalent criticism of Arab governments is their subjugation of major regional issues such as the invasion of Iraq, Islamophobia, and the Arab-Israeli conflict. This flagrant gap between the rhetoric of liberty and important sociopolitical and economic issues perpetuates double standards. It is likely to remain the single biggest reason for deep Arab skepticism of government promises of autonomous rule, and it contributes to the fade-out of Arab Nationalism notions that were widespread in the 1960s.

The fourth reason for widespread doubt about Arab governments’ pledges concerns the official simplistic analysis that “resentment and tyranny” in the Arab region are the causes of the 9/11 terrorism, and that the perpetrators were motivated by hatred for developing secular systems in the Arab world. Hence, policies adopted by the Arab governments are seen not as mechanisms to help the recipients, but as self-serving instruments of America’s defense. This notion magnifies the impact of the venerable Orientalism versus Occidentalism tension, reflected in the controversies over cartoons depicting Prophet Mohamed and in Pope Benedict XVI’s speech quoting a 14th-century emperor as calling Islam “evil and inhuman.”

The concept of civil society flourished in Western social science as the Cold War ended, when comparative social scientists applied the concept to explain the ongoing wave of democratic transitions across the world. The civil society thesis suggests that under authoritarian rule, an energetic associational life comprising independent, voluntary organizations distinct from the state can trigger a democratic transition by challenging the leaders and forcing them to accept liberal reforms.

Western observers have embraced civil society as the precondition for democratic transition in the Arab states with the presumption that continuous pressure on their authoritarian governments will collapse the Arab autocracy. However, two obstacles stand in the way of any real civil society. First is the absence of a clear definition of what organizations qualify for inclusion in Arab civil society. Consequently, evaluations of the “strength” or “weakness” of Arab civil society depend simply on which groups political analysts choose to include. Second, the thesis presumes that autocratic regimes’ strong control and physical capacity to repress can be overcome by the collective force of civil society’s demands, where economic inequities plague the society and the state lacks political legitimacy.

Associational activity has vastly increased in Arab authoritarian regimes, similar to its increases in other autocracies before democratization. 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, any sustained process of Arab democratization became impossible without an effective civil society, a sphere in which civic leaders could pool and direct their resources to defy the state (Kubba, 2001). In terms of both the total number of CSOs and their “density,” or quantity of organizations per 100,000 inhabitants, Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories possess the largest and most active civil societies, and the oil-rich Gulf countries the most enervated. The other Arab countries fall in between.

Civil society often eludes specific definition. It has become a buzz word 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 must be secular in ideology, civil in behavior, legally recognized, and supportive of democratic reform (islah).

Two factors may help explain the failure of Arab civil society to date. First, civil society has 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, which is limited by the fact that most are single-issue oriented (Nasr, 2005). At the same time, NGOs suffer from widespread apathy among members. In Egypt, for example, board elections for trade unions seldom elicit more than 10 to 15 percent voter turnout. Second, the controversy over Islamists’ role in democratic reform reflects the difficulty of measuring the effectiveness of Arab civil society. If only secular democrats count, then the civic sector appears weak and fragmented, unable to extract weighty reforms from autocratic leaders (Alterman, 2004). By contrast, if Islamists are included in civil society, the “Arab street” appears passionate and popular, as measured by Islamists’ membership and resources, and on numerous fronts seems on the brink of mounting a frontal assault on the authoritarian state (Asef Bayat, 2003).

Theoretical Perspectives

This dichotomy between the governments and publics in the Arab world has perpetuated a great deal of falsehood, or “egalitarian fiction,” which forces racial-ethnic groups into what might be termed “collective fraud.” The causes are media distortions, untruths, evasions, and biases. In 1988, psychologist-lawyer Mark Snyderman and political scientist Stanley Rothman provided strong evidence that the general public receives a highly distorted view of opinions from mainstream news media. It is thus presumed that a high proportion of Arab media experts misrepresents their beliefs, or keeps silent in the face of public falsehoods. Such journalistic practices exemplify the process of “living within a lie,” where ordinary citizens get complicit in their own tyranny through “group think,” which leads ultimately to “ideological pseudo-reality.”

