Middle Eastern Civil Societies and Government

Subject: Politics & Government
Pages: 12
Words: 3071
Reading time:
11 min
Study level: College


Nowadays, civil society plays an important role in the development of democratic relations and transitions which help to unite nations and empower people. Civil society is a response to the role of collection agencies that are used to create dictatorial regimes or as a reflection to revolution (Colás, 2002). Civil society is also a complex concept that is used by the representatives of social sciences to understand the nature of human actions (Anheier, 2002). However, not all parts of the world demonstrate the same high respect to civil society, and the governments of many countries continue suppressing their people and weakening the positions people want to have. The Middle East is one of the regions with certain dilemmas in the discussions of the issue of civil society and the importance of effective frameworks to protect people and their rights.

The governments of the Middle East states are involved in different activities at different levels. At the diplomatic level, many Arab governments continue neglecting the restrictive legal frameworks with the help of which the environment for civil society can be developed. Such ignorance is the result of the inability to suggest improvements and make ordinary people being heard by governmental bodies. The Middle Eastern people have to understand that certain structures and frameworks exist in their countries to promote their independent work and free future.

Goals and Research Questions

This thesis paper aims at discussing the frameworks and structures of civil societies that exist in the Middle East and help to oppress the decisions of the government. The steps taken by the governments of different states in the Middle East could suppress civil societies in a variety of ways. Therefore, the goal of the paper is to describe the governmental activities and their impacts on different Middle Eastern civil societies and investigate how different frameworks and structures can be used to accommodate within the states in which the chosen civil societies reside. There are ten main sources for consideration in this research paper. Each author introduces their understanding of civil societies and the role of the government in each of them. The frameworks that may be available to civil societies include the layered type (Roy, 2014), cosmopolitan legal type (Colás, 2002), national type (Barakat, 1993), and other legal structures based on the work of such organizations as NGOs (non-governmental Organizations) or CSOs (civil society organizations) (Ahneier & Toepler, 2010).

Two main research questions have to be answered in this paper. One of them is based on the necessity to find out which frameworks can be used by civil societies so that they can generally work and continue functioning despite the control of the local governments. Another question touches upon the importance of the success rate for such civil societies and the possibilities of the representatives of these societies to work under the conditions offered.

Importance of Research

Civil societies in Arab countries remain to be fragile and complicated for understanding. The results of the Arab Spring prove that democratic transitions are not stable in the Middle East (Bardhan & Wood, 2015). A multiplicity of various visions and opinions about how the Arab world should behave and react was predicted and used as the main motivating factor for people being dissatisfied and frustrated (Jung, Peresen, & Sparre, 2014). Such events as the Arab Spring cannot be forgotten or ignored. Still, they have to be understood, and the lessons should be studied. Therefore, civil societies have to be properly investigated alongside existing varieties and impacts. It is necessary to gather several powerful opinions and compare the approaches of different researchers to clarify what civil societies in the Middle East mean and what structures can be offered to ordinary Arabs so that they can work and get benefits.

Thesis Statement

The governmental control cannot be ignored in many countries of the Middle East, and people still suffer from the intentions to suppress them and impose the ideas that do not meet their needs and expectations; therefore, civil societies have to be ready to work hard and develop special frameworks and structures based on the work of NGOs or CSOs with the help of which the accommodation process can lead to positive results.

Literature Review


In the 19th century, several transformations took place in the field of social sciences and humanities and influenced the development of social relations in societies, social movements, and political parties (Jung, Petersen, & Sparre, 2014). Besides, in the middle of the 20th century, numerous democratization processes occurred in different parts of the world and made civil society an important concept for consideration (Angeier, 2004). In the 21st century, the Arab Spring and numerous social movements which were based on people’s dissatisfaction with the governmental decisions and opportunities which were offered to people can also be used as the main reason why civil societies have to be properly analyzed.

