World Congress for Middle Eastern Studies

Barcelona, July 19th - 24th 2010


The Role of Civil Society in the Middle East (392) - NOT_DEFINED activity_field_Panel

· NOT_DEFINED date: THU, 22 / 5-7 pm

· NOT_DEFINED language: English

· NOT_DEFINED description:

Chair: Ozgur Sari (Middle East Technical University)

Paper presenter: Kevin W. Gray (Instructor, American University of Sharjah, UAE), “Rethinking the Application of the Theory of Civil Society to the Middle East”
In this paper, I argue that the way civil society has been understood in the literature in Afghanistan and the Middle East ignores several of its most important theoretical underpinnings. In particular, I concentrate on the idea of civil society, and its relationship to modes of discourse. I show that recent conceptions of civil society have been largely blind to the role of status hierarchies, or been uninterested in how they distort discourse. The Habermasian model of the public sphere has been changed in contemporary political theory to include the work of organisation and groups, often at the expense of a detailed understanding of concrete modes of individual interaction. In this case, groups act as the appropriate agents of political legitimation. Common to Habermas, both treat the public sphere as the most important way in which civil society relates to the economy and the government (Cohen and Arato 1992, 411). A well-grounded civil society, stabilized through the appropriate structural mechanisms, is essential to all forms of political theory from secular natural law theories to discourse ethics. Much of the recent literature on the public spheres and civil society in the Middle East and Central Asia has tended to focus either on the emergence of local public spheres that are structurally different from the model employed by Habermas, and Cohen and Arato. For example, there have been discussions of Qat Chews in Yemen (Wedeen), or discussions of the public sphere as a non-Westphalian institution, e.g. as a transnational Islamic Public Sphere, (Salvatore).Much recent aid work in Afghanistan has focused on the need to create both a strong civil society and a revitalized public sphere. Drawing on my research in Afghanistan, I argue that public debate is a necessary, but not sufficient condition, for an emergent public sphere and hence a strong civil society. The other models of Middle Eastern and Central Asian public spheres, while attempting to broaden the Habermasian concept, overlook the crucial levelling of rank necessary for the formation of democratic persons. I argue that much of what goes on through these modes of bargaining cannot properly be called public spheres and I show that in these works, the authors gloss over an important component of public deliberation - lack of deference to rank and authority.

Paper presenter: Ozgur Sari (Research Assistant, Dr., Middle East Technical University, Turkey), “The Role of NGOs in the Transformation of Syria Under the Rule of Bashar Asad"
After the collapse of the bipolar world system; and the rise of the neo liberal policies of the new capitalism forced Syria to transform its authoritarian state policies. The rise of the ethnic and religious cultural and identitical demands among various religious and etrhnic groups within the Syrian society made the state soften its authority. The controlled democracy and limited liberalism gave partial freedom for the rise of the NGOs in Syria.
The methodology of the study is based on the deep interviews which were conducted in Syria and Damascus with 11 NGOs. According to the data collected from the field; the NGOs in Syria are carrying on the duties to maintain the capitalist transformation and development of the Syrian economy. The newly emerging economic classes and bourgeoise in the cities are being organized around NGOs to achieve their own economic demands in terms of the new capitalist order in the country. Some NGOs are doing the duties of the welfare state; since those roles were given up by the state; as the result of the decrease of the welfare state in the new capitalism. However, the NOGs related to human rights including ethnic, gender, religious cannot find freedom enough to survive; and some of them were outlawed by the government.
The main theoretical framework of the study is based on the Gramscian understanding of NGOs; that sees the NGOs as the apparatus of the state to spread the hegemonic power and sovereignty. In Syria, NGOs are not totally against the state and far away from limiting and controlling the state power for the human rights and civil life. The NGOs in Syria are taking position between the common people and the state; partly controlled by the government and they function as much as the state gives freedom. They can activate mainly in the areas where the state gives permission. The NGOs in Syria are used by the state to legitimize the new order in the country; to maintain the economic transformation to the new capitalist order, to sustain the public services and duties given by the decreased welfare state, and to limitize the public reaction to the new capitalist order and the decrease of the welfare state. Although Syria did not experience the Western Enlightenment and Modernization, the definition, dynamics, and roles of NGOs change in a Non-Western country, such as Syria.

Paper presenter: Aurora Sottimano (Researcher, University of Amsterdam, Italy), “Syrian Paradoxes: Dynamics of Authoritarian Governmentality and Civilities in Syria’s Stalled Transition”
Two decades of uneven liberalisation led by authoritarian regimes, with civil society movements unable to break through mistrust and disengagement at the popular level, have sparked a renewed interest on the trajectory of authoritarianism and civic engagement in the Middle East. Yet analyses of authoritarian ‘upgrading’ and civil society challenges have largely followed the disciplinary and theoretical division between power and counter-power studies, thus missing a crucial dimension of authoritarianism. From a Foucaultian perspective, I make the case for a strategic link between authoritarian governmentality and ‘authoritarian civilities’ (Ismail), which therefore ought to be studied together. The case of Syria suggests that authoritarian conditions have permeated political practices and discourses of state and non-state actors. We can identify strategies of authoritarian rule -including normative codes, exclusionary patterns of organisation and action, and the construction of ‘politically correct’ identity- that pose heavy conditionalities on transformative action. These strategies often shape the practices of civil society activists and reformists, which eventually reflect existing inequalities, red lines and power structures too closely to be able to change them. I propose to examine the implications that follow from this - in analytical and political terms- by analysing the ongoing Syrian efforts to establish a Social Market Economy (SME). This reform involves questions of public and private interests, deontological and identity issues as well as the place of Syria within international markets and alliances. Debates about the SME provide a window on contending political projects (such as the upgrading of authoritarian rule and the emergence of new autonomous political actors and social forces) and test the ability of a variety of actors to engage in transformative action. By addressing questions such as the flexibility of discursive strategies and the ensnarement of citizens into authoritarian practices, this case study will also contribute to developing an analytical understanding of the workings of authoritarianism in society.