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Reflections on the Introduction of the Sixth Edition of Civil Society


Dr. Azmi Bishara

The following text is the introduction to the sixth edition of the book Civil Society: A Critical Study, which came out in early-2012. The author, Dr. Azmi Bishara, intended the introduction to be a link between the themes of the book and the ongoing developments and shifts in the Arab homeland, chief among them the Arab revolutions.

Civil Society was originally published in 1996, a time of vigorous debate regarding the relationship between civil society and democratic transformation. Three editions of the book were published in Beirut and two in Palestine. I believe that the book has retained its theoretical significance as a reference on the topic and, like any other author, I have been overjoyed to meet many who have read it, especially students at Arab universities, and discover that many of the latter have studied the work as part of their curricula in the social sciences and the humanities.

Since the publishing of this book, I have attempted to develop some of its hypotheses. In The Arab Question, published a decade after Civil Society, I put forward new ideas that were perceived as an extension of the same intellectual project, albeit through the treatment of other themes. I have also attempted to simplify some of the arguments of The Arab Question in the book To Be an Arab in Our Times.

Civil Society is a theoretical work that examines the evolution of the concept of the civil society (as a historical object) by reviewing the history of Western political thought and the accompanying social developments. The objective of the book was to deconstruct the facile overuse of the term "civil society" on the Arab cultural and political scenes, which tended to deal with the concept as a "ready-made" product to be delivered - intact - from the "manufacturer" to the "consumer". This helped spread attitudes which fetishized and iconized the concept of the "civil society," eventually stripping it of its interpretive utility and critical influence.

Therefore, the main theoretical concern of the book was to clarify the philosophical origins of the concept, located in the early phases of modernity before it took a "standardized" form following the collapse of the Socialist camp. The book also follows the evolution of the concept in political thought: when it was used as a substitute for the simple society, becoming synonymous with the state, and when it started to be used, in a deformed iteration, to indicate "all that is not the state" in some strands of Arab thought that sought to romanticize society and demonize the state. This usage stripped the concept of its critical and democratic function and made it synonymous with the civic community since it merely represents what is not the state.

Civil Society discusses the democratizing functions of the civil society following the disappearance of the concept and its re-emergence in a different version. In some social contract theories, the concept was treated as being synonymous with the state; later, it was conceived as the distinguishing characteristic of a society that is capable of organizing and reproducing itself within a market economy. In other contexts, the term was used to distinguish and separate the civil society from "the clerical" and "the military". The concept has a history that is linked to politics, economics, and ideologies, and evolved in tandem with the development of the idea of the society and the state in opposition to the organic community, on the one hand, and to the repressive mechanisms employed by the state, on the other.

The book argues that the assimilation of the concept in Arab societies is equivalent to "what is not political," following a long "screening" process extending to the era of post-modernism in the West. However, the concept adjustment may lead to its transformation, in Arab countries and other countries of the South, into a pre-modern one, restricting political intellectuals to the field of apolitical social work, which relies on foreign funding (under the umbrella of NGOs and their programs), or by other means that hit communal structures since they are not part of the state, even though their functions can be anti-civic, and not only anti-statist.

This analysis led to an extensive discussion of the difference between "the nation" and "nationalism," stressing the value of a "citizen's nation," a nation toward the outside and a civil society internally (i.e., acting as a nation on the international scene while being an inclusive civil society domestically). The book also argues that democratic citizenship is the embodiment of the relationship between political sovereignty and the civil society. Finally, the book explains that civil society is an intellectual and historical process toward citizenship and democracy, one that passes through a number of junctures and differentiations in the relationship between the individual and the community, and between society and the state.

At the time, the concept of civil society did not become popular due to a genuine scholarly effort, or because of a need for a theoretical model to explain problematics in the social sciences and humanities that are specific to the Arab homeland. This is a completely different discussion, since the social sciences at Arab universities have grown to have little relation with contemporary political and social challenges. From this perspective, there was also a pressing scholarly need for such a book.

As a theoretical essay, this book is mainly directed at specialists and interested members of the public. In the introduction to the first edition, I took the liberty of directing questions and challenges at the Arab reader, especially the Arab intelligentsia, who focused, beginning in the 1990s, on discussing civil society as a compensation for the political frustration of the Arab intellectual and his resignation from political action because of the weakness then afflicting the nationalist and leftist scenes. Indeed, the majority of those who dealt with the concept as a "ready-made" product had graduated from the crisis of the Left and Arab nationalist movements. This predicament reached its peak during that era, which witnessed the collapse of the Soviet system, the crisis of the Arab system after the Kuwait war and the Oslo Accords, and other factors that further eroded the nationalist current in its previous form as one concentrated around several Arab states that adopted Arab nationalism as an official ideology.