Within a short period, numerous non-governmental (NGOs) and civil society organizations (CSOs) were introduced. The main goal of these organizations was the necessity to strengthen civil society in the Arab world. Many Arab leaders do not want to stop their activities to support their people, but try to consolidate power and control societies from different perspectives. What the countries needed was the process of re-conceptualization of civil society and its engagement with the local governance institutions (Uhlin & Kalm, 2015). However, the control under which many Arab people had to live was impossible to ignore, and people tried to create groups anonymously to cover their mutual goals and not to be regulated by the government. Civil society turned out to be a buffer within the frames of which the power of the state and the life needs of the citizens had to co-exist and regulate socio-economic relations and political powers (Uhlin & Kalm, 2015).

Civil Societies: General Perspective

In this research paper, several sources that are not devoted to Middle Eastern history are chosen to investigate the concept of civil society and the roles of the government regarding the lives of ordinary people. For example, the book by Anheier and Toepler (2010) is devoted to this concept and aims at explaining different terms and situations which help to comprehend what civil society means and why it is important to focus on its role. The definition of civil society remains to be similar in many sources as it is defined as one of the most complexes and contested concepts that challenge social sciences (Anheier & Toepler, 2010), an “uncharted territory” (Anheier, 2004), and a crucial historical variable in social space (Colás, 2002) where people want to underline the importance of their cultural, political, scientific, religious, and ethical principles regardless of the rules and standards dictated by the local governments.

All sources chosen for the creation of this paper are united by the same idea that civil society is the possibility for people to be heard and to develop their principles. Though it is not always easy to create a powerful group and make it follow certain norms, the authors prove the importance of attempts made by people and the possibility they created to achieve different goals. For example, Colás (2002) introduces civil societies as an artificial product with the help of which it is possible to separate people and make them join in groups to achieve commonwealth. Uhlin and Kalm (2015) see civil society as the possibility to oppose to the government.

Finally, Anheier (2004) uses both definitions and oppositions to explain what civil society is grounded on different components in the fields of economy, politics, and social sciences. Besides, International Encyclopedia created by Anheier, Toepler, and List (2010) is another powerful source that helps to comprehend civil society in terms of economy, culture, ethnicity, religion, gender, and other factors. The only limitation of this source is not the absence of discussion, but the intention to introduce facts and make the reader use them in regards to the reader’s interpretations and skills.

Civil Societies in the Middle East

However, it is not enough to study civil societies from a general perspective. It is important to analyze its development and importance for the people of the Middle East. The Arab world is complicated, and the complexity of the concept of “civil society” may be doubled in the chosen region. To investigate the latest transformations and impacts on people, it is decided to use such sources as the book by Norton (1995), who talks about civil societies as the intentions of different human rights activists or religiously-inspired protest activists and writers to support their people and underline their actual opportunities. The image of Middle East society is not simple, and certain unnecessary characteristics have to be eliminated. In comparison to other writers, who offer to focus on definitions and frameworks, Roy (2014) dwells upon the historical movements in different regions of the Middle East, including Hamas in Palestine.

The Middle East is also properly studied by such authors as Jung, Peterson, and Sparre (2014), who prove that history is not the only field where civil societies can be investigated. For example, it is offered to consider modernity as a concept of the social sciences and humanities that discovers the truth chosen by different groups of people (Jung, Peterson, & Sparre, 2014). Almost the same approach is developed by Bardhan and Wood (2015), who suggest exploring civil society in two contexts: Western and Middle Eastern. The main peculiarity of this research is the attention to the technological aspects, which promote democratic inspiration and support.

Barakat (1993) also helps to discover the true world where Arab people have to live and tells about “the proclaiming ideal among the ruling classes and the prevailing sentiment among the Arab masses” (p. 3). The Middle East society continues suffering from such requirements as profound fragmentation, civil erosion, and unfair political integration that covers idiosyncratic interests only (Barakat, 1993). These main ideas of the source make it one of the most helpful and interesting books because the author is not afraid to underline a real threat society has to deal with and provides the reader with the message about the possibility to change something in case civil society starts functioning properly, and people start deciding for themselves.

