Civil society holds key to future of Arab Spring states

Mandeep Tiwana

Although the uprisings that shook regimes across the Arab region were spontaneous, reflecting a breaking point in people’s tolerance of the system, organized civil society now has a crucial role to play in ensuring that the euphoria and momentum generated by the revolutions is not lost. This was the general consensus of a plenary session at the 2011 CIVICUS World Assembly, which brought together over 800 people representing civil society, government, multilateral bodies and the media to discuss civil society’s role before and after revolutions.

As transitions from virtual dictatorships to democratic rule are under way in much of the region, analysts warn that getting rid of the dictators was the easy part. The systems of patronage that they presided over will be much more difficult to dismantle. What may look like revolution can simply be rotation of elites. It is in this context that civil society groups are needed to exercise vigilance as new constitutions are formulated and state institutions are recast.

The many roles that civil society organizations (CSOs) can play in post-revolutionary society include helping to coordinate the different, often diffuse groups that took part in revolution so that they can act as keepers of the revolutionary spirit and watchdogs on the new wielders of power; proposing amendments to the constitution and laws, and undertaking advocacy and campaigning on these; offering continuing and constructive participation routes for those mobilized by revolution; and spearheading truth and reconciliation initiatives. Alongside this goes the classic civil society role of ensuring the delivery of essential services when the human and financial resources of states are stretched.

Donors, too, have a role to play in helping CSOs to discharge these roles, sometimes in the face of opposition from new or existing governments determined to prevent civil society intervention in the political sphere.

Civil society’s role in post-conflict nation building

Three examples of civil society’s involvement in nation-building in different post-conflict contexts offer insights into some of these roles.


In Liberia, women’s rights groups took the initiative to resolve the seemingly endless cycles of conflict that racked the country through the 1990s and early 2000s. The Women in Peace Building network mobilized a previously excluded constituency which exerted critical pressure to bring opposing parties to the negotiating table. This ultimately led to the comprehensive peace agreement being signed in Accra, Ghana, by the three main belligerents and 18 political parties in 2003. It is significant that the transitional government that was put in place in the run-up to the elections in 2005 included civil society representatives. When the elections were held, women’s groups mobilized women to participate in large numbers, which led to Liberia getting Africa’s first elected woman president.


In Kosovo, following the 1998-99 conflict, the International Council for the Defence of Human Rights and Freedoms worked extensively to highlight instances of abuse by the Serbian regime, collaborating with the International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in collecting evidence on human rights abuses and crimes against humanity. In addition, CSOs played an important role in documenting massacres in Drenica, which saw the mass executions of ethnic Albanians by several Serbian Special Forces, and bringing these atrocities to the attention of like-minded organizations in other countries to generate mobilization, solidarity and calls for change.

South Africa

South Africa had to deal not only with the problem of extremely partisan defence and police forces but also with the huge issue of a large swathe of people living in abject poverty who expected their lives to improve swiftly for the better with the ushering in of democracy. Civil society members played a vital role in the reorientation and training of the security forces on human rights as well as helping to put in place and implement the Mandela government’s Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) to advance the social and economic rights of previously disadvantaged groups. The programme itself was headed by well-known trade union activist Jay Naidoo, who was accorded cabinet minister rank in the government.

A political, but not partisan political, role

An international seminar on ‘democratic transitions’ organized in March 2011 by the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network and their member organizations emphasized the key role of Tunisian civil society. Delegates identified a number of objectives for the country, including putting in place a constitution that incorporates international human rights standards into domestic law. Tunisian civil society also announced plans to participate in the ongoing processes to engender democratic freedoms and social justice. Nevetheless, they emphatically stated that their intention was not to ‘substitute for the political parties’ but to ‘build political projects within which the people can operate’.

This implies challenges for CSOs in connecting to online activists and the diffuse movements and spaces in which people participate, and in helping to make available a wide range of social accountability tools so that citizens, as well as CSOs, can play a watchdog and nation-building role. It also suggests challenges for donors to support CSOs in ways that respect local civil society specifics and the building of broad civic coalitions, rather than transplanting western NGO models, an experiment which failed in the aftermath of the previous wave of revolutions in post-Communist societies. But in CIVICUS’s analysis, there remains a need for CSOs as hubs of activism, advocacy and scrutiny of the state.

Disregarding the CSO contribution

This makes it all the more perplexing that the role of organized civil society in democratic transitions is being deliberately overlooked by many governments in the Arab region, not least in Egypt where increased restrictions are being placed on CSOs’ ability to access funds to support their activities from international philanthropic sources. In July, the Egyptian Minister for Social Solidarity warned CSOs against applying for foreign grants and announced the official intention to form a committee to tighten legal controls on foreign funding for civil society groups.

In Bahrain, legitimate demands by civil society activists for much-needed democratic reform are being illegitimately crushed by twisting the law to keep the regime in power. A number of prominent civil society activists who could be playing a key role in resolving the political impasse in the country have been handed draconian sentences through sham trials by military courts for exercising their right to peaceful protest.

In Syria too, defiant activists are being presented with stark choices: be mowed down by the military or hounded out of the country. To top it all, the world’s most powerful institution charged with the maintenance of international peace and security remains in stalemate. A UN Security Council resolution condemning state-sponsored violence in Syria, which has so far claimed 2,700 lives according to UN estimates, lies in deadlock, with influential members either opposing the resolution or abstaining from voting on it.

Yemen, a Least Developed Country according to UN classification, continues with its crackdown on civil society and pro-democracy activists despite the fact that even its struggling public services are in dire need of civil society support. In a bid to draw the international community’s attention to the desperate situation in the country, while awarding the Nobel Peace Prize for 2011 to a prominent Yemeni journalist and activist, the Nobel Committee emphatically remarked: ‘In the most trying circumstances, both before and during the Arab Spring, Tawakkul Karman has played a leading part in the struggle for women’s rights and for democracy and peace in Yemen.’

The role of civil society groups is key to ensuring a just peace and enduring security in the MENA region. Ironically, rather than embracing solutions offered by civil society, governments are choosing instead to persecute activists. Currently, much of the region remains paralysed by political stalemates between pro-democracy activists and organized civil society on one side and authoritarian leaders and their military-backed regimes on the other. Even in countries that have experienced change, the argument for democracy is not won, and support for CSOs is a critical part of entrenching and building on gains. The international community, the philanthropy sector locally and internationally, and the UN in particular cannot afford to stand by and watch this unfair struggle continue.

Mandeep Tiwana is policy manager for CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation. Email

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