State and Civil Society, Controversial Relation

Syrian Committees for the resurrection of civil society is a good example.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and its Eastern Warsaw Treaty Organization beginning of the 1990s, the Cold War ended with a sweeping unconditional victory for the Capitalist West. Soon, totalitarian regimes started to perish and societies ran through a crucial turning point in their history. The demand for democracy flourished and the democratic pattern was called for. People started to request transparent free elections and peaceful circulation of power. Political multiplicity became more acceptable. Citizens started to look for a greater role in political, social and cultural life.

Reasons for the resurrection of civil society

As a result of the changes in the International arena, the term “Civil Society” gained more momentum and awakened the dreams of those vulnerable, and infatuated the educated elect in the Arab World. The resurrection of “Civil Society” in the Arab World was due to new rising tendency for real and serious change and taking initiative after totalitarian regimes failed in their commitment to slogans they themselves had raised and used as a pretext for violating the rights of society.
The exceptional status of our Arabic societies that continued for a long time under the rule of totalitarian regimes have stigmatized society with dependency. People have become unbelievably passive and they have turned into digits in their societies rather than citizens. Therefore, society has become clinically dead and away from decision making in the absence of institutions that can promote positiveness or civil merciful societies. Censorship committees that are supposed to monitor and evaluate the performance of governments have been rebuffed. Opposition parties have been just a decoration to beautify the ruling regimes.

Consequently, totalitarian regimes dominated and stigmatized societies with a sole color which made societies off-the-scene and outside the decision-making equation. Citizens limited their thinking to behaving in a way that help them avoid the anger of authorities that never tolerate those who sing astray.

Civil Societies are a civil necessity

As the 21st century tends to be a century of freedom, liberty, democracy, justice and diversity as we all wish, we still hope that it will be a time for restoring humanity of human beings that has been distorted during wars, conflicts, polarization and conflicting entities of the past century.  It has been impossible to restore democracy and liberty to societies without forming Civil Societies and institutions that are independent from the authorities. These societies and institutions are supposed to bring people back to citizenship and national competence after totalitarian regimes, throughout the Arab World changed them into bread seekers who just complain and fervently pray to God to crush rulers.

Because of these developments in our societies, civil societies and institutions started to express the worries and concerns of the communities and adopt their social demands. These societies abided with values of tolerance, diversity, benign differences and respect of others’ opinions. They worked hard to restore rights and dignity of the human being regardless of his/her believes or ethnicity as long as s/he is a good citizen. They also advocated democracy, human rights and social justice viewing civil societies culture as a necessary step to bring our societies back to the civilization rank.

For all these reasons, the cultured elect started resurrecting communal work based on institutions that care for the public interest as a priority. Their intention was to get people away from political dullness that generated social hibernation on all levels. This cultured elect has been working hard to help people abandon this crucible of obligatory thinking and subjection to the totalitarian regimes, and to make them active members in their societies, positive decision-makers who think about social issues and good participants in making changes and management.

Since a society or a country can’t advance and attain a positive record in development and prosperity as long as individuals are introvert and reluctant to care for public interest. They let the creatures to the creator as we say in Arabic. People have reached a very frustrating degree of self-defeat. They view only their weaknesses and the strengths of their opponents which have made them feel that there is no hope for any development of their societies. Thus, the necessity of resurrecting the culture of civil society elevating them from their frustration and despair has come to give them some hope and enhance their positive spirit. This is intended to make people start working on building their societies and bring prosperity to their countries. People have got to know that the ruler is an employed by his society, not an owner of it. Decisions should be made collectively and in a democratic way based on institutions, not individually made. Such individual decisions will get the nation in trouble and will only lead to the benefit of the ruler.

Changing Arabic society from a tyranny-governed community into a democratic society participating in political momentum necessitates liberating the individual first so as to promote his/her creativity. It is not possible to liberate people as long as tyranny culture is dominant and the Pharaoh-like thinking overwhelms decision-makers. It has become our duty to publicize democracy and dialogue culture until this culture gets a stronghold of the minds of people and controls people’s behavior when they demand their rights and do their duties.

