In the aftermath of the Arab uprisings, a consensus has slowly been building in the West about the merits of “civil society” in the Arab world.

Exactly what the term “civil society” covers is disputed and complex – there was an entire BBC World documentary about it. It is, however, generally taken to mean a third public sphere alongside the market and the state: both non-commercial and non-governmental.

Many in liberal, leftist, and generally well-meaning circles of academia and policy regularly extol the virtues of “civil society.”

Official support behind the idea is also considerable—the European Commission, for example, is particularly keen on furthering civil society in partner countries, especially in response to the Arab Spring.

There have also been statements of support for Arab civil society from the European Union (EU) and the United Nations (UN), as well as many national governments.

For example, in September 2013, U.S. President Barack Obama announced the country’s determination to “stand behind civil society organizations,” at a UN session dedicated to “supporting civil society.”

The concept of civil society is, however, ambiguous.

While it can provide a rallying-point for resistance to authoritarianism, it may also serve as an acceptable veneer for neoliberal economic policies.

Civil society, like democracy, has consequently become, on occasion, a mask for promoting capitalism.

Leftists in the West are, however, worryingly unaware that this is also now happening in the Arab world.

Civil Society, International NGOs, and Neoliberalism

Of course, civil society is not a static term, and there is a good deal of room for disagreement – in the Arab world or elsewhere – as to what it might include.

Nongovernmental organizations that provide aid to Arab countries often refer to civil society as a key organizing principle.

The list below, which was compiled by the Initiative for a New Syria (INS), is typical of how NGOs conceptualize their work.

The INS describes its distribution network as consisting of:

  • Civil society groups with a proven record of integrity;
  • Women’s groups with experience in charity work for years prior to the revolution;
  • Women leaders: writers, feminists, activists;
  • Youth groups committed to civil activism;
  • Relief committees within local councils that have been shown to be clearly structured and committed to providing relief to civilians on a non-partisan basis;
  • Doctors usually recommended by doctors’ groups that have a proven record of effective work on the ground; and
  • Journalists and lawyers known as prominent figures in Syrian society.

Behind this logic is an intention to foster democracy as the most hopeful organizing principle for the future of the Arab societies.

Well-meaning Westerners, including leftists, easily stand behind this benevolent-sounding purpose.

For example, Life for Syria, an organization based in Paris that stands in solidarity with the people of Syria, called for part of the UN aid budget to Syria to be allocated to civil society organizations.

Of course, many of the policies furthered by civil society groups, such as emphasis on directing resources to organizations apart from the state (or military groups), and support for women’s initiatives, should be applauded.

What is problematic, however, is when civil society is presented as politically neutral.

Of course, NGOs and official organizations, such as UN agencies, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) are limited in what they can support—they have to be impartial, and focus on humanitarian efforts, so the myth of politically neutral civil society suits their purposes.

But many other actors, such as solidarity groups, also often adopt a similar mentality.

Partly, this is for good reason—these organizations do not want to interfere in the politics of the Arab world, so they throw their support behind what they think is an innocuous and neutral civil society.

But this is naïve.

Westerners may think of their support for civil society in other countries as non-partisan, but it has certainly not been perceived as such in the Arab world.

Both before and after the Arab revolutions, foreign support for NGOs led to accusations that such organizations were tools of imperialism, and that civil society was basically an imported Western concept.

Democracy, Civil Society, and Capitalism

This view of civil society is not completely unfounded.

Talk of promoting civil society, and even democracy, often carries with it the implicit assumption that it should be coupled with pro-capitalist economic policies.

In 2010, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi said in a televised address to the General People’s Congress that the notion of civil society, “is a bourgeois culture and an imitation of the West that has no place here [in Libya].”

Gaddafi’s remarks were obviously an attempt to tar all non-state organizations with the brush of Western imperialism so as to prevent them from encroaching on the prerogatives of the state.

But his rhetoric nonetheless contained an element of truth.

The consensus on civil society in the Arab world is in a sense implicitly Western, and – what is more relevant – bourgeois.

This consensus tends to conceive of “civil society” as apolitical in content, and unrelated to economic justice.

As a result, and by default, the term ends up supporting a capitalist version of civil society.

At the start of the 1990s, Ellen Meiskins Wood pointed out the dangers of an uncritical embrace of civil society by the left.

She recalled that Marx descried “civil society” as the social order constructed by the bourgeoisie, and the means whereby the values of the upper classes are imposed as the dominant principles of society.

The danger Meiskins Wood revealed was that “[j]ust when reformers in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe are looking to Western capitalism for paradigms of economic and political success, many of us appear to be abdicating the traditional role of the Western left as critic of capitalism.”

