The Arab World

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Samir AMIN

Arab societies have an ambiguous relationship with democratic modernity. The autocratic authorities, based on traditional hierarchies, and political Islam, which is fed by a violent revolt against the effects of a polarizing capitalism, are the two main expressions of this ambiguity. In this context, the actions of thousands of NGOs and other agents of civil society, hailed by the dominant discourse, are not without contradictions. Their sources of funding and the State autocratic structure makes them very dependent and controlled, their targeted public is relatively limited, participation by the beneficiaries is debatable and, above all, their activities highlight the public responsibility of the State vis-a-vis social needs and they thus have a depoliticizing effect. The only possibility of a genuine democratization of these societies is to be found in effective political and social struggles that are based on common interests.

The historical context of contemporary struggle

The autocratic state faced with the challenge of modernity

There is no democratic state in the Arab world. There are only autocratic ones. However, even if they are autocratic, the Arab political regimes have not always been - and are still not - without legitimacy in the eyes of their own societies. State power is always a synonym for personal power, according to Hashem Sharaby, as opposed to the rule of law that defines the modern State. This is a Weberian diagnostic that should be modified insofar as these personal powers are only legitimate to the extent that they declare themselves respectful of tradition (particularly of the religious sharia) and are seen as such. Sharaby establishes a more profound relationship between autocracy and the patriarchal system of social values. Patriarchy here signifies much more than what is meant by the banal term popularized as machismo (the belief in and practice of marginalizing women in society). Patriarchy describes a system that gives importance to the duty of obedience at all levels: school and family education nip in the bud any inclination to criticize, hierarchies are sacrosanct in the family (subordinating, women and children), in business (subordinating the employee to the employer), in administration (absolute submission to the bosses), complete prohibition concerning religious interpretation, etc.

The European renaissance came about because of internal social dynamics: it was the solution to the contradictions created in the Europe of that time by the invention of capitalism. It was different from what the Arabs have called, by imitation, their renaissance - the nahda of the 19th century, which was the reaction to an external shock.

This is not the place to dwell on the different aspects of nahda and how it spread. Suffice to say it did not made the necessary break with tradition that is defined by modernity. It did not grasp what is meant by secularism - the separation between religion and politics, which is required if politics is to become free to innovate, hence democracy in the modern sense. The nahda thought it could substitute it by a re-reading of religion to rid it of its obscurantism. And right up until now, Arab societies cannot understand that secularism is not a specifically Western phenomenon, but a requirement for modernity. The nahda still does not realize what is meant by democracy, which is in fact precisely the right to break with tradition. It therefore remains prisoner of the concepts of the autocratic state: it praises a despot for being “just” (al moustabid al adel) - not even “enlightened”. And the nuance is significant. It does not understand that modernity also produces the aspiration of women to be liberated, using their right to innovate, to break with tradition. In fact nahda reduces modernity to the immediate spectacle of what it produces: technical progress.

This is a deliberately simplified presentation: it does not mean that we are unaware of the contradictions in the nahda, or that certain avant-garde thinkers are unconscious of the real challenges of modernity, like Kassem Amin regarding the importance of women’s liberation, like Ali Abdel Razek regarding secularism, like Kawakibi regarding the challenge of democracy. But none of these insights has had any effect: on the contrary, Arab society has reacted by renouncing their pursuit. The nahda does not, therefore, give birth to modernity in the Arab lands, it aborts it.

As Arab societies have not yet attained modernity, although they suffer the full force of its challenge every day, the Arab peoples still largely accept the principles of autocratic power, which retains or loses its legitimacy in other fields rather than its non-recognition of the principle of democracy. If it is able to resist imperialist aggression or give the impression that it is doing so, if it can offer a visible improvement in the living conditions of most, if not all the people, autocratic power - which becomes enlightened despotism - is guaranteed of popularity. This is also because Arab societies have not embarked on modernity and it explains why it is brutally and rhetorically rejected. Such refusal, proclaimed as an exclusive ideological theme at the centre of the Islamic project, has found a favourable and powerful response.

Apart from this principle of non-modernity, autocratic power draws its legitimacy from tradition. In some cases it is a tradition of a national and religious monarchy, as in Morocco (it is typical that no Moroccan political party questions the eloquent motto of this monarchy: “Allah, the Nation, the King”), or it may be a tribal monarchy as in the Arabian peninsula. But there is also another kind of tradition, inherited from the Ottoman Empire, which reigned over the land from Algeria to Iraq - i.e. a large part of the Arab world - that is traditionally known as “Mameluke power”.

