In his study of the American Revolution and post-revolutionary society, Tocqueville first conceived a relationship between civil society and democracy in the 19th century. While the significance of this idea waned through much of the 20th century, it was revived in light of the circumstances contributing to the end of totalitarianism in Eastern Europe. Scholars argue that the development of civil society yields a significant positive impact on the quality of governance, development and quality of life (Perez-Diaz 1993). In a 1995 interview, Robert Putnam stated “you tell me how many choral societies there are in an Italian region, and I will tell you plus or minus three days how long it will take you to get your health bills reimbursed by its regional government.” Such ideas logically lead to the question, if civil society is active in the Middle East, why does the democratic system of governance remain “alien” to the region?
History is partly responsible for the current situation. The majority of undemocratic ruling regimes in the Middle East can be divided into three categories – those that were put into place by the colonial powers, those that came to power in the wake of Ottoman decline, and those that rose up against postcolonial institutions. After the First World War, the Hashemite monarchies of Jordan and Iraq were created through direct British intervention. All of the Arab states of the Persian Gulf came into being as powerful families captured control of territory as Ottoman power was dismantled and replaced by European influence. All thee Arab Gulf states are now ruled by hereditary monarchies. In those states that were directly governed by Britain and France, poorly thought-out territorial division and ill-conceived imperial ruling practices generated long-lasting communal tension and political instability. These circumstances were particularly un-conducive to democratic governance. At the end of the interwar period and nearing independence, none of the mandate states experienced functioning representative political systems (with the exception of confessional Lebanon). Rather, throughout colonial possessions, a social system was in place that alienated the vast majority of the population and allowed wealth and power to be concentrated in the hands of an elite class. Members of this class tended to be unwilling to join the military forces. As a result, the ethnic, religious, class and geographical groups that remained excluded from the political realm became well represented in the officer corps. The military coups between the late 1940s and early 1960s were a response to the inequities of the postcolonial era, and did not tend to culminate in democratic systems of governance.
While history presents the argument as to why undemocratic regimes came into being, in light of the contemporary growth of CSOs, why have these regimes endured? The reasons for the futility of CSOs to generate political change are derived from policies taken up by undemocratic states to systematically undermine them. By the end of the Gulf War, political dissent surfaced from the inability of authoritarian Arab states and their bloated bureaucracies to maintain pace with the rising aspirations of increasingly educated and socially mobile populations (Yom 2005). In response to burgeoning political dissatisfaction, governments began to reevaluate their means of quelling dissent. Across the region, legal policies undermining the effectiveness of CSOs as a means of political change were undertaken.
Middle Eastern undemocratic regimes pioneered the usage of loopholes in CSO legislation to render them ineffective as political actors. Firstly, in most states, such organizations are by law required to register with government ministries and obtain permits of operation. Ministries use “associations laws” to bureaucratically increase the costs of establishing a new civic organization. Secondly, in the examples of Yemen and Jordan, social affairs ministries mandate civic groups to abstain from anti-state activity, or siba (literally “subversion”). Thirdly, state administrators exert control over the operating budgets of CSOs, preventing them from becoming physically powerful enough to become efficient channels of anti-government sentiments. Fourthly, CSOs fall under the close scrutiny of state intelligence agencies, such as the Mukhabarat in Hussein’s Iraq. These agencies are empowered to “infiltrate major associations, cancel board elections of unions and syndicates, impose arbitrary fines for management, ban financial contributions from blacklisted donors, and dissolve any group found to commit minor legal infractions,” (Yom 2005). Fifthly, “emergency laws” in Syria, Algeria, Egypt and Sudan suspend the legal rights of activists, allowing the government to further repress organized dissent. Finally, states, such as Syria, have established their own civic organizations that promote pro-state propaganda. Jordan has gone so far as to establish the General Union of Voluntary Societies (GUVS), a government instrument that claims to be representative of all CSO interests. The GUVS thereby precludes the official voicing of any opinions that may undermine state authority.
The Middle East is a region that has ubiquitously experienced the growth of civil society organizations, yet contrary to political philosophy, has not experienced the theorized benefits of growth in democratization. There is modest evidence demonstrating political liberalization in the region between 1960 and 2000 (Noland 2005). However, evidence shows that these liberalizations have been token measures designed to actually strengthen state control. Examples such as “defensive democratization” in Jordan, “democratization from top down” in Saudi Arabia, and “tactical liberalization” in Yemen, abound. The concept of civil society is by no means alien to the region. However, the undemocratic regimes of the region have systematically undermined the effectiveness of the civil society as means of exacting political change. The concept of democratic government remains alien insofar as it has generally not taken root.