A special file of the task of Civil Society, its assumptions and necessity for Arab societies in general and for Syria in particular.

Upon reviewing the status quoi of Arabic societies, we can see how these societies turn a blind eye on facts and suffer from social schizophrenia. Adversely, Western societies alienated from the society of the Medieval Ages by moving from “state society” to “society state” through industrial revolution. This was manifested by Jean Jacque Rousseau Contract and Hegelian Criticism of the intellect. Therefore, we do need to investigate the roots of social, economic and political challenges dominating countries of the Arab World. 


  • The concept of Civil Society
  • Civil Society and its links to civil institutions
  • Civil Society and its emergence in the Arab World
  • Civil Society, the proliferation of the concept and its dilemmas
  • Confusion between Civil Society and Sub-Civil Society, civil organizations and Sub-Civil organizations
  • Civil Society, from discourse to necessity
  • Challenges and obstacles facing civil societies and the best way to develop them
  • Civil Society, its prospects of development and empowerment of its institutions
  • Conclusion

The concept of Civil Society

The concept of Civil Society has steadily developed according to social variables related to time and place so as to produce a new social property based on building the human being as a core and principal component of the society. This development has been simultaneously associated with the emergence of modern state, the new International system, globalization, communication breakthroughs and data systems. It was also associated with the collapse of the post-World II system. Many theses were presented on the concept of Civil Society starting with the first European enlightenment up to liberalism.  

Despite the different theses proposed by different thinkers, the structure of Civil Society continued to be based on two pillars i.e. society and institutions. Its role has been associated with its ability to reflect a civil realm or a link between two political actors, the ruler and the ruled, and the controversial relation between the two in two perspectives:

The first one is the ideological perspective which calls for decreasing the control of state over economy, political entities, social movements, syndicates and vocational unions.

The second one is developmental and it segregates state from society. It expresses the level of social awareness that characterizes a specific period of time of the development of society. In this perspective, all citizens are equal regardless of their identities. They are all partners in social awareness within a human development system. It widely covers the mechanism for organizing social relationships according to laws which constitute a reference and criteria that limit the role of the state to availing the healthy environment for social growth and a protective means to alter the state interference and its violations.  

Changes of the concept of Civil Society have contributed to availing the minimum conditions for establishing Civil Society as a distinct concept from concepts like citizenship, liberalism, capitalistic economy and other accompanying phenomena. These changes also made Civil Society different from military, political, religious and tribal societies.  

Civil Society and its connection with civil institutions

Civil Society, as a Western product, has been historically associated with a set of pre-conditions that govern its origin as an idea. It was based on a philosophical theory that led to a civil collective product with an auditory system that monitor the state. Democracy, freedom and human rights of all citizens constitute the fundamental structure of Civil Society. A good and health Civil Society will produce a good and sustainable constitution so that neither society nor state can violate the rights of citizens. Therefore, the relation between the government and citizens is based on accountability, a contract signed by voters and candidates. In this way both citizens and civil societies can exchange influence on political procedures and mobility related to state institutions in the pursuit for required change.

Emergence of Civil Society in the Arab World

The concept of Civil Society first appeared with the Arabic Philosopher, Ibn Khaldoun, and spread in the Arab World beginning of the 1970s. But this concept remained imprisoned in the minds of the elite as a cornerstone in any democratic change. Perhaps the concept was delayed because Arab countries were taken away by liberation movements as Arab countries were being colonized. Independence was prior to democracy, justice before freedom. Consequently, the concept of Civil Society was postponed as it was believed that it could be attained following independence.

Although some Arab Regimes raised mottos of liberal democracy as a kind of political pluralism, and they called for elections, this concept was not a public demand yet. It was aborted because of military coups, tribal mentality and political sectarianism, mainly the dilemma of political Islam. All these factors helped in reinforcing royal, family and Emirate regimes. The post-independence state project was disappointing, and the idea of establishing a Civil Society was unreachable.

Spread of the concept of Civil Society and its dilemmas

The social, economic and political interrelated crises, that impaired the concept of Civil Society and its publicity, allured those interested in political change. Many of those advocates of Civil Society rushed to adopt this project as Arab societies failed in establishing a social contract that can unify the social components within each country.  

Following repeated national defeats and retreats in the Arab World, the second Gulf War, flourishment of fundamentalist movements and the international development have all capitalized on the need for carrying out political and economic reforms. Thus, the new concept got momentum in the Arab countries except for Gulf States. The concept was confronted with many obstacles like:

  • Civil Society Versus State

There was an inclination for limiting the role of state and a demand for political pluralism which is a basic right of peoples who are tired of tyranny. One of the misconceptions is that some believe that Civil Society can only be empowered on the rubbles of state. On the contrary, Civil Society is the product of identification of the relation between state and the society which is the source of legitimacy that is granted to the state.

