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Société civile, associations et pouvoir local au Yémen

Sarah Ben Nefissa
Maggy Grabundzija
Jean Lambert


Towards the World Debate on the Democracy in the Arab World

Sarah Ben Nefissa

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1The development of the civil society in the Arab World raises three fundamental questions:

2What are the political and social reasons behind the propagation of the term “civil society” everywhere in the world?

3Are there specific problems concerning the civil society in the Arab countries? If yes, what are they?

4What is the relationship between civil society and citizenship?

5Some researchers refuse to use the term “civil society” in the case of non-Western societies because this term was born in a particular political, cultural and social context, that one of Western societies. The French political scientist Michel Camau, on his part, considers that the entering of the term “civil society” into the dictionary of non-Western societies shows that it has become “a category of action”, in other words, that this term is used by its supporters in order to explain, justify and at the same time legitimize their actions. To be more precise, this terminology strengthens their position vis-à-vis the government, international organizations and foreign investors. This analysis does not necessarily imply that the nature of civil society in industrialized countries should be the same as in developing countries. On the contrary, the propagation of this concept has granted it a number of new significations. Therefore, it is necessary, first, to go back to the sources of its appearance in the West and later, to examine how it has become widespread outside its original context.

6The concept of civil society appeared in Western countries, especially in France, in the 1970’s in the atmosphere of political and social crisis, for these countries found themselves subjected to new forms of external pressure caused by economic globalization. The population of these countries became aware that even if they could change the leadership of their countries by way of elections, these changes would have no impact on their everyday life any more. At first, this awareness resulted in a massive abstention from the elections and dislike of classical forms of citizenship (parties, trade unions, etc.). These nations searched for new forms of more direct participation, in order to avoid certain deficiencies of parliamentary democracy.

7One witnesses also new forms of social mobility, trying to remedy the problems of a new type: unemployment, exclusion, marginality. Thus, there appeared in France “a new poverty”: the trade unions defend only well-defined professional categories, but not the unemployed or the marginalized. These new practices favored spreading the term and the concept of civil society as being an intermediary link between the state and various social constituents. Doubtlessly, modern mass media and the internet, as a democratization of the means of communication, actively contributed to this evolution. Before being used in social movements, the concept of civil society was born in the academic and scientific milieu. This procedure is similar to the one of the appearance of modern social and political sciences, which were born, in Western countries, under the influence of the political and social changes in the 19th c.: the growth of capitalism, industrial revolution and the appearance of the concept of “the national state”.

8In Arab countries, the set of problems is different: civil society is not created to remedy the deficiencies of liberal democracy but, first of all, to promote democracy and defend basic human rights, which are sometimes not even acknowledged. The problems of non-governmental organizations are, therefore, political in the first place. Due to this fact, charity organizations became quickly politicized whether because of their being in opposition (especially, the Islamic associations), or because of the regime regarding them as a possible source of its legitimization. In many countries, one witnesses that the non-governmental organizations are stronger than the political parties. This has become even clearer since Sept. 11, 2001, especially concerning the Kifāya movement in Egypt.

9Another significant phenomenon is the establishment of a network between these non-governmental organizations, which alone can offer a credible alternative to both the Western discourse and that of the Arab authoritarian regimes. The establishment of this network inaugurates what one could call ‘a world debate’ around the democracy in the Arab World.

© Centre français de recherche de la péninsule Arabique, 2008

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