At the time, I wrote that an entire generation of intellectuals had withdrawn from politics to service the existing regime, to place an intellectual wager on an erroneous understanding of civil society (as existing outside the state), or to support the policies of authoritarian regimes in Arab countries that used the concept of civil society to counter the imagined "Islamist threat," as if these intellectuals were formally abandoning the arena of political action to the "Islamic current". Beyond the theoretical issues relating to Western political thought treated in the book, this was the main political problem of Civil Society. The matter was presented as a challenge to Arab intellectuals, calling upon them to effect a return to the arena of political action based on the central thesis of the book: a civil society devoid of politics and unengaged in the battle for democracy is, in fact, an abortion of the historic significance and the critical faculty of "the civil society," one that strips the concept of the interpretive capacity that can help us understand social and political structures.

As I write this introduction for a new edition of the book, published by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies in Doha, the region boils with historic events that have ended the period of political stasis experienced during the past three decades. These developments are characterized by a political dimension relating to the question of the ruling regime as defined in the book. These events have also introduced the democratic question as a political question.

"The political" has returned in full force to the social dynamic through the Arab revolutions that quickly spread from Tunisia and Egypt to Yemen, Libya, and Syria. Where, then, is "civil society" located in this dynamic, whose antecedents can be traced to the social and protest movements that arose in several Arab countries prior to the outbreak of the great revolutions?

Arab societies are undergoing a process of restructuring during which the Arab identity serves as a common cultural and affective background that transmits shared concerns and channels protest. Still, the actors on the ground are the masses of citizens who are aware of their rights and realize that they have a political duty to effectively participate in the public sphere. What is being constructed through this revolutionary dynamic is, at once, a civil society and a nation of citizens. In the book, it was argued that the two concepts were similar, but viewed from different angles and according to different functions. This reality is clearly observed in Egypt and Tunisia, with real, persistent, attempts to build a civil society in Yemen. The Yemeni case is an apt illustration of the problematic I attempt to explain in the book: Yemeni civil society is proceeding - with hope, but not without difficulty - by distinguishing itself from the state, the tribe, and the military, all at the same time. Yemeni civil society will not be able to win all these battles at once, though, in some of them, it will emerge victorious. In a rare formula, civil society in Yemen is presenting all of these confrontations as a single one: thus, the struggle of Yemeni civil society is a long one, and does not stop with the overthrow of a president.

Political forces, social movements, and associations helped prepare for this revolutionary Arab dynamic, but the revolution would not have been possible without the mobilization of broad social groups who challenged the regime and boldly advanced the political cause. This was the act that traditional political parties had avoided for decades. On the other hand, the events in question have proven the validity of my claim (even when the role of political parties was ridiculed) that, in societies seeking democratization, the parties - or the voluntary associations of people for the sake of a political goal related to the state's system - be a major part of civil society. Following the revolutions, the Arab scene is witnessing a return to party action and party life, even in the countries where political parties did not have an effective role in the revolutionary youth movement. I believe that the question of establishing political parties with a general national character is a major challenge facing the forces of democratic change in Libya, where, for example, the issue of democracy has not yet been resolved.

Generally speaking, it is now clear that civil society, as a contractual society among individuals, has appeared in public squares in a state of tension with the state, which not only employs repression, but has also abandoned the very function of the state, having transformed the public sphere into a private sphere through the emergence and practice of "ruling dynasties". Civil society became evident in these conflicts between the state and the masses, which were demanding a return of the public sphere. Through political action, citizenship appeared to be budding; civil society, however, was demanding a state that acts as a state, and not as a clique in possession of a private property. The revolutions were not directed against the state. In fact, we have witnessed a quasi-instinctive reaction that welcomes the role of the state as a guardian of the revolution, once it has differentiated itself from the regime in the form of the national army. Those who understand the theory of civil society know that a society without a state is not a civil society as it may devolve into sub-national communities, with Iraq's experience post-2003 being a constant reminder of that fact. From this perspective, it is clear that in a country like Libya, the concept of citizenship will struggle for survival against two major opponents: foreign intervention that violates national sovereignty and attempts to revive tribalism and regionalism as part of the competition among political elites.