Arab society needs structural changes, and the creation of non-governmental organizations is one of the first steps, to begin with (Schwedler, 1995). The progress of NGOs was observed after the industrial revolution when the re-organization of people and production occurred to promote the improvements and establish a new portion of the control. Regarding the existing Islamic conceptions and norms, a civil society model remains to be the best informative framework that determines the relations between the ruler, the role performed by the state, and the ruled that includes all representatives of the private sphere (Roy, 2014). In the Middle East, many institutions can operate independently, but they cannot neglect the role of religion that divides civil society into Islamic and non-Islamic.

Civil Societies in Terms of Muslim Culture and Religion

In the 20th century, Islamic signifiers became a crucial point in the political and social relations of the Muslims. The rise of relative hegemony was characterized by the possibility to lose cohesive meaning and survive the transformations in the Muslim communities (Jung, Petersen, & Sparre, 2014). However, there is the thought that Islam cannot be regarded as a total legislative matter (Norton, 1995). Islamic law may include individual and collective adaptations that aim at stimulating people. However, Islam is not the question of worship only. It is a practical issue of human life where the role of religion is as important as the role of society (Norton, 1995). Still, Islam was never democratic. It was an alternative to solve social problems and challenges. It turns out to be a solution for Muslim states that suffer from crises and social debt. As a result of such existing instabilities, religious oppositions and leaders become successful political figures and participate in elections to prove the importance of civil society.

Frameworks and Structures for the Middle East

The creation of frameworks and structures in the Middle East civil societies is the attempt to bring the regions into a new properly improved era where reforms and politics cannot be ignored and continue performing crucial functions. There are three main frameworks in which the authors suggest considering civil society in the Middle East: a multi-layered framework with the help of which people can be divided between different local communities and rely on their religious beliefs and interests (Roy, 2014), a cosmopolitan legal framework that supports democracy and the idea of global governance that become a good example for local agencies (Colás, 2002), and a national framework that is characterized by three dimensions (Barakat, 1993).

Arab society is diverse, and Barakat (1993) offers to analyze this diversity with the help of three different approaches: a “homogeneity-heterogeneity continuum”, “conflict-accommodation-assimilation” processes, and “social class cleavages” (p. 15). The Middle East society remains to be a heterogeneous type of society with some communal differentiations, including ethnic, linguistic, local, and regional aspects. These differences are observed in such countries as Lebanon and Sudan. The structures of civil societies in these states depend on the interests that people want to develop. Still, not all states are heterogeneous in the Middle East. In the case of Egypt and Tunisia, people have few ethnic and religious groups, but many social cleavages. There is also the third group of Arab states that are in the middle of this line. Algeria, Arabia, and Morocco have the characteristics of heterogeneous and homogeneous states and make its people divided in terms of religion, ethnicity, and social status (Brakat, 1993).

Another important characteristic of civil society structure is the necessity to use the conflict-accommodation-assimilation model that helps to reveal the existing diversities and divided people in regards to ethnic and class discourses. In Lebanon and Sudan, many CSOs are located between accommodation and conflict when some organizations are created based on adaptation to new rules and norms and the intentions to find compromises. The citizens of these countries are ready to assimilate to avoid conflicts. Quite the opposite the situation in Egypt is. This country is characterized by the strongest force with a rich history. The case study of the Muslim brotherhood was introduced as one of the main movements during the spring in 2011 when people were gathered to protect their rights and use power as the main weapon.

Finally, some structures are based on social class cleavages and contradictions that promote the creation of divergent positions and the lack of control. The best examples of such civil societies are observed in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, and Algeria (Barakat, 1993). Such classification presupposes the idea that some communities may gain more powers in comparison to other communities that are observed in Lebanon.

