Civil Society in 1989 and 2011

What is happening in Tunisia and Egypt is the completion of the 1989 revolutions. Giving back to us the meaning of civil society, this calls for a total rethinking of western security, foreign and economic policies

Mary Kaldor
7 February 2011

At the Munich Security Conference, David Cameron announced the end of multi-culturalism and the need to confront those who oppose British values – democracy, integration and equality of the sexes. Yet the crowds in Tahrir Square are proving that these values are not the preserve of the British, far from it. Like the crowds in Prague or Berlin in 1989, they are showing that they can be the agents of history. Muslims and Christians are standing together. The Muslim brotherhood has said that it will not put up a candidate for president. Women in veils and women with their hair streaming behind them are equal participants with men in this game-changing moment. They have confronted Mubarak’s thugs with huge dignity and restraint. It was civil society not western military strength that brought down communism, said the Hungarian writer Gyorgy Konrad. The same is true in the Middle East; whatever happens in the next few days and weeks an active civil society has begun a movement for democracy across the region.

The Egyptians and the Tunisians before them are showing great ingenuity in confronting Mubarak’s dire warnings of chaos. People’s committees have sprung up across both countries to provide security in the wake of retreating police. A myriad other projects are afoot from those cooking for the demonstrators and providing them with first aid to those drafting a new constitution. The sight of Egyptians forming an orderly queue to be searched for weapons before entering the square to protest is a paradox unthinkable just a week ago.  The revolutions have unleashed the people’s creativity and optimism: “Leave already” a placard proclaimed “my arm is beginning to hurt”. 

What we are seeing in Tunisia and Egypt and across the Middle East is the power of civil society. The people in the streets are proving that western orientalist attitudes, the arguments of western governments about Arab exceptionalism, are simply wrong. Many western liberals suggest that civil society is a western phenomenon. The late Ernest Gellner, a scholar whose work I greatly admire, argued for example that civil society is one route to modernity – something that north western Europe stumbled on by lucky accident. Nationalism, socialism and Islam are civil society’s rivals – alternative authoritarian routes to modernity. Islam, Gellner said, never had a tradition of protestant individualism. As the Middle East became urbanised, the new middle classes aspired to a rule-bound scripturalist form of Islam, which largely applied to everyday life rather than politics and which was ideally suited to ‘the long march to a disciplined, modern, industrial society.’(page 23)

It was this kind of theory that has informed western attitudes and indeed helped to hold back civil society in the Middle East. Huge amounts of economic and military aid, in addition to oil revenues,  have underpinned dictators in the region based on the assumption that this is the only way to ensure stability and, in particular, to prevent Islamic fundamentalism and to protect Israel. Yet the places where we have seen the kind of chaos that the west supposedly fears include Algeria, when the Islamic movement was suppressed and Iraq, after the western military intervention. Without the western backed military suppression of the Islamist election victory in Algeria, there would not have been a bloody civil war and Algeria might well have ended up like Turkey where a democratically elected Islamist party, combined with an active civil society,  has succeeded in establishing civilian control of the military. Without the western intervention in Iraq, we might have seen a ‘Day of Departure’ much earlier in Baghdad; as it is, Iraq is likely to end up as one of the least democratic countries in the region. Far from preventing Islamic fundamentalism, it has been nurtured by western-supported regimes like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. As for the argument about protecting Israel, while it is clearly the case that the Egyptian people are much more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause than their governments, genuine peace is more not less likely within a democratic environment. Arab dictators have an interest in permanent conflict with Israel to justify huge military build-ups; within the framework of democracy, it would be possible to hold a serious discussion about the human security of both Israelis and Arabs as opposed to the state security of Israel and the Arab countries.

Western governments and most western scholars were totally taken by surprise when the 1989 revolutions took place. This is because they studied the behaviour of states and political leaders rather than society. Those of us who were engaged with opposition groups in Central and Eastern Europe expected something to happen although we did not know how or why. The same is true in Egypt. The youth groups who have coordinated the protests have not sprung from nowhere. They had been involved in campaigns like Kifaya ‘Enough’ or the April 6 facebook group. There have been numerous political initiatives for change – the judges club, the National Association for Change started by Mohamed El Baradei, Workers for Change and Journalists for Change. Just as in Central Europe, television played a role in helping to cultivate a sense of being part of Europe, so Al Jazeera has helped to foster the idea of a Middle Eastern civil society.

Like the intellectuals in Prague, Warsaw, Berlin or Budapest, there has been an intense discussion about civil society. Among Islamic scholars, there has been a serious effort to show that, contrary to Gellner, civil society has its roots in classical Islam. Thus, classical Islamic thought distinguished between the realm of Islam dar al-Islam and the realm of war dar al-harb, which was very similar to the distinction between civil society and war taken up during the western enlightenment. The term ba’ya for example referred to a social contract. Indeed, the Arabic term for civil society, Almujtamaa Almadani, derives both from the word for city and from Medina, the city where Mohammed first established his Islamic society/city state. Just as the East European intellectuals gave new meaning to the term civil society, so the protestors in Egypt are showing that civil society can bring together Islamists and secularists and that no culture has a monopoly on human values.

Despite their failure to predict the 1989 revolutions, those same western governments assumed that that they knew best how to manage the transition to democracy. They imposed a neo-liberal formula of privatisation, budget cuts, and liberalisation. Former communist elites were able to exchange their political positions for material wealth while the majority came to associate democracy with deprivation and inequality – ‘we got banks instead of tanks’ said young Hungarians. Drastic military cuts did not lead to demilitarisation; soldiers sold their services and their weapons across Eastern Europe and Africa, contributing to a wave of privatised violence. Only a few countries, Poland, for example or Slovenia, escaped the fate of renewed authoritarianism, casino capitalism, rising nationalism and Islamism, widespread crime, and a nostalgia for the past.

What is happening in Tunisia and Egypt is the completion of the 1989 revolutions - the Egyptians are reclaiming the values of the Solidarnosc and the Civic Forum from the neo-liberals who usurped them. They call for a total rethinking of western security, foreign and economic policies. Instead of imposing yet another neo-liberal formula, western countries and institutions should consult the people of the Middle East about how they can help to construct a fairer, more sustainable economy. Instead of giving governments money to buy western weapons, they could discuss with civil society how they could help to restructure the armed forces  to provide human security, to establish civilian control over the military, and to convert the substantial military industries to peaceful uses.

After 1989, everyone celebrated the idea of civil society. But it was rapidly reduced within the framework of neo-liberal thinking to mean western-supported NGOs who would help to smooth the path of neo-liberal transition. The people in Tahrir Square and elsewhere are giving us back the meaning of civil society – a place where people can talk, discuss and act freely.

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