In the Arab context, government mainstream media paved the way for “group think,” a term devised in the 1970s by the American psychologist Irving Janis describing a process by which a group can make bad or irrational decisions characterized by uncritical acceptance of a prevailing point of view. In a group-think situation, each member attempts to conform his or her opinion to what appears to be the consensus of the group. As a result, the group may agree upon a course of action that each member individually would consider unwise (the risky shift).

Group think is a severe problem in Arab society because it turns the general public into unquestioning followers of local rituals, and thereby reduces communication with outsiders. News media, disregarding basic professional ethics, reinforce this group think and bring about a new phase of the “grapes of wrath,” where mobs use force against dissenters. At the same time, the public’s dependence on the state paradoxically creates periodic “crises” that may take an acute form, such as moral panic or alarm over security. A longer-term, diffused crisis over identity may be operating as well. The patron states manipulated media, and still do, on the pretext of avoiding a reversion to what is portrayed as the anarchy and violence of the early days, a veritable “state of nature.”

This notion of synthetic “moral panic” in the Arab world originated with Jock Young (1971) and was taken up by Stan Cohen (1973), who spoke of the deliberate “manufacture of news” in his book Folk Devils and Moral Panics. The process depicts certain events or groups as threats to societal values and interests through stylized and stereotypical coverage in the mass media. From the moral barricades, editors, Muslim religious leaders, politicians, experts, and other right-thinking people pronounce their diagnoses and solutions. Society copes or adjusts, and the condition disappears, at least for the time being.


The “Arab street” has become an extension of another infamous concept, the “Arab mind,” which also simplified the culture and collective conduct of an entire people into a violent abstraction. It is another example of Orientalist imagination, reminiscent of colonial representation of the “other,” which has been internalized by some Arabs. By no simple oversight, the “Arab street” is seldom regarded as a representation of public opinion and collective sentiment, or as a potential arena for civil society, like its Western counterpart. Instead, it is perceived primarily as an irrational physical entity, brute force expressed in riots and mob violence.

The “Arab street” in this view is represented by violent imagery when it is poised to imperil interests or disrupt strategies. Such perceptions reflect Western gro up think, the “civilizing” mission of the West, indifference to authentic Arab public opinion, unequivocal support for Israel, opposition to the Palestinian Authority, and determination to continue 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. Rather, it is primarily an expression of public sentiment, but one whose modes and means of articulation have significantly changed. Street politics is the modern platform of contention par excellence. The street is the chief locus of politics for ordinary people, those who are absent from positions of power. Simultaneously social and spatial, constant and current, a place of both the acquaintance and the stranger, the visible and the vocal, the street represents a complex entity that forms, expresses, and spreads outlooks in a unique fashion.

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 forces 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 economic hardship and the plight of Palestinians, forcing the late King Hussein to introduce cautious measures of political liberalization. He lifted subsidies in 1996, which provoked a new wave of street protests and led the king to restrict freedom of expression and assembly (Andoni and Schwedler, 1996).

In Egypt in 1986, low-ranking army officers took to the streets to protest the Mubarak regime’s decision to extend military service. The unrest quickly spread to other sectors of society. While the lower and middle classes formed the core of urban protests, college students often joined in.

But student movements have had their own contentious agendas. In Egypt, the 1970s marked the heyday of a student activism dominated by leftist agendas. Outraged opposition to the Camp David peace treaty and economic austerity brought thousands of students onto urban streets. Earlier years had seen students organizing conferences, strikes, sit-ins, and street marches, and producing newspapers for the walls, the “freest of publications” (Abdalla, 1985).

In 1991, students in Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Jordan, Yemen, and Sudan demonstrated to express anger against both the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the American-led war to drive Iraq out of Kuwait. Since 1986, Palestinian students have been among the most frequent participants in actions of the intifada, often undeterred by the Israeli army’s policies of arresting and shooting students and closing Palestinian universities.