  • The absence of legal structure that is based on citizenship

As Arab societies lack the most important basis of Civil Society i.e. citizenship and all its implications – equality, freedom and independence, the essential concept of Civil Society has never been adopted. It is not possible to adopt this concept in the absence of a legal environment that avail protection for individuals and different groups, and it   helps in establishing social contract for rulers and subjects.

  • Social Anchors

Deterrents to such Civil Society are not limited to tyranny and its barriers to Civil Society; it goes further to social barriers that anticipate the whole concept. Arab societies are still imprisoned by tribal, sectarian, ethnic and other traditional properties. They haven’t reached citizenship with all its cultural, social and political relationships. Such relationships constitute the legal and institutional basis for both state and society alike.

Lebanese experience with Civil Society is a good example where Civil Society flourished due to the weakness of the state and openness to the West and emigration of many Lebanese. However, this experience couldn’t overcome the sectarian problem that has fragmented the Lebanese society. 

  • The absence of an intellectual and behavioral reference in the Arab and Islamic countries has turned this experience into an imported experiment rather than a genuine innovation like in the West. The concept has been differently interpreted and analyzed. These different views of the concept are sometimes even contradictory. Some advocates of this concept subjugated it to the logic of state, religion, tyranny and military contexts.
  • Civil Society has been twisted to refer to Non-Governmental Organizations

The absence of thoughtful insight of the way to establish Civil Society, and the desire to live with it has pushed many to narrow the term to mean Non-Governmental Organizations. This is a blind duplication of an irrelevant term that was the latest trend in the West.

In addition to its importance and contributions to civil life, Civil Society plays a great role in empowering democracy. Arab countries, having failed to promote Civil Society, can never guarantee protection against dictatorship. Conversely, there is no power for the military or the Church, and corruption and opportunism are not as influential in the West as in the Arab World. The political thought in the Arab World is still immature and unable to have a thoughtful theory of “the State”. “State” in Muslim countries is an integral part of Sharia, and the state is in charge of implementing the rules of Sharia. A large number of Arabs and Muslims never recognize constitution and consider Quran to the only constitution.     

Anyway, we can never ignore the exaggeration in depicting Civil Society to be the only salvation path, and that this theory can perfectly build the capacity of local societies and promote accountability and transparent policies by governments.

When the concept of Civil Society is restricted to Non-Governmental Organizations, the role of Citizens retreats in favor of the state which solely enacts laws and rebuff all civil voices. The concept of Civil Society has been organically connected with sectarian, ethnic or tribal affiliations.   

Confusion between Civil Society and narrow Sub-Civil societies[1], civil societies organizations and sub-civil organizations

The stalemate that has been associated with the emergence of Civil Society and the absence of civil democratic states, has led to confusion between Civil Society and Sub- Civil Society. This confusion exists despite the difference between the two concepts. Ethnic, religious or tribal identity attempts to keep to pre-state era. These outdated affiliations can never co-exist with the modern age. Sub-civil Society has got different objectives from the objectives of Civil Society. These sub-national belonging have always lied behind conflicts and wars. Ireland, for example, is torn between Protestants and Catholics. Lebanon, for example, has always been blown out by sectarian conflicts.

In a Civil Society, every citizen feels free and attain self fulfilment as an independent creature who believes in dialogue, voluntary work, interaction with all spectrums and organizations. S/he feels involved in decision-making away from any sub-national affiliations that enhance polarization and disputes.

Some trends and individuals, who deliberately confuse these two contradictory concepts, fall into two groups:

  • The first group is repulsive to Western culture and looks for alternative concepts to Civil Society. Those Anti-Civil Society godfathers believe that these alternatives get legitimacy form the experience of the nation. They think that these sub-national affiliations have always availed protection and security for individuals, and have got their role in organization, education and providing social and health services. These sub-national and pre-state institutions have always been related to religious doctrines.
  • Tyrannical Governments that are afraid of the existence of any independent entities. The prevalence of Civil Society will undermine the authority and domination of the state. Governments are keen on supporting sub-Civil Society.
  • Tyrannical governments are always afraid of any independent civil societies. These governments are keen on supporting sub-civil societies as these societies are easy to manage, therefore they try to substitute civil societies with sub-civil societies as the latter is easier to control. For this reason, governments have established many Governmental and Non-Governmental Organizations which are intended to make up for defaults rather than work on sustainable prosperity. The only independence these organization enjoy is the financial independence as they are free to get financial support from any local or external sources. Thus, Civil Society is twisted to become the State Civil Society.  