In my opinion, the significance of foreign agendas and foreign intervention in Arab countries under the pretext of aiding democratic revolutions should not be underestimated because this support quickly transforms into political and economic diktats that violate the sovereignty of any country and its citizens, and constrict their political choices, especially when it comes to integration with other Arab states and commitment to Palestine. It has also been demonstrated that in countries where the political conflict takes the form of an identity conflict, seeking foreign support becomes a sectarian act because the actor doing so casts the competing sect(s) as its primary enemy according to the logic of "us and them". Therefore, foreign intervention becomes an element of fragmentation that negates citizenship, often reviving Orientalist conceptions of local religious, sectarian, and tribal divisions, institutionalizing and marketing them as part of the language of "pluralism" and its consociational claims. Such arrangements tend to negate national or pan-Arab action as a dynamic for changing social reality and, naturally, reject the politicization of these concepts. 

For all of these reasons, it is important to conceive civil society as a process of democratization, and not just of overthrowing a regime. Regime change may not lead to democracy, especially if the revolutionary forces are not endowed with a program for democratic transition, and they continue to merely echo the chants in the streets.

While discussing the role of civil society, an epistemological approach raises a question already advanced in the introduction of an earlier edition that may still be valid in the current context when considering the following: "civil society has reappeared in Western political theory after a long absence in order to interpret the rebellion of society against the socialist state: the case of Poland ..."; what about Arab civil society today and its revolutions? Can we speak today of a comeback for Arab civil society through new social forces, not as an escape from "the political" or as compensation for the absence of politics in the shape(s) of general discourse, research centers, and symposia; through an effective political dynamic (i.e., a revolution) that insists on "democratic transformation"? This is effectively taking place, and this was the hypothesis in The Arab Question, since the pressing need nowadays is to advance questions regarding the regime of rule.

The circumstances of the Arab revolutions, the role of the citizenry, and the ongoing debate have all brought civil society back to the fore, albeit with new challenges. Today, everybody understands the limited role of "non-governmental organizations" (NGOs); however, despite the importance of their role, some former leftists during the 1990s sought to limit the definition of civil society to these organizations. The current Arab revolutions have proven, however, that civil society, as a society of citizens, does not manifest itself in isolation from the question of the state, but through interaction with it. The trigger that launched the debate on civil society in the 1980s and 1990s was the role of labor unions in Poland's Baltic ports, especially Gdansk, which evolved from struggling for unionist rights to leading a civic revolution against the totalitarian state and the one-party dictatorship. Until it was revived by Western political theory for that occasion, the concept of civil society was never meant to refer to NGOs. More importantly, the Polish example featured a prominent role for the Catholic Church in the popular movement, proving that the role of religion in such instances is not limited to Muslim societies. After the revolution, Polish society refused to reward the Church, choosing instead to retain the personal rights that had been gained by women under the former regime, despite the repeated appeals of the Church to enact various legal amendments.

The youth of the opposition parties, and the parties themselves, have participated in the Arab revolutions, and there is no doubt that some of these youth have received training in activism on issues like human rights and the right to assemble, nor is there any doubt that this training was provided by Western-backed NGOs. This does not explain, however, the hundreds of thousands and even millions of people who took to the streets and broke into the public space out of an unalterable conviction, even when facing extreme brutality, that the time had come for the political regime to change, that it had to go. The democracy-building effort quickly transformed into struggle and a debate among various social forces, elites, political parties, and intellectuals regarding the management of the state. This debate does not ignore the question of the state; in fact, it places the state at the very center of the process of forming a veritable civil society, of constructing the public space that creates the intersection between state and society. This public sphere has expanded due to the activism of traditional media, social media networks, and others that have been amply discussed and analyzed elsewhere.

It is noteworthy that intellectuals, as a group, did not play a prominent role in the wave of protests that overtook much of the Arab world. Setting the many "regime intellectuals" aside, the others were divisible into three groups, according to what most influenced their positions: impotence, frustration, or skepticism. Some of these intellectuals expressed suspicion about "external hands" turning the revolution into a conspiracy, while others were afraid of - and stirred fears against - the Islamist current. Nevertheless, the Arab revolutionary movement has had its own intellectuals, despite claims that they are being spread in the West to the effect that the revolution lacks cultural symbols. Taken to their extremes, such claims amount to racism, reflecting a desire to treat the Arab revolutions as "raw material," as a spontaneous phenomenon that requires "shaping".

There is a definite need to acknowledge the intellectuals of the Arab revolutions, especially those who have theorized for the movement and actively participated. I was personally overcome with joy when I discovered, by accident, that Amin al-Bouazizi, and others among the educated youth behind the uprising in Sidi Bouzid, had included me and some of my books, including Civil Society and The Arab Question, in their debates and discussions. It goes without saying that these youth also read books by other authors. In Egypt, Tahrir Square attracted so many writers and other intellectuals that it would be impossible to mention them all here. At the same time, some intellectuals attempted to underestimate the media, as a tool of influence, under the pretext that the media, does not "befit" the intellectual, as though the problem related to the image of the intellectual, rather than his or her duties and responsibilities. The reality is that one has to work with what one has: intellectuals and thinkers in other societies have historically exploited all available media tools to reach their audience, including newspaper, radio, and so on.