Mameluke power is a complex system (more or less hierarchical or centralized, or just the opposite, scattered around), bringing together the personalized power of military men, businessmen and clergymen. And not for nothing are they all men, women having been excluded from exercising any responsibilities whatsoever. These three bodies of people do not simply exist side by side: they are completely merged to form one unique power.

Has the manner in which power is exercised in the Arab world been innovative to the point that the above description no longer fits the bill? The autocratic State and the forms of political management associated with it are certainly still in place, as we shall see. But they are in profound crisis, as they are increasingly incapable of meeting the challenges of modernity. This has greatly eroded their legitimacy as is testified by the emergence of political Islam and the confusion of the political conflicts, but also the rebirth of social struggles.

Political Islam

It is a fatal error to believe that the emergence of political movements mobilizing large numbers of people who identify with Islam is the inevitable result of the sudden incursion on the scene of peoples who are culturally and politically backward, incapable of understanding any other language than their own, which is almost atavistically obscurantist. The Muslim peoples and Islam have a history, like those in other regions of the world, which is one of different interpretations of the relationships between reason and faith, and mutual changes and adaptations between society and religion. But this reality is denied, not only by eurocentric discourses, but also by contemporary movements that claim to be Islamic. Both of these do in fact share the same culturalist prejudice according to which the specific characteristics of the different trajectories of peoples and their religions are by their very nature intangible, unmeasurable and trans-historical. To the eurocentricity of the West, contemporary political Islam just opposes another, inverted « eurocentricity ».

The emergence of movements laying claim to Islam is indeed the expression of a violent revolt against the destructive effects of actually existing capitalism and against the unachieved, truncated and deceptive modernity that accompanies it. It is a perfectly legitimate revolt against a system that has nothing to offer to the people in question.

The discourse of Islam proposed as an alternative to capitalist modernity (in which are completely assimilated, without any nuances, the modernity experiences of the various historical socialisms) is political, and there is nothing theological about it. The qualification of fundamentalism, with which it is often saddled, in no way corresponds to this discourse which, incidentally, barely mentions it except in the writings of some contemporary Muslims, who address it in these terms more for a Western audience than for their own.

This Islam is the enemy of all liberation theology. Political Islam calls for submission, not for emancipation. The only effort to read Islam in an emancipatory sense has been made by the Sudanese Mahmoud Taha. Condemned to death and executed by the authorities in Khartoum, Taha was not claimed by any party in the Islamic movement, either “radical”, or “moderate”, and has not been defended by any of the intellectuals who were proclaiming the “Islamic renaissance” or even wishing for “dialogue” with these movements.

Modern political Islam was invented by the Orientalists serving British power in India, before being taken up by the Pakistani Mawdudi. Challenging the concept of emancipatory modernity, he refused the very principle of democracy - the right of a society to construct its future through its liberty to make its own laws. Understandably it is favoured by the Western powers against emancipatory national movements.

Contemporary political Islam is not the result of a reaction against the so-called abuses of secularism, as unfortunately is so often said. No Muslim society in the modern era - except for the former Soviet Union - has ever been really secular and even less has it been subjected to the attacks of any aggressive atheism. The semi-modern States of Kemal’s Turkey, of Nasser’s Egypt, of Baathist Syria and Iraq were content with taming the clergy (as had often been done before) to impose a discourse that was exclusively concerned with legitimizing its political options.

From this fundamental viewpoint, there are hardly any differences between the so-called radical currents of political Islam and those who would like to give it a “moderate” stamp. Both have the same identical project. Iran is no exception, in spite of the confusion at the origin of its success, due to the conjuncture between the growth of the Islamic movement and the struggle conducted against the dictatorship of the Shah, which was socially retrograde and politically pro-American.

The two discourses, those of globalized liberal capitalism and political Islam, are not conflictual. On the contrary, they are perfectly complementary. The ideology of American-style “communitarianism”, is a popular expression used to eradicate social consciousness and struggle and replace it with so-called collective “identities” which are unknown to people. This ideology is extremely cleverly utilized by capital’s dominating strategy because it transfers struggle in the real world of social contradictions to the imaginary world, said to be cultural, trans-historic and absolute. Political Islam is precisely such a “communitarianism”.