Currently, Arab countries are, in Meiskins-Wood’s words, “looking to Western capitalism for paradigms of… success,” or, less charitably, having Western capitalist paradigms imposed on them by the IMF.

Western leftists are in danger of acquiescing to, and indeed, becoming enthusiastic proponents of, a version of civil society and of democracy, that offers little or no resistance to capitalism.

Historically, there have been times where resisting capitalism has not been the main priority of the political left, including those most strongly opposed to capitalism in theory.

Leftists have become uncritical defenders or proponents of versions of civil society and democracy that do not support economic egalitarianism when certain basic principles of bourgeois democracy appear to be threatened by something worse.

In the 1980s, for example, an alliance of liberals and leftists came together to oppose the authoritarianism of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and U.S. President Ronald Reagan (the military-industrial complex), on the one hand, and the bureaucratic regimes of the Eastern Bloc states on the other.

This alliance of capitalist and non-capitalist movements took the form of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), which advocated against a looming a nuclear holocaust.

The push for economic equality was put aside, in the interest of a “higher” cause.

In the 1930s, some of these same features were displayed when liberals and leftists united against fascism, though the terms used were different—civilization, rather than civil society, was threat at the time.[1]

Threats to Civil Society in the Arab World

From the outside, it seems there are presently two clear threats to bourgeois democracy in the Arab world: military autocracy and Islamist theocracy.

For this reason, supporting civil society and establishing something akin to a Western system of democracy, not withstanding its capitalist ideology, has been a priority for leftist and liberal forces alike.

For those who see Islamism as the greater threat, building civil society can be derailed when alliances with military forces – whether tacit or overt as in Egypt with Tamarod – seems like the only relevant short-term option.

In this political landscape, where many liberals are willing to postpone the bourgeois-democratic political project, the prospects of moving beyond this paradigm and challenging capitalism appears remote and utopian.

Instead, the immediate struggle thus becomes one for bourgeois-democratic liberties.

Liberalism vs Humanism

As Meiskins Wood’s observed, where capitalism dominates, unqualified support for civil society or democracy helps to establish a particularly bourgeois civil society and capitalist democracy.

What Edward Thompson once called the “liberal Gods” – “justice, tolerance, above all intellectual liberty” become priorities, while the “humanist Gods” – “social liberty, equality, fraternity” – are quietly forgotten.[2]

Currently, proponents of civil society in the Arab world have remained relatively silent on questions such as economic justice and workers’ rights, but have been vocal on issues like justice, individuals’ and women’s rights, and free speech.

For example, while the INS works with women’s organizations, youth groups, doctors, and lawyers, it does not mention any involvement with trade unions or workers’ organizations.

In this context, as Meiskins Woods argues, civil society and democracy actually become alibis for capitalism.

For instance, the Council on Foreign Relations, a U.S. based think tank, has a Civil Society, Markets and Democracy Initiative focused mostly on the Arab world. As this example demonstrates, “markets” are slipped in surreptitiously between innocuous terms like “civil society” and “democracy.”

Current USAID programs to fund NGOs and promote a “healthy civil society” specifically invite funding applications in the area of “Equitable Access to Economic and Entrepreneurship Opportunities” across much of the Middle East (as well as “Private Sector Development” in Belarus, and “Private Sector Competitiveness – Workforce Development” in Moldova).

For these agencies, support for the private sector, markets, or entrepreneurship, are part of promoting a “healthy civil society” (despite the supposed separation of civil society from both the state and the market).

In Meiskins Woods’ words, “‘Civil society’ can serve as a code-word or cover for capitalism, and the market can be lumped together with other less ambiguous goods like political and intellectual liberties as an unequivocally desirable goal.”

In this kind of civil society, certain claims, like civil rights and freedom of speech, are implicitly built into the ground rules of the social order, while other claims, like trade unions rights or social security, have no such guarantee.

There is much that is noteworthy in this framework, but there is little or nothing that overtly contradicts a capitalist or a neoliberal economic order.

The implication is that when there is a threat to (bourgeois) civil society and to (capitalist) democracy, or where these do not exist, they must be established first.

Other claims, such as socialist ones, if they are desirable at all, must be fought for afterwards.

Cutting Both Ways

Even leftists often easily acquiesce to this logic of stages, according to which the Arab world must first eliminate dictatorship and establish secularism after which issues like social equality and economic justice can be put on the agenda.

But this sidelining is dangerous.

Egypt, for example, is dealing with enormous poverty and substantial imbalances in wealth and social benefits. Two of the main justifications for the military’s ouster of President Mohamed Morsi were the worsening economic condition for the majority of Egyptians and continuing financial uncertainty in the country.