Civil Society, from theory to a necessity

Despite the numerous changes and breakthroughs that humanity has witnessed in its pursuit for establishing modern state, the Arab countries remained in a stagnant pool of desperation and failure in all fields because these countries continued being ruled by tyrannical regimes. These regimes continued ruling despite the lack for legal and committed institutions that are governed by values of accountability. As these regimes monopolized sources of power and authority, it has been difficult to dismantle them. They managed to suppress all Civil societies, syndicates, political entities and unions, and all these societies and institutions, like education administration and the media, have been subjugated to the state formal discourse. For all these reasons, some advocates of Civil Society took the initiative to call for reform and resurrection. The elite calling for Civil Society can’t be ignored for many reasons like: 

  • Civil Society and the establishment of State:

Arab societies are facing many social, economic, political and institutional challenges. They have so far failed in responding to the increasing demands represented in dramatic increase in the population, failure of the public sector and the inability to create job opportunities for millions of young people. Favoritism, and corruption have deformed the economic outcomes. These challenges have become deeper and more serious. Unless they take up investment in human resources, these Arab Societies will collapse because human resources are the sound base for any potential development. 

In order to build up a new economic system, Arab societies need to establish civil societies which have the potentiality to develop human resources through economic and social programs that build the capacity of human beings and enhance their self-fulfillment. Developing human resources entails the existence of both a means and an objective. To attain this, there is a need for a change in the legal and institutional environments. Building successful political-economic patterns will require the implementation of accountability standards and transparent and fair organizational frameworks that are based on fixed rules. However, this can never be achieved by Sub-Civil Society with its traditional structure and limited productivity.

  • Civil Society, an exit for governments’ failure

The devastating failure of national ruling regimes have utterly failed in ideological discourse represented by national liberalism, and in politics as these regimes falsified democracy and advocated tyranny.

The falsehood of mottos claimed to be for justice, security and stability raised by governments has been uncovered as these governments have obliterated all institutions that can play in role in public audition. They reinforced social deference. All these have led to a change in the mentality of Arabs towards these regimes which failed in fulfilling their promises, and this causes a disturbed relation between the rulers and their subjects. Consequently, any political dodge through partial reform is no longer applicable and the possibility of burst is very likely to happen day after day.  

Thus, the only exit for governments is to go for a new social contract that ensures the rights of all citizens so that they contribute to establishing a modern state that guarantee the respect for freedom and human rights. Existing constitutions and Islamic Sharia have so far failed in attaining these goals. Society should be organized in a way that helps it avoid the iron grip of ruling regimes.

  • Civil Society is the only path to democracy

Failure of ruling regimes in attaining the minimum level of development, political turbulence and the subjugation of the three authorities by the ruler have all led to violent reactions by some groups who aspire for change in many of the Arab countries. Because of the oppressive machine of ruling regimes, peoples of the Arab World have been changed into submissive communities and passive introvert individuals. But with the spread of social media and communication technology, this has changed and the necessity of democratic change has become inevitable.

No democratic change and termination of tyranny can be made without the empowerment of Civil Society as democracy and Civil Society are closely interrelated. Voting on new laws, allowing democratic change and free elections are never enough without re-construction of the social system as a whole on democratic basis. This can only be achieved through the activation of Civil Society that restores balance to the relation between the state and society. Such civil societies and associations can create a safety valve that can guarantee the interests of all citizens to make them able to stand the ascendency and domination of the state.

  • Civil Society and social security in cosmopolitan societies.

Sectarian violence is one of the most dangerous and oldest infections that hit peoples of the Arab World throughout history. With the advent of public protests that overwhelmed the Arab World, a process of social and political segregation emerged in many Arab countries. This segregation has been inspired by sectarian, ethnic and religious basis. Instead of investing in the social mosaics of the Arab societies, ruling regimes adopted a rule: “Divide and rule”. When the state obliterates social security, individuals retreat to their Sub-National belongings, and the state is degraded to a religious or narrow project which makes the country very liable to get into turbulence. 