With its habitual cynicism the American establishment manages to get another benefit from political Islam. The “drifts” that it inspires - the Taliban, for example (which are in no way a drift but an integral part of the logic of their programmes) can be exploited each time that imperialism judges it useful to intervene - brutally if necessary. The only political movements claiming to be Islamic that are unconditionally condemned by the G7 powers are those that form part - because of the objective local situation - of the anti-imperialist struggle: Hezbollah in the Lebanon, Hamas in Palestine. This is no coincidence.

Political conflicts and social struggles

Nahda and populist nationalism

A quick look at the situation today gives the impression that nothing has changed. The power of the Mamelukes is still in place. A first striking resemblance with the autocracy of the Mamelukes is the interpenetration of the worlds of business and political power. In fact there is no real “private sector” in the strict sense of the word, there are few autonomous capitalists managing their own affairs whose ownership of their business is guaranteed.

Another similarity is the use made of conventional and conservative religious legitimacy. The more that the mameluke-comprador power is compromised by its submission to the dominant imperialist interests and accommodates to the requirements of liberal globalization, the more it tries to compensate for the loss of national legitimacy entailed by this submission by taking a hard line in its so-called “religious” discourse.

It would however be better to see this model which is “autocratic, military, mercantilist (mameluke-comprador-shareholder) and culturally and religiously conservative” as the product of “under-development”, which should be understood, not as “backwardness”, a “stage” of development, but rather as one of the aspects of the world-level polarizing expansion of capital. The latter does not produce modernization (and thus potential democratization), but its opposite: the modernization of autocracy and poverty. Authentic modernization and democratization is gained by opposing the dominant forces of the world system, not by trailing along in its wake.

In the Arab world, at any rate, this contemporary resurrection of the Mameluke autocracy could never have been imagined one hundred, or even fifty years ago. For their day had seemed definitively over. In a first period, the Arab world - at least in its Egyptian and Syrian centres - seemed to have engaged in a genuine bourgeois modernization. Mohamed Ali and then the nahda of the 19th century seemed to have prepared the way. The Egyptian revolution of 1919 was its first high point. It is not by chance that this revolution was carried out under a banner that was the closest to secularism than has ever occurred in the Arab world, proclaiming that “religion belongs to God, the country to everyone” and choosing a flag showing both the crescent and the cross.

In the Ottoman Empire the tanzimat initiated a similar process which the Arab provinces inherited and even developed further after the Empire broke up. Constitutions, civil codes, bourgeois “liberal” parties, parliamentary elections created the hope that, in spite of all its weaknesses and deficiencies, society was moving in the right direction. The meagre results, in terms of genuine economic and social development, are easily explained by the feebleness of the local bourgeoisie in their dealings with the imperialists of the time, who worked with local reactionaries as allies. As a consequence the social crisis was aggravated, which ended this first moment of aborted modernization in the Arab world.

The second period was that of the populist nationalism of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Nasserism, Baathism, the victorious Algerian Revolution seemed capable of dealing with the social crisis both by a stronger confrontation with imperialism (which Soviet support made possible) and by carrying out active economic and social policies. This is all past history and we cannot go into the reasons here: it was a combination of the internal contradictions and limitations of the system and a reversal of the world economic and political conjunctures.

The social crisis today is incomparably more acute than it was one hundred, or fifty years ago. It is not that the society as a whole is “poorer”: on the contrary, in terms of average real income, progress cannot be denied. Nor is the wealth more unequally distributed than it used to be. In fact, there are real changes in this field: the middle classes in Egypt have increased in fifty years from 5 to 30 per cent of the population at its upper levels and from 10 to 50 per cent for all the categories that compose it (according to Galal Amin). But modernization has also been the modernization of poverty.

The depth of the crisis can be seen mainly from the extent of urbanization in the Arab world. More than half the Arab population is now urban. But this massive transfer of people is not the result of a twofold agricultural and industrial revolution, more or less similar to the one that built the developed capitalist West or the Soviet world and the one in which contemporary China has been engaged for half a century. On the contrary, it results from the absence of the agricultural and industrial revolutions. Growing rural destitution has simply been transferred into towns where it cannot be absorbed by industries and modern activities. The present structure of the social classes and categories of people that this crisis expresses has no longer has anything to do with that of the Arab world of a hundred or fifty years ago. At that time the crisis was expressed through forms of political life, ideologies and organizations, and through different kinds of social struggle.

