Arab uprisings and euro zone crisis both raise questions about role of civil society
World View: Established and social media have key role in organising public space in new democracies
Demonstrators wave flags and shout slogans as they gather on the occasion of the Feast of the Martyrs at Avenue Habib Bourguiba in Tunis, earlier this week. Photograph: Anis Mili/Reuters
‘Democracy without bread is not democracy. The only right we have won is freedom of expression. We need an intifada in Tunisia for a real revolution.”
This passionate intervention by a Tunisian journalist expresses well the deep frustrations felt there and in Egypt that the demands for “Bread, Freedom and Dignity” remain mostly unmet. He, like other young people in the south, remains hopeful of change – much more so than Europeans, surveys show; but they are now far more aware of the huge challenge facing them and fear failure will trigger calls for the dictators Ben Ali and Mubarak to return.
He was speaking at a briefing by Štefan Füle, the EU commissioner in charge of enlargement and neighbourhood policy, during the Mediterranean Forum organised by the Anna Lindh Foundation in Marseilles last weekend. It brought together 1,000 civil society activists from 42 EuroMed states (including a lively group from Ireland) to discuss intercultural relations and closer contacts, good practice and best examples. An exuberant, diverse and attractive gathering, it showed once again how greater understanding of cultures creates sympathy and solidarity between them.
Media and political engagement now feature more prominently in its work, alongside arts, education, citizenship, urbanism, gender, youth, development, diversity and democracy. This new priority reflects the Arab events and the euro zone crisis, both of which raise questions about how to define “civil society”, who should be included in it and what role it plays in relations between Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. They go to the heart of contrasting official and popular expectations of change.
The concept of civil society was originally developed in the 18th and early-19th centuries as a space of public discourse, law and civility independent of the absolutist state in Europe. Resurrected and applied in the 1990s to democratisations in central and eastern Europe, Latin America and East Asia, it was expected these would lead to similar liberal transitions in the Middle East and North Africa, driven by emergent middle classes, non-governmental organisations and business elites.
When these transitions failed to happen in the early 2000s, the concept was re-evaluated. Maybe too much was expected of it. Authoritarianism can persist if restructured – and supported by outside powers interested more in stability, energy supply and closed borders than in radical transformations. US neoconservatism rapidly adjusted to such realities in light of Iraq, as did the more realistic Europeans.
After the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, there was a deep re-evaluation of EU policy, putting civil society back centrally in the frame. Füle explained this involves talking not only to state authorities but to civil society groups as well, seen as stakeholders in the transition process. That requires a structured dialogue to help organise them, with potentially autonomous arrangements at national and regional levels. This gives the EU extra leverage in negotiations with states, so that extra funding flows to those doing more to practise civil society conditions such as freedom of expression and media.
The endgame of this ambitious policy would not be EU membership. But in a more differentiated and multilayered EU, including a harder-core euro zone, it could be a home for North African states in a wider single market – possibly alongside the UK.
What, though, if the authorities resist such conditionality, the commissioner was asked by an influential Egyptian media activist. What if they restrict NGO activities, hinder reform, repress and attack media and judicial critics as they are now doing? And what, the Tunisian asked, if EU support funds are as difficult to apply for and as slow to materialise as now and do not reach the country’s interior at all, so that social frustration boils over?
Füle fully acknowledged they are difficult questions. These are long transitions and the EU will stick to its policy. He criticised the Egyptian NGO law, and some aid will be delayed. Resources are limited but procedures will be eased.
In fact, media help organise the new public space in these countries, albeit unevenly and often not reflecting their full diversity. Their civil societies include established and social media, activist social movements, cultural minorities, humorists and trade unions as well as business groups. Islamist movements are also involved. Where they gain power, their mistakes help these new democracies to find alternatives.
This too gives hope of progress for these activists. They insist freedoms, including media ones, are not being granted by state authorities, but asserted and seized by their emergent civil societies.