People who live in the Middle East have to be ready to work hard to stay functional and comprehend what kind of contributions they can offer to their countries. In regards to the already discussed structures and frameworks, Arab societies have to be discussed in terms of non-governmental organizations. NGOs are non-profit organizations that have no connection to the local government and aim at defending human rights and expectations regarding the promises given to ordinary people. Besides, these NGOs provide people with hope that their interests can be regarded even if the government neglects such necessity. For example, the Arab League includes representatives from different states on the northern and north-eastern parts of Africa and southwest Asia. The journalists of this organization share the latest news and their personal opinions about the events disregarding the standards and norms established by the government. People should have a chance to share their opinions, and this organization is one of those that support the idea of free speech and opinion.

In Tunisia, many politically-oriented organizations show their disrespect to the current political leaders and the necessity to promote changes. Case studies prove that civil society in this state is more than a group of people who are gathered by the same goal. In this country, civil society is a crucial point in the development of democratization in the country. One of the most significant events took place in 2011 when numerous Arab uprisings occurred in different states, including Tunisia. The Middle East was challenged by the event known as the Arab Spring.

The creation of those organizations proved the possibility to change people and make them believe in their powers and independence. The events occurred despite the presence or absence of a strong political leader in the countries. Numerous NGOs were ready to take a step and include as many people as possible to proclaim their rights (Anheier, Toepler, & List, 2010). Governmental control over mass media and culture that was supported during the last several centuries (Barakat, 1993) was broken. The governments of many Middle Eastern states were not ready for such protests, the results of which included the possibility to formulate new rules and make people forget about their responsibilities and restrictions.


In general, the issue of civil society in the Middle East is characterized by several contradictions. On the one hand, civil society is the opportunity for people to be heard and be recognized as a significant part of the country with their rights and needs. On the other hand, the same organizations and civil societies create new challenges and threats to the government because people take the steps which are out of governmental control. In this paper, civil societies and NGOs in the Middle East were discussed using several powerful books and articles.

All chosen sources and case studies prove that the concept of civil society is a serious problem in the Middle East. There are many political, economic, and religious concerns about the importance of different non-governmental organizations. Across the Middle East, there is a serious threat to people’s dissatisfaction and political powers. People demand a lot of things from their governments, and the governments cannot sacrifice their control to solve the existing disagreements. Some sources used for this paper, including the books by Jung, Peterson, and Sparre (2014), Roy (2014), Brakat (1993), and Anheier (2004) are better than the books by Schwedler (1995), or Uhlin and Kalm (2015) because the authors intend to combine the history of the region with the current improvements and events. Civil societies are not past, present, or future only, but the organizations that have their histories and purposes, outcomes, and causes.


Anheier, H. K. (2004). Civil society: Measurement, evaluation, policy. London, UK: Earthscan.

Anheier, H. K., Toepler, S., & List, R. (2010). International encyclopedia of civil society. New York, NY: Springer.

Barakat, H. I. (1993). The Arab world: Society, culture, and state. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Bardhan, S., & Wood, R. L. (2015). The role of culture and technology in civil society promotion in the Middle East: A case study approach. Digest Of Middle East Studies, 24(1), 111-138. Web.

Colás, A. (2002). International civil society: Social movements in world politics. Cambridge, UK: Polity.

Jung, D., Petersen, M. J., & Sparre, S. L. (2014). Politics of modern Muslim subjectivities : Islam, youth, and social activism in the Middle East. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Norton, A. R. (1995). Civil society in the Middle East. New York, NY: Brill.

Roy, S. M. (2014). Hamas and civil society in Gaza: Engaging the Islamist social sector. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Schwedler, J. (1995). Toward civil society in the Middle East?: A primer. Boulder, CO: L. Rienner.

Uhlin, A., & Kalm, S. (2015). Civil society and the governance of development. Hampshire, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.