Civil Society culture can establish efficiency to make people active rather than passive. This takes us to the core of this study i.e. “The relation between Civil Society and State”, and how this relation should be embodied, when they match, when they contradict.

Controversy of the relation between civil society and state

There has been a dispute between theorists of civil society and philosophers of the West on the relation between Civil Societies and State. Likewise, some Arab thinkers also disputed about this issue. Some wanted these societies to be under control of governments and move according to their agendas. Others wanted these Civil Societies to be independent so as to be functional and prevent any control of governments.  

Theories of Western thinkers had different perceptions of Civil Society. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, for instance, thinks that Civil Society can be attained only through State and consequently Civil Society is subject to the State because the State can settle disputes of Civil Society. Carle Marx considers Civil Society as an integral part of the State because it constitutes the infrastructure of the State, but at the same time Civil Society stands against the State to limit its domination. As for Antonio Gramci, he considers Civil and political Society to be the ultrastructure of The State. For him, Civil Societies are arenas for ideological competition through the distinction between political authority and ideological subjugation.

However, we can see that the main underlying factor that formulates the relation between Civil Society and the State is the State itself. If the State is based on an institutional system and democratic formula, Civil Societies will be supporting the State and connecting State to the people. If the state is otherwise i.e. a totalitarian dictatorship that sidelines the society and confiscates the rights of its citizens, then Civil Societies will a democratic opposition force. In this case, opposition parties and societies have the right to use any peaceful means to protest and demand rights of the society. So, the State itself, through its practices, identifies its relation with Civil Societies.

So, a Civil Society is not necessarily an opposition entity that works against the State and its policies. Whenever a State becomes totalitarian and a less democratic, Civil Societies will swim against the course of the State. The absence of Civil Societies is an indicator of the weakness of the State and will naturally lead to losing its legitimacy. Similarly, the stronger Civil Societies are, the stronger states will become in the face of outsider challenges as well as projects and vice versa.

Domination of totalitarian regimes in the Arab World is one of the main reasons for the need for resurrection of Civil Societies. These regimes govern all social activities and affairs to form the society according to their political ideologies, therefore, these regimes only form societies that can serve their agendas. As a result, these societies have become tools for fulfilling the goals of the State rather than the goals of the society.

Consequently, democratic practices have died away although democracy has been raised a s a slogan. Freedom diminished despite all claims to protect it. The bare facts show that totalitarian regimes have contributed to sidelining society and preventing it from playing its real role that might help the government itself in implementing its programs. Individuals have turned into horns repeating what the government wants them to say without the least political, cultural and social development.

Dr. Burhan Ghalyoun, a Syrian thinker living in Paris, says: “The State has become a private institution that exploits its authority and penetrates into the society for the interests of the ruling entity, not for the public interest. Such state has always viewed any signal of Civil Society as a political opposition or rejection of the authority of the State. Therefore, the state has privatized most resources of the country to empower itself against society rather than to empower the society itself.”

Similarly, Abdullah Al Sa’ef, a Civil Society activist, considers that the State itself has sidelined Civil Societies in the Arab World to strengthen its power. The essence of the problem in the Arab World is that the State controls every single detail of social life. This makes the government a tool for monitoring and an obstacle that impairs the liberation of individuals and the independence of institutions. Governments dominate all aspects of life in the context of their efforts to subject society to their totalitarianism so as to anticipate any social mobilization that might mitigate their authority. In fact, this strategy doesn’t strengthen the ruling regimes. Instead, it is a sign of essential weakness that pushes these regimes to control everything.