Once the period of national populism was over, the discredited one-party system gave way to an explosion of parties that was quickly hailed by the dominant world media as the start of a democratic development. This, they said, was produced naturally and obviously by the opening of the markets, as fashionable dogma will have it. The paradox is that this explosion of parties has occurred at the same time as the huge leap backward towards an autocracy of the Mameluke variety.

The “third sector” of social reality

The « third sector » is one of those expressions circulated by the fashions that dominate contemporary discourse. Like all such expressions, in which one synonym is replaced by another (like “civil society”, among others) it is vague, ambiguous and it refers to aspects of reality that are not at all new and others that are new, without troubling to distinguish between the two.

The Arab and Islamic worlds have had very similar histories and the vestiges of these old systems are still today very much alive. The religious institution - lacking its own organization like that of the Catholic or Orthodox churches - was greatly dominated by the power of the State - that of the caliph or the local sultans. Where this institution took on a form close to that of the churches - in Shiite Iran - it was put under the close watch of the Shah’s State (as from the Safavids in the 18th century). The Iranian Islamic revolution simply reversed the relationships, subordinating the State to the religious institution.

In the Sunnite world, the religious institution did not have its own autonomous organization, which favoured the development of many “brotherhoods” - Sufi and others - who always tried to become autonomous vis-à-vis State power. The latter either fought them or neutralized them as systematically as it could. Even in Kemal’s Turkey, which was considered secular, the Islamic institution was brought under State control. It was in no way suppressed, or even « ignored », as has so often been said. In this sense Kemalism had the same aim as the Ottoman sultanate: to use religion and subordinate it to its own objectives.

At the present time we see an offensive by capital, which is trying to gain new fields, precisely those which up until now have been outside the purview of the market, either because they belonged to the State or because they were run by religious and community institutions that do not correspond closely to the criteria of associative life. How then can the growth of these associations (non-governmental organizations) - integrated into or outside the religious institution - be linked up with the expansion of the values and criteria of the market economy ? How are the concepts of public service and market rationality intertwined or opposed ? Those are the questions that the « anti-State » rhetoric covers up and that we should squarely face.

The advocates of liberal theory have two simple views on this subject, which gives them their strength. Nevertheless they are not based on any scientific or empirical arguments. According to them, communities (who define community life) and private business will be more capable than the public sector in supplying the social services required by society. They believe that the State is, in fact, a synonym for absurd bureaucracy at best, and often of tyranny : it is always a source of irresponsible waste as its service costs are swallowed up in the national budget. In contrast, the communities, and still more the private sector, must do their accounts, as it is their own money, and they know how to do this. They know better how to adapt themselves to the various needs, being flexible by nature. The associations and the private sector are thus, as compared with the state, more effective in exercising democracy, transparency and accountability. The aim of this democracy is freedom in the sense that von Hayek gives to this unique value: it is the freedom of the strongest. It ignores the equality without which there is no democracy.

In actual fact public services are of decidedly superior quality, compared with those offered by associations and particularly by the private sector (the comparison is however meaningless unless it is applied within the same society or societies that are comparable in general development and wealth). Also, it is easier to ensure transparency and financial accountability in the public service than in the private sector because in the former they can be the object of parliamentary questioning and enquiry, while in the latter they are covered by business confidentiality.

Associative life: a genuine effervescence or a smokescreen?

The multiplication of NGOs

The mushrooming of community associations over the last twenty years in the Arab world, like everywhere else, cannot be denied. The statistics - which are very approximate and always greatly under-estimated - give figures of 55,000 NGOs registered in Algeria, 15,000 in Egypt, 18,000 in Morocco and, for the Arab world as a whole, probably over 100,000. These figures have been multiplied by a co-efficient varying from 5 to 10, according to country, over the last twenty years.

Half of these NGOs receive subsidies from their own States, either through annual contributions or the funding of projects, or through having personnel from the public services and premises put at their disposal (a fifth of the case studies in the Arab countries). These subsidies are almost never negligeable in proportion to total resources and can constitute up to half the expenditure of some of the larger NGOs supplying social services (help to families, education, health) or carrying out urban and rural « development projects ».