This process of edification and construction is dependent on dialogue among Arab intellectuals and other political forces in all countries in order to determine the shape of the prospective democratic regime in each country. The process will also affect: the relationships formed with other Arab countries; what sort of development policies will be implemented to counter effects of corruption and economic dependency; and which forms of influence will be exerted by society against the state by means of political parties, regular elections, freedom of speech, and various mechanisms of control and accountability. In other words, the movement of the Arab peoples that took to the streets for protest and revolution must be politically re-formulated in order to prevent the old ruling elites from containing the popular movement.

This book discusses in detail the functionalist-historical definition of the civil society, including the move from organic community to society, and from the market economy to voluntary unions. However, I also stress that this is a process that cannot be expected to be applied in full in each society, on the one hand, and that the "standard" outcome of this process cannot be taken for granted, on the other. Thus, What is the possible process to be adopted by the civil society in the Arab world?

In this book, it is argued that the formation of civil society in the Western experience was "the very process of democratization". In the contemporary Arab experience, there are two lines of analysis, both of which point to two primary dimensions of the weakness in the development of civil society:

a) Democratic reform began from above for the interest of the ruling classes in the late 1980s. The reforms failed, despite the fact that the intellectuals tended to support them, as the regimes maintained full control and were able to use the changes to suit their own purposes. The outcomes of these reforms were regimes that were remarkably similar to those that had not adopted reforms: the nature of the ruling families were very much alike, as were their alliances with the security apparatuses, the business communities, and the founding of the regimes on clientelist relations. However, these "reformed" regimes tended to allow broader margins of freedom. It was in these margins that parties, associations, and other groups trained for protest action.

b) Political action was left to the Islamist parties. This, of course, was not an intentional decision taken by other forces, which had been greatly weakened due to changes on the regional and international scenes. Rather, these political forces attempted to withdraw into apolitical activities, though this tactic proved disastrous as it left the populace with immobilized political parties and apolitical action that calls itself "civic". As for the Islamist movements, they underwent a period of major prosperity during recent decades, but were unable to translate this success into any political successes worth mentioning except on the resistance front. The Islamist political experiment failed in Sudan, while the Afghan experience has helped scare the public away from the slogan "Islam is the solution," which used to be advanced without debate. After Afghanistan, the Muslim public became convinced that debate was necessary before the application of any such slogans, which allowed a useful process of Islamist self-assessment to begin.

Since lslamist parties and movements failed to achieve any political success, the Turkish experience prompted them to review their positions toward democracy, despite the fact that some Islamist movements in the Arab world used to be ahead of the Turkish model, including, for example, Mustafa al-SibaI, the founder of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood who was elected in the 1954 legislative elections in Syria during the 1940s and 1950s, as well as the experience of the Islamist al-Nahda Movement later in Tunisia, when, in October 2011, it won 40 percent of the vote in the first honest legislative election held in the country's history. However, the wide range of political activism led to the production of Islamist cadres with as much or more training as their nationalist and the leftist predecessors of the 1950s and 1960s. Therefore, when the revolutions erupted, the Islamist movements turned out to be a well-organized political movement capable of both maneuver and initiative.

Traditional civil society intellectuals, some of whom were fully engaged in the events of the revolution, were divided into two main groups:

1) Some were content to write adulatory praise for the youth, seen as the only dependable leadership, while glorifying spontaneity for fear that the revolution could be abducted by political elites; and

2) Those who directed criticism at the youth for their incapacity to found political parties or take other organizational steps.

The danger is that the current active dynamism of Arab civil society could be lost between these two extremes. The forces of Arab civil society are trying to construct a society and a state of citizens, as well as edify citizenship as the point of intersection between the state and society. The exaggerated and/or unconditional praise directed at the youth is similar to that previously offered by Arab intellectuals toward civil society, which was seen as a magical recipe for democracy. This approach can be misleading since it portrays the youth as though they were a single political group or a coherent political current; furthermore, this uncritical stance may lead to each political force placing a group of youth on its frontlines as a cosmetic measure, regardless of actual programs. In Egypt, such empty praise was heaped on the youth in order to contain them before fulfilling their revolutionary mission relating to changing the regime. This situation complicated the matter and turned it into a multi-faceted struggle with the structures of the old regime, many of which remained standing and retained their institutional capacity, even judging the former president in accordance with the old laws.