When we re-define citizenship as an issue related to homeland rather than existing system, deeply rooting the national identity, we can avoid any exchange of accusations exchanged by different social components. This will never be possible with alienation practiced even within different groups of the same religion or the same ethnicity. It is true that we can never ignore the diversity of society, but we can utilize this diversity in integrate all components through democratic practices and the establishment of civil societies. The emphasis should be put on public interests with special care for human rights. Citizenship is a link that connects all individuals of the society as free and equal citizens who all meet at one point i.e. the national state.

Empowering citizenship in cosmopolitan societies requires the establishment of Civil Society as a haven for all citizens away from the grip of the state. Such haven will shelter all citizens with their interrelated relationships on the one hand, and with the state on the other. The problem is not in pluralism itself as much as in organization of this pluralism in an institutional manner. However, this will not be possible in societies dominated by Sub-Civil belongings like tribes, ethnic or religious groups which can be just like a barrel filled with gunpowder that threatens civil peace, state and society itself. In brief, the task of Civil Society is to connect social and political realms through facilitating the political mobility and encouraging the social one for the stability of society as a whole.   

The role of Civil Society in reinforcing civil peace in cosmopolitan societies doesn’t mean that it has proved its efficiency in war-bound countries of the Arab Spring. It might be relevant to refer to the status of Civil Society in Syria where civil societies have not succeeded in putting an end to the ongoing war in Syria.

Civil Societies and wars, Syria is an example

Ever since the beginning of Syrian Revolution in 2011, there has been an increase in the number of civil societies as the need for such societies was larger and larger in the light of state reluctance to do its duties towards its citizens and as the ruling regime in Syria focused only on its security tasks. Having these civil societies in Syria doesn’t mean that Syria is heading to a real Civil Society with an active role like in other stable countries.

The Syrian case with all its peculiarity and challenges imposed by the conflict has made the existence of civil societies completely connected with the conflict and its circumstances. Thus, the spread of these societies is not associated with standards than can make these societies as reliable as required. These societies lack independence, transparency accountability and public momentum. Civil societies in the government-controlled areas like Damascus Voluntary Team, Syrian Youth Finger Print and Syrian Eagles were committed to advocate Assad’s Regime and they demonstrated in some countries to protest the suspension of Syria’s membership in the Arab League. These societies have been supported by the government which has been acting like a ghost behind the scene.

Similarly, civil societies in the opposition-held areas have also been bound to humanitarian titles and they have given no chance for civil mobility. The huge humanitarian crisis and the increasing number of Internally Displaced Persons IDPs have all changed these societies into humanitarian relief organizations concerned with aids, education and sheltering. Religiously ideologized Military factions dominating conflict areas control the activities of these organizations under the pretext that humanitarian work has nothing to do with Sharia. These military groups imposed sectarian values under religious titles.

The result is that the status of Civil Society has not improved in Syria. The role of Civil Society is not limited to establishing civil societies. It is supposed to build up a society in which all citizens share the common concerns and they all work hard to develop common culture and awareness away from militarization, religion, sidelining, and disunity of the social components whether they are affiliated with the regime or the opposition. The Syrian society is still not recovering. 

Obstacles and challenges facing civil societies institutions and their chance of development

Talking about the necessity of establishing a Civil Society doesn’t imply that it is an easy task to do that. It is an approach to the possibility of solving problems of countries that are drowned by a lot of problems. These problems necessitate the establishment of Civil Society. Obstacles are not only attributed to Recalcitrant ruling regimes, but also social repulsive factors that impede the introduction of Civil Society and its development. These obstacles can be stated as follows:

Most Arab ruling regimes, with all their forms, stand against the establishment of modern civil societies by confiscating all aspects of citizens’ lives. It has been a bargain i.e. availing basic needs in return for total deference to regimes’ projects. States in Arab countries undertake availing education, health and housing, but monopolized politics. No opposition parties are allowed, so all institutions have been reproduced to serve the interests of ruling class. It has become very difficult to distinguish between state and authorities.

Citizens are looked at as a threat.  

Instead of considering citizens as human resources to be invested in for economic, social and political reform, Arab ruling regimes look at their subjects as a threat that must be responded to. Therefore, states in the Arab World surround themselves with Armies, royal guards, republican guards, and many intelligence systems and security forces. For these regimes, the state should penetrate society, not in service of public interest, but for the interests of the regime itself. They are always suspicious about any social mobility, and they are always alerted to deal with any social phenomenon as a political threat and a total rejection of the existing regime. Much of the resources of the country are not dedicated for the prosperity of society, rather they are utilized for strengthening the regime and the extermination of any potential opposition. When any social mobility comes to light, ruling regimes immediately accuse it of being an agent of external opponent powers and they describe any reform project a Western agenda.