A majority of the NGOs (almost all those surveyed) receive “private” subsidies of local origin (i.e. not from abroad). These subsidies are considerable for the largest organizations working in the field of education, health and other social services, or qualified as such. They come from habous (property of the mosques in Morocco), or the network of Islamic economic institutions (including Islamic banks), or “benefactors” who are in fact millionaires belonging to the Islamic tendency of the State/business network. Flows from the Persian Gulf form part of all this support, of which the Islamic-linked organizations are the only beneficiaries.

The third source of finance comes from the sale of services of which one third of the NGOs are beneficiaries, but particularly the most important of them working in education and health. Many NGOs do indeed undertake activities that are purely commercial, even if they present themselves as “benefactors of humanity”. There again the confusion between the various political and ideological activities of the Islamic stamp is commonplace.

Then, finally, there is the external assistance, both from foreign governments (or foreign institutions), or from institutions related to international organizations (particularly World Bank, UNDP and European development assistance). They are not much better recorded than the other sources of funding. A third of the NGOs benefit from them. The control by the State authorities is nitpicking in Arab countries and, in principle, almost everywhere authorization is necessary before foreign subsidies can be accepted. However, it seems that, as far as Egypt is concerned at least, the main donor is USAID which has a “special” agreement with Egypt and its support goes to a good group of NGOs of medium size, involved in supplying services and development projects that are looked on favourably both by the authorities (they also benefit from public subsidies) and by the Islamic tendency (to which many of them claim allegiance). It also seems that donors from European communities (particularly the Netherlands) are very active in Northern Africa, Lebanon and Palestine.

Transparency and accountability are certainly not typical of the way NGOs are funded. In contrast to what is usually said, they form a collection of institutions and activities that are far more impenetrable than the organizations and activities of the public sector, whose budgets are at least published and available.

The NGOs operate under the close watch of the State in all cases, although this is not altogether true in the case of the Lebanon and Palestine. The democratic principle, according to which the creation of associations is free, with the State not having the right to intervene (which can go as far as prohibition), except for reasons that have to be spelt out in the law and under the control of tribunals, does not apply in the Arab world. On the contrary, the principle of advance authorization is the general rule.

The NGO networks operate in different fields, but it is fairly easy to classify their activities into five main categories.

The first category concerns a series of interventions in fields that are normally the competence of the State (education, health, social services). It takes up a major part of the funds received by associations (more than two-thirds of the total). The surveys carried out in the Arab countries as a whole give an idea of the relative importance of the different social services supplied by this “third sector” of social life. Education and training, from school to university, together with various professional specializations, head the list. Not far behind are all the services connected with health, children, family planning and other such social services.

Public subsidies and those of foreign donors are more frequent in this field than in those of education and health, as such. The reason is that these programmes are generally conceived - if only to attract support - in the terms laid down by the current fashions concerning the “war on poverty”. The support of the Islamic movements - and often their control - appears equally manifest: indeed they do not hide this and even proclaim it.

The second category concerns the activities of NGOs associated with specific development projects and it involves about 15 per cent of the registered active associations. Half of them promote projects in urban areas (small-scale artisan businesses and cooperatives, professional training) and the other half promote rural projects. Here, also, public and external support seems to be decisive, while that of the Islamic movements is, it seems, marginal.

A third category concerns the organizations engaged in defending people’s rights, both the rights of human beings in general, or more particularly workers’ rights, or the rights and demands of women.

A fourth category is particularly concerned with defending the rights - cultural or political - of minorities, as it is generally called in the international “community”, although these associations and their institutions refuse to use the word as they consider - rightly - that they are segments of the national society as a whole. This is the case with the very numerous local associations in Morocco, which have been set up to promote amazigi (Berber) culture. The churches - the Coptic among others - are doing the same thing, creating many associations to reinforce ties with their communities.

The fifth category is made up of “businessmen’s associations” and this is a real novelty that has successfully taken on in some Arab countries. They are powerful organizations.

The general arguments for and against such associations are known and they are used in Arab countries as elsewhere. Many of them are formulated in terms that are too general to be useful in the debate as to whether these activities can open up new prospects, on their limits in the concrete conjunctures of contemporary Arab societies, the political forces they use, the margins of liberty allowed by the autocratic State and how they propose to go beyond these limits. It is necessary also to take into account the extreme heterogeneity of the associations.