As for criticizing the youth for being non-politicized, the effective outcome is to abandon political society to the religious parties, which tend these days to be the strongest and most organized of the existing formations. This attitude also allows for secondary identities and senses of belonging to emerge and prosper in the Arab Levant and some parts of the Maghreb. In The Arab Question and other works, I have rejected the exclusionist perspective, which holds that democracy in the Arab world can, and possibly must, be built with the exclusion of the Islamist movement. In fact, the legitimacy of the participation of Islamist movements in the democratic process must be stressed. More recently, however, the youth of the Islamist movements, along with the other youth, have been opening new horizons for the development of Arab political society and for closer interaction with the values of civil society, which are based on the principles of citizenship and inclusion within the national society.

1) The last idea that must be affirmed in the introduction to this edition is that the theoretical distinction between the nation and nationalism in the civil society was not fortuitous; in fact, it was the result of extensive research that identified the prime political/sovereignty factors that tend to be most important in the conception of the nation from those that dominate the concept of nationalism, such as the linguistic, ethnic, and cultural. Naturally, I do not rule out the possibility of a historical intersection between these two concepts, especially with the tendency of nationalisms to transform into sovereign nations and to establish states, which often takes place during the stage of national liberation and state-building. In the chapter discussing nation and nationalism, I attempted to offer a new contribution to the theory of nationalism, and it appears that many have had difficulty understanding what was meant, which was often due to the use of familiar Arab intellectual currents and terminology that some may not be aware of. Thinker, and friend, Aziz al-Adhma has noted this discrepancy, as has noted historian, and friend, Dr. Wajih Kawtharani, who has raised this question in several of our personal discussions.

Although some believe that I had abandoned the distinction I made in Civil SocietyThe Arab Question actually further developed and identified this distinction by applying it to the Arab case. Some, however, seem not to acknowledge the existence of Arab nationalism, let alone a nation, while acknowledging the nationalism of any national minority that lives among the Arabs; in fact, some of these minorities are being intentionally "nationalized". The Arab revolutions, however, have proven both the existence of an Arab identity and the possibility of building civic nations, based on citizenship, that do not correspond to nationalisms. Arab nationalism, however, involves cultural, linguistic, and affective dimensions that cannot be ignored on the Arab level because they provide the Arab state with cultural content that is trans-sectarian within the nation-state and pan-Arab on the regional level. This is not an Arab nationalist position, and should not stir the sensitivities of other nationalities since the nation of citizens advocated is not based on nationalism or religion, and, as such, does not consider non-Arabs or non-Muslims as minorities - except in the positive sense, when it comes to the domains of collective cultural rights demanded by minorities. This theory has not been transformed into a political idea adopted by parties, but I have no doubt that it represents the political mainstream without being expressing as such. The behavior of the youth in the revolutions has tended to mimic and affirm this notion, and the discourse of the Arab revolutions stresses citizenship and national identity based thereon, without diminishing the Arab identity that was expressed throughout the events in question.

Nonetheless, the primary challenge, especially in the Arab Levant, is to keep the confrontation with the regime from transforming into an identity struggle that not only fragments what is seen as shared national asset (i.e., language, lands, culture, religions), but also prevents the formation of a nation of citizens. Faced with this threat, it is not enough in the Levant to repeat the slogan that "the regime must be overthrown"; instead, it is the duty of the democratic forces to stress the civic dimension relating to all citizens, and emphasize the democratic dimension that majority and minority should not be based on sectarian affiliation, but rather on political affiliation, for this is not, in any way, the expression of a civic regime.

There is no doubt that both the trans-boundary citizenship crossing cultural, sectarian, and tribal identities, on the one hand, and that of nationalism based on language, on the other, are continually developing and crystallizing. It is the duty of the intellectual to propose rational formulations for these identity entities because the lack of such a vision may cause a return to the "simple society," its organic links, and its solidarity bonds - to use the terms of my late friend, Dr. Khaldoun Hasan al-Naqeeb - leading to wars of all against all, instead of the natural progression of civil society and democracy as an alternative to despotism.

Currently, civil society is undergoing a process of change on three fronts in that is: 1) moving toward democracy, dignity, and freedom against the despotic regime, all of which represents revolutionary modernization; 2) in favor of sovereignty and against foreign intervention, since national sovereignty is another facet of civil society; and 3) values citizenship and is against the conflation of political belonging with sectarian, ethnic, and tribal identities (i.e., against the fragmentation of civil society and the political entity).