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Where Do You Find “Civil Society” (In Egypt And Elsewhere)?

August 30, 2012

So is this civil society? Or something else? And if so, what?

The term “civil society” is used by social scientists to refer to those aspects of human social and political experience outside the realms of family, state, and market, in which people associate to advance common interests. Its use is often ambiguous, though; some people use it to refer to a “third sector” of society distinct from government and business, which would obviously include the family and other aspects of the private sphere.  In yet other uses, it refers generally to institutions that allow democratic society outside the state, such as freedom of speech, independent judiciary, free and fair elections, the right to assemble to protest, and so forth.

This is actually less messy in practice that it might seem when you try to pin down definitions, because the civil society literature in (mostly) political science and sociology seeks to identify and describe (and often promote) those specific institutions, organizations and networks outside the state apparatus and the market, that seek to advocate for, and create, those more general democratic principles.

Irregardless, any discussion with the word “civil society” in it almost inevitable focuses on Non Governmental Actors.

In recent decades, most efforts to describe and promote political libralization–that is, the transformation of authoritarian societies into more democratic societies–have heavily focused on the notion of civil society.

But there is a growing critical literature on this topic that stems, I think, from two trends. The first is the use of civil society as a new panacea by institutions promoting neoliberal economic transformation. IMF and World Bank loans came to be predicated on the shrinking of state sponsored institutions, which would supposedly be picked up by “civil society” in some way.The second is a desire to see a civil society emerging as an alternative social and moral order quite apart from the state, the market, and these international actors.

A new article in the British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies by Ozlem Altan-Olcay and Ahmet Icduygu uses the results of a study conducted among civil society actors (read NGOs) to compare the meaning of civil society in Egypt, Lebanon and Turkey.

The article, which is clearly part of the emerging critical literature on the subject, makes three claims:

  1. First, it argues that the boundaries between states and civil societies are ambiguous and indeterminate, making it problematic to expect civil society organizationsto serve as catalysts for regime transformation without other forces playing a significant role.
  2. Second, it shows that the expectations held by many promoters of civil society institutions that these organizations will spread a common set of democratic values throughout a society do not reflect the actual experiences of those who work in civil society organizations (read NGOs).
  3. Finally, it argues that any models of how political and social transformation take place must take into consideration the contributions of other sources of mobilization.

In other words, it’s a complex ecosystem of interacting political, economic and social institutions and there’s not single set of institutions that can serve as a magic bullet to deliver democratic change.

(Shouldn’t we know this by now?)

Altan-Olcay, Ozlem and Ahmet Icduygu. 2012. Mapping Civil Society in the Middle East: The Cases of Egypt, Lebanon and Turkey. British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 39(2): 157-179.

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