Characteristics of the associative movement

Some observations are in order here, resulting from all the studies we have read and the discussions we have heard on the subject.

First, ecology has not taken on in the Arab world. We have not come across even one ecological movement worthy of the name in any Arab country. There are only a few such organizations - which are cliques, without any real activities. They are motivated by external support and dominated by a few individuals.

Second, feminism has not become a force strong enough to take on the tragic challenge confronted by Arab societies. It is important not to confuse the women’s movements in the real sense of the term (that is, movements that aim at transforming the situation) with the “participation of women in development”. The defenders of the present system stress statistics that actually mean nothing. In fact, activities supporting education and health benefit women as much as men.

The intervention of the Islamic tendencies in these fields has only aggravated matters. The studies carried out on this subject in Egypt (by Azza Khalil) show that their strategy aims at reinforcing the submission of women to the law as it exists, in exchange for a small improvement in material conditions, given in a spirit of charity rather than one of according rights.

Third, it is often said that the activities of associations target a public that used to be ignored by the previously dominant ways of life and social action : State, political parties, trade unions. There is little doubt that Arab societies are today very different from what they used to be fifty years ago. The social crisis - that is, the internal polarization that parallels the one at global level created by the expansion of capitalism and exacerbated by the present liberalism - has resulted in between one third and one half of the urban population being integrated, but only into what is called the “informal” economy. And this is accompanied by a rise in poverty, even if it is “modernized”, which affects more than a third of the Arab urban population, if the criteria of the World Bank are used. This modern urban poverty is in addition to the so-called “traditional” rural poverty (in fact it is not traditional as it, too, is the product of capitalist modernization, particularly resulting from its liberal options), which affects an even greater proportion of the population in the countryside.

The question is, therefore, should there be another economic, social and political strategy that aims at reabsorbing the marginalized, or can the present situation be accepted, with an effort to adjust and manage it ? The dominating discourse would have us believe that the second option is the only “realistic” one.

At the same time the discourse claims to draw an important practical conclusion based on its observation of the facts. The “traditional” forms of social struggle, which developed within identifiable workplaces and were often concentrated (factories, administrative services, professions, cooperatives) do not affect more than half the active population, at best. Thus, it is said, they have lost their effectiveness and their credibility. This is true, but only partially so. On the other hand, it is said, the new social structures put the place where people live - the neighbourhood - at the centre of the picture for mobilizing activities. This is not altogether incorrect either.

Nevertheless what really happens in the dominating “informal” milieu can be criticized. It is true that many of the associations’ activities target this milieu. But surveys show that the active participation by the beneficiaries in these projects has not really been sought. In half of the cases investigated in Egypt and other countries, those responsible admitted that they did not even try to obtain participation and the other half found that “consultation” with those concerned was difficult (and in hardly any cases was there any effective participation). The reasons given for this behaviour are very banal: the beneficiaries are ignorant, they don’t know what is good for them, etc. This is no doubt why the “spontaneous movements” that develop in these milieux happen outside the associations and are considered (rightly) as “illegal” actions.

The discourse on “grassroot action” remains a discourse. It is not surprising therefore that those concerned behave like “clients”, which only reinforces the nepotistic attitudes of those in charge. Such attitudes promote the “depoliticization” of the people involved, their hostility to politics (such as practised in the relationships between associations, or between the State and the associations). They can only reproduce the authoritarian populist traditions that political Islam has taken over.

Fourth, most of the actions that have been studied (the five kinds of intervention considered) are not independent of the State. This “associative life” is therefore largely window dressing. The only exceptions are those organizations struggling to promote human rights, social rights and the rights of women.

Studies show that most associations constituting the civil society do not complain about the State. As many as 70 per cent of them are satisfied with its “liberalism”, i.e. its support. They are not interested in passing judgement on - or even knowing - the overall policies within which their actions take place. They are not critical either of economic liberalism or of the globalization that serves as its framework. The existing relationships of co-operation between numerous associations and the State not only involve public financial support, but also the planning of actions, developed in common with administrations competent in the subject. This loss of autonomy is not seen as being bothersome: it could be caused by the lack of ideas among the leaders of the associations concerned, or perhaps the idea of autonomy has been lacking from the start.

