Towards an understanding of civil society in the Arab world

Alaa Saber

In the wake of September 11, it has become clear that the West completely lacks understanding of the rich variety of Arab culture and morality. Lacking this understanding, the West mistakenly perceives the tragic incidents of September 11 as a ‘clash’ between themselves and the Muslim world. Across the Arab world today, there is recognition of the need to alter this distorted image and to project to the Western world the diversity of Arab and Muslim culture.

This article is an attempt to do this, focusing on civil society as a good place to learn more about the cultures it represents.

Setback for Arab civil societies

Civil societies in the Arab world over the past few decades could perhaps be depicted as a number of small boats sailing in a turbulent sea. Their dilemmas have been country-specific, from fighting Israeli occupation in Palestine to advocating a new legal framework for NGOs in Egypt, reconciling political interests in Lebanon, or treating the wounds of civil war in Algeria and Somalia. For years these countries, and others throughout the Arab world, have been in search of a safe harbour. Now the events of September 11 have pushed them further out to sea, adding new and urgent troubles to their invaluable cargoes.

Not yet free from the Western media stereotype of Arab society as violent and incapable of civic behaviour, further baggage has now been added. This constitutes a serious setback to civil societies worldwide. First, the slowing down of the march towards liberalization and democratization that began in the mid-1980s has now been overridden by the rise of the state byline ‘security first’. Second, and no less importantly, the strain in international relations and economic recession combined could bring people to the point where despair becomes overpowering, divisions grow greater, and important connections with development partners and international agencies are severed.

A diverse reality

When looking at Arab civil societies, we must be aware of the multiple perspectives available. The secular-liberal perspective defines civil society around the formal ‘voluntary’ organizations, which include trade unions, business associations, professional syndicates, political parties, clubs and NGOs. The communal-cultural perspective sets broader boundaries, incorporating informal social networks and traditional organizations of kinship, tribe, village and religious community.[1]

This diverse reality of civil society in the Arab world, in which the formal and the culturally determined representations combine (the same applies to non-Western societies in general) is a reflection of the wide range of civic behaviours within that society. These arise from complementary types of morality and norms, which negotiate with each other to produce a more liberally progressive society.

This is where the West faces enormous difficulties in understanding civil societies in other parts of the world. Experienced with the formally registered forms of ‘civic identity’, the West cannot fully grasp its informal counterpart,[2] for example the diwaniyya in Kuwait. This form of association – a place where men and, in recent years, women meet informally – is widely acknowledged as the place where the current move towards democracy in Kuwait began.[3] These forms of civic association recur in various ways throughout the Arab world, and in other non-Western societies too.

The legacy of colonialism

One reason why non-Western civil societies differ so greatly from their Western counterparts is that they have evolved over a historical trajectory continually marked by disruptions imposed by colonial forces. These societies are products of external domination and interests that still operate today, albeit in different guises. In contrast, ‘civic identity’ in Western countries has arisen in tandem with ‘statehood’ over a history uninterrupted by colonialism, to become two sides of the same coin. The rigidly divided institutional relations and written constitutions define ‘citizenship’ in ways that overlay pre-existing indigenous and familial ways of associating and relating. The disjointed trajectory of civil society in the Arab world, on the other hand, has produced complex civic structures unfamiliar in the West and offers diverse meanings of citizenship rooted in combinations of ethnicity, religion, class, and other factors related to people’s sense of identity and belonging.[4]

The role of Islam

There is no denying that Islam has been a unifying source of identity throughout Arab history. The waqf (religious endowment) has been instrumental in organizing charities to build schools, hospitals and other centres catering for the needs of disadvantaged groups. Zakat, or tithes, have been channelled to voluntary Islamic organizations to deliver to the needy and the poor. In Egypt, the most populous Arab nation, 34 per cent of all NGOs have an Islamic reference.[5]

However, this is not to say that Islamic NGOs constitute an organized, unitary body,[6] a monolithic force hostile to the West. What these organizations have in common is simply a mode of operation through which private social networks provide communal power, welfare, development, etc. Although in part non-formal, they are not against the state. During the last few decades, under the new liberalization and economic reform programmes, these bodies have increasingly filled the gap that has been left as government provision of social services has declined. They are engaged in a wide array of activities serving mothers, children, the elderly and the disabled.

There is no evidence that this society stands at odds with the West. Their rhetoric is oriented towards Islamic codes of family and social morality, not the type of rhetoric offered by those such as bin Laden – a rhetoric which, it must be noted, is strikingly unpopular, drawing little support, if any, on the streets of the Arab capitals.


The full impact of the September 11 attacks on Arab civil society remains far from clear. This will require a careful assessment for some years to come. It is important to stress, however, that the perception of the September 11 attacks as a clash of civilizations is not an Arab one. While pundits in the Western media offered scenarios of revolt on Arab city streets, in actual fact this did not take place. The most prevalent response continues to be condemning the attacks, expressing sympathy for the victims, and denouncing the rhetoric of bin Laden as non-Islamic. The hysteria generated around a clash of civilizations is totally unfounded.

It is alarming, then, that the circumstances used by those behind the attacks on America to invoke such a clash – the political situation in the Middle East, with its religious overtones and stirring rhetoric – do still exist. This constitutes a significant threat. It is a chilling thought that a conflict on the scale of the American ‘war against terrorism’ was forced, and could be again, using such distorted messages to trigger a situation that quickly became out of control.

1 Sami Zubaida, ‘Islam, the State and Democracy: Contrasting conceptions of society in Egypt’ Middle East Report (MR), Nov-Dec 1992, Number 179, Vol 22, No. 6.
2 Andrew Clayton (ed) NGOs, Civil Society, and the State: Building democracy in transitional societies (International Non-governmental Organization Training and Research Center, 1996).
3 Mustafa Al-Sayyid, ‘A Civil Society in Egypt?’ Middle East Journal, Vol 47, No 2, Spring 1993.
4 Clayton, NGOs, Civil Society, and the State.
5 Amani Kandil, Civil Society in the Arab World (CIVICUS, 1995).
6 Zubaida, ‘Islam, the State and Democracy’.

Alaa Saber works as Director of the Centre for Development Services, Egypt. He can be contacted at

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