Having reviewed the analysis of Abdullah Sa’ef, we conclude that when the ruling regimes go deep in the structure of the society to dominate all its components and impose   authority on it, two things might result:

  1. The State itself becomes weak and loses its legitimacy because subjecting all aspects of life and components of the society will exhaust society and waste its potentials. These suppressed capabilities of society should have been utilized and guided towards prosperity, development and welfare of citizens.
  2. The society itself becomes weak and retreats due to state stern control that kills the creativity of that society. It also becomes blunt and static and this leads to complete inertia that will produce many dangerous economic, social and political consequences which will certainly threaten the State itself.

Dr. Thana’a Fua’ad Abdullah, an Egyptian advocate of Civil Society, explains the dangers of state’s domination of civil institutions in the Arab World when she says that the strategy followed by states to dominate the society goes through three main routes:

  1. Weakening and destroying political opposition;
  2. Subjection of state institutions for the benefit of the State itself;
  3. Destruction of materialistic foundations of civil society institutions like syndicates, political parties, social and political organizations, religious and educational institutions and even the media.

Having all these issues in mind, we conclude that the relation between State and Civil Society is not always complementary or contrastive. It is complementary in civil democratic states and contrastive in in totalitarian tyrannies. Civil Societies play a great role during civil wars. This role has been missed in the Syrian case, and this created a dangerous gap between the opposition and the revolutionary community. As a result of the inability of Civil Societies, advocates of Civil Society in the Arab World have countered them with many problems while trying to resurrect and activate institutions of Civil Society. Before we identify these obstacles, we need to mention the experience of resurrection committees of Civil Societies in Syria in 2003 when they made mistakes in promoting Civil Society culture through their political discourse shown in their early statements. At that time, they called for convicting regimes and their figures. Their explicit call for confronting the regime and the lack of a clear view and program for civil institutions, especially social ones, as well as their concaved rhetoric and superiority style like a radical party distracted the public which was supposed to be relied on in resurrecting Civil Societies. The public was suspicious and afraid of the consequences. Thus, the try was a failure. We need to remember that the regime hindered their efforts by arresting many of their figures. All these circumstances led to stifling of this noble initiative.

In general, we can say that Civil Societies in the Arab World have been besieged by three obstructions:

  1. The State that never trust Civil Society;
  2. The cultural heritage that limits their abilities;
  3. Social, economic and political changes that never allow free motion of society.

Factors that made Civil Society unable to play its role:

  • Political elect wanted Civil Society to be a Trojan Horse for passing their political ideologies without the least interest in its other aspects especially in the Arab World that has no political parties as a real opposition.
  • Pioneers of Civil Society have been accused of being agents of outside powers as the concept is included in the USA agenda.
  • The concept of Civil Society has been made an interface for the opposition and that has made people abstain from it for fear of the regime’s anger.
  • The political perspective has been focused on at the expense of social, human and cultural perspectives.
  • Charity works have been disregarded despite the fact that they are at the core of Civil Society concept.
  • Institutions of Civil Society have been under close censorship of regimes and this usually undermines their ability to attain goals.
  • The domination of martial laws in Arab countries has cuffed society and kept it away from influential figures.
  • The lack of a goal-based program on part of the activities of committees working to resurrect Civil Society.
  • Prevalence of political bluntness that has resulted from totalitarian regimes and their policies
  • Policies of totalitarian regimes have caused political bluntness with Arab citizens and this has made many abstain from working for these new trends.


We think that the existence of Civil Societies has become an urgent necessity and a social civil need due to their ability to promote positive interaction among the community. These societies can take people from inertia and scattered efforts to a state of organization in which new awareness can be formulated. Raising this awareness is our prior battle to defeat sectarian exemptive culture among social components regardless of their ethnicity, religion and sect. civil institutions can be a tributary for opposition in case the regime tries to crash opposition entities. If the ruling regime really wants a democratic country, it will allow a complementary relation between these Civil Societies and the regime. If not, then these societies will change into an opposition entity. We can’t imagine our societies without these civil institutions and the establishment of civil culture.       

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