Civil Society Organisations and Pathways of Change in the Arab World
Role in Change Process in Arab Spring States
In his memoirs, former US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, says that he jokingly asked Chinese President Mao Tse-Tung to soften the atmosphere during their first meeting, ‘do you know when the French Revolution ended?’ Mao Tse-Tung cleverly answered ‘has the French Revolution really ended?’ It is rare to find disagreement among historians about the starting points for revolutions and major event that took place in recent centuries, and it is also rare to find consensus between historians about when revolutions ended and the assessment of their effects and achieved goals.
Revolutions as Beginnings
Whereas it might seem today that Arab revolutions have come to an end, in fact the real process of change in the region has just started and cannot be stopped.
Therefore, a quick evaluation for the past five years in the Arab Spring states is enough to cause depression for evaluators. In Egypt, the judiciary acquitted Hosni Mubarak, even though millions went on the streets calling for the toppling of his regime four years ago. On the other hand, al-Sisi nowadays works on recreating military dictatorships that were widespread in the sixties of the previous centuries, in a comic way that had not even crossed Marx’s mind, who believed that history does not repeat itself but only as a farce.
In Yemen, Saleh returned with the support of Huthis, and in Libya nowadays al-Qaddafi is returning in different personalities, and in Syria al-Assad is still in his palace after he destroyed two thirds of the country and displaced half of its residents.
Nonetheless, the loss of one round does not mean the loss of a battle. Revolutions often launch pathways for change with clear beginnings and unpredictable endings. The impact and effects of major events cannot be assessed in the first few years, as their impact transcends the current moment and affects many generations to come. The Arab Spring pushed millions of youth and various social strata into the public arena, and created a desire among them to participate in the making of their future and to influence the world where they live. Therefore, it is unlikely that counter-revolutionary powers would be able to push these generations back into a house of obedience, after millions crossed fear barriers and went on multi million demonstrations to express their pains and hopes. Dictators cannot control those, who have tasted the sweetness of freedom and who have envisioned their futures shining in their hands, for long. As time does not go back, the quest to stand in the face of history will lead to delays in the arrival of democracy and change towards a better future in these countries, and will also lead to bloodsheds on both sides.
In the meanwhile, advocates of democracy and change in the Arab world must learn from the previous years, and seek to have a deeper understanding of the nature of the battle against dictatorships and to redefine the current conflict as a battle for social change. Arab revolutions were not the end in themselves, as they were spontaneous expressions of accumulating anger that resulted due to the miserable reality of Arab nations and the hopes and ambitions of the younger generations. Arab revolutions were an honest expression of the desire for change. This could be the main difference between rebellious movements and coups, which seek to replace the people at the top of the pyramid, and between popular uprisings that seek to alter social reality.
Organic social change must eventually lead to change in the political arena at a later stage, but the opposite is not true. Change that takes place at the top of the political pyramid cannot create sustainable social change without well-established civil society organisations capable of supporting the new political will. This condition was missing in the Arab world in Egypt, Libya and Yemen. This has been the case as well historically, as the Bourbons returned to throne in France after more than two decades after the French Revolution. Communists were also able to revive the Tsars through individuals such as Stalin and Lenin. The Shah of Iran was able to return after Mossadegh’s revolution. The counter-revolution in Chile lead by General Augusto Pinochet successfully staged a coup against the rule of Salvador Allende’s, who came into office through the ballot box.
Political change cannot lead to real and sustainable change in the state and society, if it lacks a project for change, and especially not if it has not been preceded by well-established and effective civil society organisations that adopt and work towards the cause for change.
Modern states organise their practices through setting up structures. In other words, they impose a dynamic system based on institutions and structures that vary in terms of their solidity from one society to another. These institutions, however, would either work on the basis of respect for human rights and providing equal opportunities to all individuals and achieve social justice, or would recreate dictatorships.
In the contemporary world, civil society organisations are considered the main tool for social change. Therefore, their purpose is social and not for profit, and their existence is linked to their social and ideological mission. The lack of these institutions allows the state and its institutions, as well as political capital, to dominate society. This absence also deprives society of the necessary mechanisms to develop and adapt to social and global changes in its surroundings. This leads to corruption and civilizational stagnation, which could possibly lead to uncontrollable explosions, such as those we witnessed in many Arab countries.
The absence of these institutions in Syria and Yemen before the revolution, Syrian opposition was not allowed the opportunity to gain organisational experiences necessary to administer their affairs successfully within the environment of the revolution. The lack of a clear vision as to what change is desired and how to achieve it among institutions in Egypt after the revolution was one of the main reasons that produced conflicts among these institutions.
The change in the balance of stable regimes and powers in society in a sustainable manner requires a parallel change in the structure of the society and in the way social actors live and think. While prophets, reformers and great leaders who were eternalised by history were able to achieve the mission for changing societies sustainably, in an age of institutions and globalisation, this mission has become the duty of civil society organisations.
Perhaps the most important lesson learnt from the past four years is the need to establish a comprehensive structure for civil society organisations, which have mastered the tools of this era and understand the complexities of social reality and most importantly carries a clear message about the desired change and how to achieve it. Nowadays, and in light of the circumstances promoted by counter-revolutions that aim to restore the Arab World to pre-2010, and in light of the contraction of the margins for effective political work, it is an absolute necessity to organise forces of change in society in the form of orderly institutions that work on launching possibilities for society through organised labour.
The experience in the Arab Spring countries confirmed the importance of moving these organisations and institutions away from prevailing ideologies and competing groups. There should be a move towards the project of change with its simplest most basic principles that lead to the start of the revolutions in the first place. Otherwise, ideological institutions and having multiple and different narratives about the specifics of change will result in competition and infighting between them, and will lead them to lose their ability to mobilise the masses and thus lose their ability to create change.
Freedom and all values Arab revolutions called and started for cannot be achieved and maintained without civil society organisations that work within a political framework that allows people ownership over their lives and interests, and that preserves human freedom and dignity as sacred principles that do not change with the change of rulers. Building these organisations and paving the way for an appropriate political regime that carries the values of the revolution will be the challenge that will face the generation of the revolution and the generation to come. This process of building is a continuous unremitting process and will face many internal and external challenges. However, the real desire for change has been so far the moral motivator that gave and will continue to give Arab nations hope in life and the ability to continue on the road for change despite all catastrophes. Social change in our societies will not be achieved through a presidential decision or a revolution or a minor event, it will be achieved through a painful process of events that may take two generations to achieve.