In the Arab world, consequently, the street is where collective dissent is expressed. In the street, one finds not only marginalized elements – the poor and unemployed – but also people with some institutional power, including students, workers, state employees, shopkeepers, and middle-class women, large families in the Arab world depend on the women (maraa almayla). The spatial element in street politics distinguishes it from strikes or sit-ins, because street protests can expand beyond the initial group. A street march can be joined by strangers with their own grievances. It is this potential for street protests to spread, and not simply the disruption or uncertainty they cause, that threatens authorities, who pervasively control public spaces with police, traffic regulations, and other rules. One result is spatial division. Students at Cairo University, for example, often stage protest marches inside the campus. However, the moment they come out into the street, where the Israeli embassy is located, riot police immediately and massively encircle the demonstrators, push them away from public view, and keep the protest from spreading. Indeed, this heavily guarded street, now renamed after Muhammad al-Durra, the boy killed in Israeli “crossfire” in the early stages of the second intifada, points to the fact that the metaphorical street is not deserted so much as it is controlled.


Part of the blame must fall on Arabs themselves. Publics in different parts of the Arab world are confused and illiterate. The challenge is to educate them to seek their rights civilly and to face their obligations responsibly. Nonetheless, the bulk of blame rightly falls on governments, motivated by suspiciousness with a dimension of xenophobia, which have oppressed their citizens, stoked a culture of fear, and shirked the duties of transparency.

The ordinary Arab feels that there must be “something wrong” with them. Arab governments exploit the confusion to block any serious attempts at change through their economic power, shifting rhetoric, and incomprehensible terms such as “mushrooming terrorists.” During the first years of the transition from colonization to independence, there were increases in the number of civil society groups and widespread demands for democratization, but the Arab countries were later deprived of meaningful civil society. Wars for independence were soon replaced by a multitude of local conflicts. And the new system benefited from ever-cheaper communication technologies that increased local interdependence and interconnectedness, which had the paradoxical effect of fueling the public’s dependence on government. For example, the Arab public still prefers to pay high taxes and to have the government take care of social services and subsidize almost every aspect of life.

Besides, so many people are still suspicious of change, even of change that moves the nation toward democracy. In a way, most of the Arab public is inactive, a sort of idleness that correlates with highly pronounced general mistrust. One should not paint too dim a picture, because people have sometimes proved capable of initiating tremendous social change. For example, the liberalization of the media came about after offshore media financed by businessmen attempted to overcome the political patronage in their countries. Today, many civil movements such as Kefaya (Enough) in Egypt are courageously fighting government corruption. But voices critical of such movementsare also becoming louder. It often appears that the Third Sector is nothing more than a marginal, discontented proletariat, a world unto itself, largely detached from the rest of society.

Part of the problem is that Arabs are usually not rooted in membership and communal solidarity, but rather belong to small, scattered structures not following modern management norms. This raises many questions about the groups’ legitimacy, accountability, and cultural relevance. Those questions in turn often impede cooperation from business as well as government.

The Arab public is more observant now, knowing of government payoffs in the past, but an inability to grapple with critical issues remains, which observers often relate to a fear of confrontation. In the socioeconomic context, people are wary of confrontation and its likelihood of success, given the Arab governments’ failure even to attempt to be accountable.

The current gap between Arab governments and publics results in large part from the laws restricting free expression, which have allowed Arab governments to close many newspapers and imprison many journalists. In that regard, the Egyptian emergency law fostered the misperception that criticism of organizations, institutions, and officials is unlawful and improper. Not long ago, the Cairo Misdemeanor Court imprisoned the editor-in-chief of Al Dostour (Constitution), Ibrahim Essa, and the journalist Sahar Zaki, along with a citizen from Warak accused of insulting Egyptian president Husni Mubarak. The executive editor-in-chief of Sout Al Omma, Wael Al Ibrashy, was referred to the criminal court, and many lawsuits have been filed against Al Fajr, headed by Adel Hamouda.

