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Civil Society Finds its Voice in Tahrir Square

John Garrison's picture

While it may take historians years to understand the historic conditions and political factors which triggered the democratic revolution in Tunisia, Egypt, and other countries in the Middle East, one thing seems to be certain.  The political actor which has gained the most prominence in these political uprisings has been ‘civil society’. This term encompasses the large sector within any given society which sits between governments and the for-profit or private sector.  As such it includes youth movements, workers unions, NGOs, political parties, and faith-based organizations among others.  It is a term still little understood, often derided by authoritarian governments, and rarely heard in the Middle East until now. The term in Arabic is “mojtama'a madani” and has the same broad meaning as in English.  It is said that when Egyptian ex-President Mubarak first heard the term he mockingly quipped, “So what’s wrong with military society?”

A good indication of how visible and prominent the civil society term has become is how often it is being repeated by CNN and Al Jazeera pundits and political leaders such as British Prime Minister Cameron and Secretary of State Clinton.  As a matter of fact, Secretary Clinton took advantage of the events in the Arab world to hold a first ever “Strategic Dialogue with Civil Society” on February 16 at the State Department.  She was joined by civil-society representatives from more than 20 countries and thousands more who participated in the event through videoconferences in 50 countries.  She stated that if “we’re going to take advantage of this historic moment (in the Middle East), we have to tap the expertise, experience, and energy of civil society”.  She also noted that both she and President Obama “have deep personal connections to civil society. He began his career as a community organizer; I began mine as an advocate for women and children’s rights. Both of us are committed to defending civil society”. 

Egyptian activist Sherif Mansour, who was also present at the State Department event, added that the uprisings in his country can only be “attributed to people in Egypt and Tunisia who proved that ultimately civil society is a change-maker and the permanent partners for the U.S. in the long run”.  Other prominent global civil society leaders have also noted the emergence of civil society in the Arab world.  Ingrid Srinath, Secretary General of Civicus, stated in a recent article that the only path to stability in the region “are grounded in the rights to freedom of association, expression and assembly so that civil society can play its entire spectrum of roles” including promoting free speech, organize peacefully and hold governments to account. 

At the World Bank we have increasingly come to realize how important civil society is, and that is why we actively engage CSOs through policy consultations, joint research, grant funding, and operational collaboration. While we increasingly engaged civil society over the past decade in the Middle East, the recent events will certainly accelerate this process.  As Shamshad Akhtar, World Bank Vice President for the Middle East, said at a speech in Brussels on February 23: “The democratic movements provide a unique opportunity to leverage people and civil society power to change the landscape of the Middle East and North Africa”. 


Photo Credit: Jonathan Rashad (on Flickr)

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Submitted by Richard Holloway on
What is most interesting is the way that the envelope of what is normally thought of as 'civil society' has been damtically stretched through local events. Alan Fowler has long proclaimed that the dividing lines between the State, Busines, and Civil Society were "fuzzy", and recent events have underlined that. According to articles in the IHT, civil society groups in Tahrir Square were, inter alia, football fan clubs, the muslim brotherhood, spontaneous groups formed through facebook, flash mobs generated through twitter, groups of people whose families had been hurt by the existing regime, youth groups, neighbourhod groups - and probably many others as yet undocumented, often energized by people who came from a business background (the guy from Google). A very important issue is to support and promote civil society groups which are participatory and emocratic, and watch out for those which are authoritarian and despotic. It is the former features, together with private energy, which make civil society an important force for good.

Submitted by John on
Richard, I agree with your point that civil society is quite diverse and like other sectors in society, can either generate positive or negative energy and impacts. On the other hand, by its very nature of being grassroots and reform-minded it is generally a force for good. John

Submitted by Anonymous on
It is true that civil society ,if able to take power ,will make a great change in the mentality of the arab countries.But , There is a very rich and formidable force hidden & disguised as friendly to the US and others who are fighting to kill this civil society birth or life.If you see and analyse what is happening in Egypt today,Salafi muslims as well as the M.Brotherhood have infiltrated the army the peasants and the workers society to dominate them under the Religion Banner saying that the coran does not accept DEMOCRACY .All these fanatics are survived by petroleum money from Saoudi Arabia.So Egypt will be in fact a non governable country with the termoil it is in since there is no protection for the civil from the religious thugs who are now killing Copts and insulting any woman who is not veiled in the street even attacking and raping them.So reading the Egyptian papers in arabic can show that it is up to the civil society to act by first imposing the law and order that the army has not been able to apply till now or to prosecute the protagonators of fear of being against religion .The army could and will act very fast if Obama tell them that the money will not go to the army if a really civil govt. law and order is not performed fast.

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