| Knowledge Programme Brieﬁng Note 2 | 2012Dignity Revolutions and Western Donors: Redeﬁning Relevance
Prior to the dignity revolutions, it was difficult toenvisage civic action leading to democratisation inMENA. The attention of external actors promotingdemocracy was focused on (mostly secular) formalcivil society, such as NGOs in the areas of humanrights, women’s rights, trade unions, etc. There wasa lack of deep knowledge on both the context inwhich these actors operated and, more importantly,how complex social change occurs in authoritariancontexts. Such knowledge is only acquired by doingaway with a formal (liberal) civil society concept,particularly formal NGOs and the expectations thatexternal actors have of them. The CWSA programmezoomed in on the authoritarian characteristics of thecontext that civil society actors operate in, dissectingits core components as well as its impacts on civicactivism. CWSA research revealed that both ‘hard’authoritarian regimes, such as Syria, and their ‘soft’pendants, like the Moroccan state, have reconfig-ured their relations with societies. Such regimessuccessfully appropriated democracy discourse andco-opted important segments of civil and politicalsociety in a strategy that can be called ‘upgradingauthoritarianism’. Take Syria: prior to the outburst of popular protest in March 2011, empirical researchrevealed that: ‘the borderline between civil societyand the state turns out to be less clear-cut thanassumed in theoretical discussions. Most actors havea rather ambivalent relationship to the state.Organizations can only survive if tolerated by thestate, and risk becoming instrumentalised by stateauthorities who can use them as a kind of fig leaf todemonstrate a façade of pluralism. The alternative isnot to organise into established groups, but tocooperate in loose networks’ (Junne, Gerd. CWSANewsletter, October 2009, Issue 1)
. Social mediaenabled other forms of civic action, created avirtual space that confronts the culture of fear andenhanced trust among activists privileged with theaccess to new media. But by themselves, theseinstruments offer no magic bullet and can even be adouble-edged sword. The Syrian regime also usedthese media to infiltrate digital activism. Broadeningthe focus to other actors, specifically those outsideformal human rights and democracy NGOs, offeredmore insight into the interaction of social forces andthe state. In the case of Morocco, Farid Boussaideloquently analyses the rise and fall of a nascentindependent private sector. This ‘unusual suspect’could have been a genuine agent of democratisation,but it also had to operate in the same ambiguousauthoritarian atmosphere as the ‘usual suspects’ did.The monarch managed to break the increasingindependency of the umbrella group of businessassociations (CGEM) by gradually replacing theindependent leadership with pro- government onesand co-opting sections of the new business class
.Despite the apparent successes of the regimes, priorto 2011, to limit attempts towards democratisation,upgrading authoritarianism was not a proactivestrategy. Rather, it was a reactive response to internaland external pressures to democratise the politicalsystem and provide more space for civil society. Theoutcome was that both traditional civil society andrelatively ‘new’ social actors such as social mediaactivists and the private sector operated in an ambig-uous authoritarian atmosphere. Such ambiguity doesnot render activists puppets of regimes; rather, itdemonstrates that the liberal notion of civil societyas the engine of democratisation does not reflect thereality. In this ambiguous authoritarian atmospherecivic actors walk a tightrope between co-optationand confrontation, between commissioned criticismand active citizenship.
Why did we not see it coming?
While regimes were engaged in upgrading processesand sharing ‘authoritarian best practices’, interna-tional donors stuck to project-by-project outcomeassessments that say little about contribution toqualitative change on the ground
. The result was
Arab Spring or Revolutions
, (www.theglobeandmail.com/news/opinions/opinion/arab-spring-or-revolution/article2132994/. Accessed 1 May 2012).
Newsletter Knowledge Programme Civil Society in West Asia, October 2009, Issue 1
, University of Amsterdam/Hivos.
State Business Relations in Morocco
, Working paper 6, Knowledge Programme Civil Society in West Asia, June2010, University of Amsterdam/Hivos.
The Uncertain Future of Democracy Promotion
, Working paper 12, Knowledge Programme Civil Society inWest Asia , November 2010, University of Amsterdam/Hivos.