Conference Concept Note
Between society and state: (r)Evolution of non-state actors in the MENA region
Since the beginning of the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa that began in 2010, there has been a sustained focus on the role of non-state actors in the region, both armed groups as well as various civil society actors. As the uprisings unfolded, faltered, were undermined, or succeeded (in one case, at least), this focus remained constant. These developments also saw an interesting interplay between civil society and ‘political society’.
The theorisation of civil society is not uncontested. While the dominant discourse today regards civil society as a collection of voluntary organisations and NGOs (the ‘associational’ view) operating outside the state and providing a kind of protection for citizens against the state, Gramsci, for example, views civil society as part of the state or as a protective barrier for the state. But the current mainstream understanding is of civil society as mediating between the state and the individual, engendering democratic culture within the population, and, even, as a sector to which the state might abdicate its service provision responsibilities. The dominant romantic notion of what civil society organisations are also is tenuous, with some critics contending that they are often non-democratic, hierarchical structures that are sometimes vulnerable to state co-option, to use them to repress or marginalise radical ideas, and to weaken opposition to government policy. Shades of these different meanings present themselves in the MENA region.
In general, there is a hesitance to include armed non-state actors as part of civil society. This is partly due to the fact that the current dominant understanding of civil society is of societas civilis, a realm of voluntary and non-violent organisations. This notion is often used by governments to forestall efforts at transformation. In a broader sense, however, armed non-state actors might be regarded as part of civil society, depending on their objectives, methodologies, etc.
As a whole, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region hosts thousands of non-state actors, spanning various forms of civil society and including armed actors. Such groups have proliferated since the beginning of the MENA uprisings at the end of 2010, and include numerous foreign and international civil society groups, as well as foreign involvement in armed groups. In many states that are more tolerant to civil society actors, indigenous civil society actors exist alongside foreign actors and armed groups. Because of state repression, however, some states had no civil society groups to speak of before 2010. In some of these, such as Tunisia, civil society burgeoned after the uprisings. In others, such as Libya, the civil society vacuum that had existed was filled by a proliferation of armed militias.
In some states in the region, civil society groups exist alongside armed non-state actors such as Hamas and Hizbullah, in Palestine and Lebanon respectively. In many cases, such groups are led by political parties which play roles in governance.
Since the 2010-11 MENA uprisings, the focus on civil society organisations in the region has intensified, especially since many foreign powers believed that these alone inspired the uprisings and thus sought to co-opt them, and they were, simultaneously, romanticised and demonised. Most governments in the region, on the other hand, sought to suppress groups they perceived as opposing their dictatorial control. Often, organisations that sought to remain independent of foreign machinations as well as domestic cooption by authoritarian regimes, found themselves in precarious positions. In addition, the civil wars in Syria, Yemen, and Libya forced the space available for civil society action to shrink, while increasing the desperate need for their existence.
The development of civil society in the MENA region occurred in four main phases. The first was before western colonisation, with the growth of religious organisations, guilds, and service organisations over centuries. Phase two, during the colonial era, saw the establishment of institutions such as trade unions and political movements, alongside popular demands for independence. The third and post-independence phase occurred between the 1960s and 1990s, when new regimes instrumentalised civil society organisations, especially those dealing with service provision, to temper citizens’ need for political participation. The last phase, from the mid-1990s, was enhanced by technological advances, and saw groups in different MENA countries inspired by international ideas of democracy and seeking to leverage international networks to advocate for such rights.
By the late 2000s, thousands of civil society organisations existed in the region, including local chapters of international NGOs, though in a few countries organisations not affiliated to the respective regimes were proscribed.
As the uprisings unfolded in 2011, certain foreign governments sought to use civil society organisations as a means of securing their interests in the affected countries and in the MENA region. Generous funding was made available, as was training in media and other skills. At the same time, civil wars in Syria, Yemen and Libya resulting in these states not able adequately to provide for their citizenry, thus increasing the need for CSOs to assist.
These themes will be interrogated in 2018 international conference of the Afro-Middle East Centre, which will bring together and roleplayers from the MENA region and outside it. The roles and future of civil society groups and other non-state actors will be debated with a view to understand the trajectory of societies in the region.
Tuesday, 28 August 2018
Opening Session: 09:00- 10:00
Opening speeches: Zane Dangor
10:00 -10:30 Tea break
Session One: 10:30 – 12:00
Conceptualising civil society in the MENA region
- Defining civil society in the MENA region – Ran Greenstein
- (When) Is Civil Society Good and for Whom? Historicizing “Post-conflict” Public Space & Contextualizing Prospects for Justice and Peace–Rabab Abdulhadi
- Islamism and civil society – Abdulkader Tayob
Lunch: 12:00- 13:00
Session Two: 13:00- 14:30
The architecture: Non-state actors in political, military and social spaces
- The intersection of civil society and armed non-state actors in conflict contexts – Lina Khatib
- Responding to a social need –Sarah Marusek
- When politics is not enough? The role and future of armed non-state actors –
14:30 – 15:00 Tea break
Session Three: 15:00- 17:00
Manifestations of civil society in MENA
- Worker movements impacting political change – Zachary Lockman
- Youth in the MENA region: New hopes for the future?– Tamer Badawi
- Political and social roles of religious organisations – Shahid Mathee
- Women’s struggles versus national struggles – Lucia Sorbera
Wednesday, 29 August 2018
Session Four: 09:00-11:00
State and civil society in the MENA region
- The state and civil society in Morocco – Mohamed Daadaoiu
- Nature of the MENA state and its impact on civil society – Garth le Pere
- Between co-option and control; civil society in MENA – Adnan Tabatabai
11:00 – 11:30 Tea break
Session Five: 11:30-13:30
Negative side of civil society in the MENA region
- Imposing foreign political agendas through civil society – Phyllis Bennis
- Undermining national agendas through NGO-isation: The case of Palestine – Tariq Dana
- Boon or bane: International NGOs – Fatima Shabodien
Lunch: 13:30 -14:30
Session Six: 14:30 -16:30:
Future of non-state groups in the MENA region and links beyond
- Are armed groups permanent fixtures in the MENA region? – Marwan Kabalan
- Prospects for ‘independent’ civil society – Galip Dalay
- Linking struggles: MENA and the world – Lina Khatib
Closing Session 16:30-17:00