But despite talk of safeguarding social justice and easing economic conditions, the current interim government is still under pressure to remove economic safety nets inherited from the earlier military regime of Hosni Mubarak.

In his last interview before becoming interim prime minister, Hazem el-Beblawi claimed that “Social justice… varies according to the conditions and the country’s welfare: the wealthier the country, the better the distribution of income will be.” He went on to speak of the need for people to make “sacrifices” and accept the removal of subsidies.

Currently, in Egypt, programs of neoliberal privatization continue unheeded, while the partisans of civil society concentrate their energies elsewhere.

But, issues of poverty and inequality cannot remain unaddressed while political elites and civil society organizations bargain over other political and social issues, however pressing.

To borrow from Fredrick Engels: civil society is “double-edged, double-tongued.” While civil society may be the only thing that can unite popular resources against state oppression or militarism, it is also an alibi for capitalism and a means of diverting attention from real, pressing problems.

In Syria, for instance, with its clearly vicious and militarized state and warring armed factions, civil society is a critical force that must be supported.

But where this situation does not exist, civil society may not have such an unabashedly positive influence.

While it provides a framework for advocating in support of important values, like personal rights and liberties, civil society is also subject to the biases of its members.

Class lines are delineated within civil society. Middle-class activists prioritize freedom of speech, personal rights, and so on, while workers and the poor push, often in less articulate and certainly in less publicized ways, for economic improvements.

While economic justice is not necessarily opposed to liberal virtues like freedom of speech, a difference of emphasis still exists.

Of course, issues such as freedom of speech and women’s rights are important to the poor, peasants, and workers, even if they may not think of them in those precise terms.

But, they are unlikely to be as important as economic issues. They certainly cannot be dealt with in isolation from economic problems, which is often the tendency of liberal thinking.

Ignoring Economic Realities

A liberal discourse, even a radical one, that is isolated from economic issues leaves workers, and especially the rural poor, very much exposed to religious and authoritarian ideologies.

These ideologies address economic and other daily issues, while liberal agendas focus on ideas that are more remote.

This is not to say the Islamists or authoritarian nationalists better represent the interests of the poor or the workers more than do the civil – in the sense of non-military and non-religious – forces.

Despite the record of old authoritarian regimes and organizations such as the Muslim Brothers in providing social safety nets, neither the Islamists nor the region’s dictators had lasting solution to address pressing economic problems.

Certainly, the track records of Mubarak and the Brotherhood indicate they were equally eager to acquiesce to the neoliberal project. But the Islamists, in particular, occasionally did well in presenting themselves as closer to the interests of the majority than the “civil” forces.

They did this by creating a secular/religious dichotomy that overruled a class-based political framework.

There is a danger that both Arab civil forces and well-meaning Westerners will reinforce this dichotomy by insisting on liberal and secular changes, while remaining silent or compromising on economic and anti-imperial issues.

One reason well-meaning Westerners have supported civil society in the Arab world is precisely because they do not want to be seen as interfering politically.

Yet it is important to remember the liberal consensus on “civil society” is in fact political and partisan. It is a choice between certain values and virtues, over others.


Those who are involved in aid and solidarity projects that support the Arab world must remain critically aware of the dominant discourse on civil society.

Even if leftists decide to acquiesce to this model, as may seem necessary at times, they must be honest about what they are doing—pushing the struggle against capitalism into second place after the struggles against nationalist or Islamist authoritarianism.

Leftists have to remember civil society is “double-edged, double-tongued”; a blessing in one situation, but a potential curse in another. It is certainly not apolitical, neutral, nor the best of all possible worlds.

Socialists must push for the recognition of social justice and humanist and socialist virtues, along with the liberal ones, in the Arab world.

At the very least, they must promote a civil society that includes trade unions and organizations working on economic deprivation, alongside humanitarian NGOs and civil and women’s rights organizations.

This is more difficult, more controversial, and more political. But the alternative is effective acquiescence to the continuing impoverishment of the majority in these countries, in exchange for the advancement of certain liberal virtues.

While the latter is indispensable, it is only of value to a wealthy minority as long as serious economic reforms are also not advocated.

Western leftists have a particular responsibility. As in the early 1990s, they must not allow a liberal consensus of civil society—easily compatible with a capitalist economy – to be presented as the West’s model of success, whether in the Arab world or elsewhere.

The failures of this model must be pointed out, and other models and visions, which have been produced in the West, must be emphasized.

Otherwise, notwithstanding the best intentions of Western leftists, they will collude in inflicting a Western capitalist model of society, upon the Arab world.


[1] See Eric Hobsbawm’s chapter “In the Era of Anti-Fascism,” in How to Change the World (London , 2012).

[2] “Socialism and the intellectuals”, Universities and Left Review, Vol. 1, No. 1.

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