Lastly, the accusation made by the authorities that the NGOs constitute a Trojan Horse on behalf of imperialism is thus odd, to say the least. Because the Trojan Horse is actually the authoritarian Mameluke State itself. The discourse of political Islam which addresses the same reproach (i.e. that they are the harbingers of « the West ») to the bodies of civil society - is equally strange because, in practice, the Islamists accept globalized liberalism. Those who refuse to accept such strategies - the organizations of resistance and struggle in civil society - are criticized by the State, by political Islam and by foreign institutions.

Results and alternatives

Arab civil society is, as elsewhere, a reflection of the State and political society in the region. It is extremely naïve to oppose the State and political parties - which are decreed “bad” - to the so-called civil society - assumed to possess all the qualities attributed to it by the dominant discourse.

All in all, the actions of civil society have not proved either more effective or better managed than those of the public service. Examining them case by case, we find that most of the “projects” conceived here and there by offices influenced by “donors” (the World Bank, especially) turn out to be badly designed and inappropriate for local conditions. Nor do they solve real problems. The failures are innumerable. Any comparison between these projects and the activities of the State services is more favourable to the latter, in spite of all the criticisms made about them.

Even in the terms of the discourse that influences most of these actions, the results are mediocre to say the least. “Poverty” is growing. The “target population” benefiting from these policies remains a small proportion of the whole. As for their “empowerment”, it only exists in the minds of those who hold forth about it.

Most of these actions are thus no more « effective » than those of the State, nor are they less costly. On top of that they are not transparent or made accountable - rather less so than in the public sector. And finally they are not managed more efficiently and are not more democratic.

If this is the case it is because the basic strategies upon which these actions are founded are also those of the State. In short, they are the strategies of capital that dominates at the world level and at local levels. In no way do they solve the problems of the people involved.

The above is applicable only to the actions as a whole of the so-called civil society (and the State), which are based on the (false) principle of consensus and are therefore in keeping with dominant liberalism. In contrast, the political and social struggles that are carried out with, inside or against the parties, trade unions, professional associations, organizations struggling for democracy, human rights, the rights of workers and of women, open up the prospect of possible alternatives. This creative aspect of political and civil society engaged in struggle to transform social relationships is the basis upon which another future can be built - one that is more equitable and egalitarian and gives greater freedom to individuals, peoples and nations.

At present, political and social struggles are fragmented. The ideological void produced by the erosion and finally the collapse of populist nationalism and actually existing socialism has deprived these struggles - in their present state of development - of any prospect of credible alternatives. The dominant discourse encourages people to renounce such struggles and to be content with “managing everyday life”. Postmodernism offers a “scholarly” version of this ideology of capitulation, while “good governance” is the term in common parlance.

The only alternative must be based on effective struggles. However, theoretical reflection cannot substitute for debate at the grassroots. Both are equally indispensable, but they are only effective when they are combined. “Recomposing the social (class) struggle” - which defines the objective of this dialectic - means a coming together, based on genuine common interests perceived by the groups themselves, identifying the objectives, by stages, that facilitate the move forward and improve the material and moral conditions of these groups. The struggles should be pursued with this end in view. Along the way, such struggles encourage the democratic behaviour that is necessary and foster the development of new directions that are authentically rooted in peoples’ experience.


* Samir Amin. This article is a synthesis of the exchanges during a seminar on social movements in the Arab world, co-organized in 2001 in Cairo by Helmi Sharawi of the Arab Research Center (ARC) of Cairo, and Samir Amin and Ali El Kenz of the World Forum for Alternatives, with the participation of Jihad El Zein, Fahima Charaffeddine, Sana Abou Chakra (Lebanon) ; Mounir El Hamasch, Michel Kilo (Syria) ; Youssef Abou Al Hassan (United Arab Emirates) ; Cherif Hettata, Ismail Sabri Abdalla, Ibrahim Saad El Dine, Fawzy Mansour, Shahida El Baz, Amina Rachid, Ahmad Baha Chaabane, Alfons Aziz, Aida Seif El Dawla, Abdel Ghaffar Shukr, Mohamad Sid Ahmad, Mohamad El Sayed Said, Yousri Moustapha (Egypt) ; Haidar Ibrahim

By the same author :

Amin, S. and El Kenz, A. Le Monde arabe : enjeux sociaux et perspectives.

Paris, L’Harmattan, 2002.



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