In most Arab countries, legal, administrative, and security penalties hinder freedom of press. In spite of the cosmetic annulment of some laws, many administrative obstacles keep journalists from getting official information, which hinders honest journalism and unfortunately leads some journalists to publish false information, which can lead to criminal penalties.

For economic and political reasons, the Arab world is increasingly important to the West. Certainly its growing international stance will foster the already steadfast and deep friendship between Arab world and the West. However, international politics, media, and research do not necessarily affect the beliefs of the common people. The views of people on the streets of Cairo, Beirut, Khartoum, and Damascus, as well as such rural areas of Rabat and Tanta, can differ greatly from the views of the Arab leaders in their extravagant palaces. This is a problem. The beliefs of citizens can impede development, foreign investment, and bilateral export-import programs.

Arab leaders and publics have starkly different self-perceptions and world views. The lack of civil liberties, justified by the threats of fundamentalism and terrorism – in reality of course not at all relevant – has left many citizens weary and apathetic, disinclined to fight for accountable government and democratic rights.

Is this the same for all Arabs? Do they all have the same perceptions, and if so, how should they respond? Generally, government stability provides a solid foundation for expanding trade and investment, preventing terrorism, and promulgating a general image-building campaign. Outsiders often hold preconceptions about political unrest, mistreatment of women and foreigners, and Islam in general. As a result, Arab media, politicians, and the liberal elite should reevaluate most of the current news discourse.

The Arab countries are at crossroads in four thematic senses:

First, experts emphasize the need for balancing the media playing field, especially in the context of election campaigns. At present, incumbents often dominate and prevent the press from providing meaningful information to the public. Moreover, media freedom should be increased, whether through less restrictive laws and practices, less government interference, or better protections for journalists who cover controversial issues.

Second, the rule of law should be strengthened. For one thing, torture should be reduced through improved police training and professionalism in the Arab world. In addition, authorities should enforce financial disclosure laws that prevent conflicts of interest among public officials. Most Arab countries have such laws on the books; however, the agencies in charge of enforcing them often lack the strength or independence to prosecute individuals who breach them.

Third, governments in many cases fail to address critical reform priorities. Because of the leaders’ own conflicts of interests, they do not devote sufficient attention and political will to these issues.

Fourth, the gap between Arab governments and their publics must be reduced and ultimately ended. Sound institutions and democratic governance, however, do not develop overnight. With good governance increasingly viewed as a key factor in encouraging growth, policymakers must move steadily toward a system that is accountable to its citizens.

Transparency and accountability are essential for significant progress to occur. States can improve their relationships with their citizenry only by protecting basic rights and providing good governance. Through such measures, Arab states can join the community of stable, free, and democratic nations. Their leaders should be encouraged to do so.


More specifically, five steps must be taken to strengthen the Arab social contract:

First, reform of laws is necessary but not sufficient. Societal perceptions must change too. Reform efforts stand a better chance when backed by broad sectors of society, even in dysfunctional political systems that aggregate power in a narrow elite.

Second, human rights must be protected and stereotypes eliminated. Alongside the lack of basic rights, broad societal biases keep women from holding certain leadership positions in government and society.

Third, governments must reconceive their relationships with the citizenry. Old notions of control from above still prevail. They must given way to democratic debate, in which all members of society engage as equals.

Fourth, political reform may be a precondition for protecting human rights. Arab publics are deeply skeptical about their governments’ ability to implement new laws. Several observers believe that broad political reform must come first.

Finally, people must be made aware of the importance of human rights. Especially those with less education and those in rural areas tend to equate rights with licentiousness and a degradation of moral values. For them, freedom holds negative connotations. If democracy is to take root, these misconceptions – like so many others – must be eliminated.


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1 Dr. Ibrahim Saleh,, is Assistant Professor and Director of the Connect Project “Popular Diplomacy” in the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication, The American University in Cairo. This article is adapted from his book Prior to the Eruption of the Grapes of Wrath in the Middle East: The Necessity of Communicating Instead of Clashing, available through the American University of Cairo Bookstores, Copyright 2007 by Ibrahim Saleh.