Social response to tyrannical states

The response of Arabic societies to the discourse of formal regimes of the Arab World has constituted a fundamental factor in the construction of these societies and this directly reflected on the sets of behavior of individuals including those who work for civil institutions.

 Simulation with bragging speech and the rejection of alternative

The bragging speech that overwhelms peoples of the Arab region and pushes them to follow their regimes instead of imposing pressure on these regimes to oblige them fulfill the required development. Middle bourgeoise class has been uncertain about their real desire for democracy as this class is either dependent on the state or used by it.    

  • Societies that are repulsive to the establishment of Civil Society

In addition to governments’ abhorrence of Civil Society, Arab and Islamic societies have got their own obstacles to the establishment of Civil Society that is connected to the state in a social contract that govern both individuals and the state. Such contract is based on values of the individuals which are sacred, and the values of the society which is committed to legal requirements. The core of civil life lies in political liberty that is based on the separation between religion and state. This political liberty, being a celestial activity governed by logic and laws, will liberate the state. This will help liberate individuals, as the basics of democracy, from the holiness of sacred traditions. Fulfilling this is not easy in religion-oriented societies.

Enacting laws in such societies will be impaired by all issues related to religious legislations, and prevent the establishment of Civil Society with its civil laws that emphasize the rights of citizenship and their participation in public affairs.  

  • Obstacles related to mechanisms of civil societies’ work

Many problems coincided with the emergence of Non-Governmental Organizations as they were exposed to the control of governments over society with the absence of freedom, rights of citizenship and prevalence of law. These societies have been unable to penetrate state and the society to achieve their goals. They also suffered from problems like:

  1. The lack of a program with identified objectives for the activities of organizations which are torn between social, political and developmental objectives without having a clear vision of the final goal. With their hierarchy in which not all their staff are real partners in decision-making they converted from a public interest sector into a private interest one 
  2. Disunity of components of Civil Society is due to local and international changes. This obliterates any accumulation of experience that can help in crystalizing Civil Society that is capable of contributing to fulfillment of objectives.
  3. Most organizations haven’t been established like institutions because they have been under influence of Arab social concepts based on family, tribe, religion or sect. These concepts are typical of the Arab social and political mind. It has been a failure to combine these outdated concepts with modern ones. Therefore, favoritism and corruption prevailed. Efficiency and effectiveness have been disregarded.
  4. Funding is another big problem that faces civil societies as they depend on either the donations of individuals who believe in the objectives of these societies or donations of Western countries and international agencies whose money is sometimes suspicious. Connection with foreign agendas make so many qualified personnel abstain from joining these societies.

Civil Society, perspectives of progression and empowerment of its institutions

The random spread of civil societies and the different ideologies that guide them will make it difficult and time-consuming to mend them and enable them to play a key role in changing passive individuals into free active members of the society. This can be achieved through:

  1. Supporting the intellectual accumulation and paying much attention to field studies for the analysis of social, economic and political basses with as much coordination as possible to find common ground for either taking the Western sample or inventing a peculiar sample that goes with the requirements of Arab societies and individuals;
  2. Involving all social entities and all individuals as focal persons who should be liberated from their ethnic, religious, sectarian and party commitments because these limitations contradict with the core of the concept of Civil Society;
  3. Networking with different organizations that share the same goals to gather as much experience as possible, skills needed, information required and data that helps in attaining the identified goals so as to enable these organizations take initiative and expand their scope of work.
  4. Restoration of the capabilities of the society for building institutions that can enable organizations to raise awareness of citizens for prosperity and devolpment;
  5. Repairing the defaults and extermination of the above-mentioned obstacles and encouraging initiatives both in theory and practice;
  6. Moving from individualism to benevolence, from private interest to public interest for the success of Civil Society;
  7. Abandoning wishful thinking and excessive aspirations which are typical of Arabic discourse as the establishment of Civil Society is not a step that can be made in a relatively short time though it is an ongoing process.


The discussion of Civil Society in the Arab World is no more that a discussion of a step to be made although we haven’t gone deep in its whatness in a positive way. The apparent modernism in the Arab World is still chained with an outdated social structure that anticipates any progression towards a healthy Civil Society. Whatever incubators are being looked forward to, under the title of civil societies, will lose their social momentum that will corrode just like political parties which failed in their attempt to create a social incubator and play their assumed roles in promoting civil concepts throughout the society.

[1] A state of being affiliated with sub-national identities like tribe, family, ethnic group or religious doctrine. It the opposite of the concept of Civil Society

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