What is Civil Society?

by tuftsigl
Aug 05
Olivia Holt-Ivry is a MALD Candidate in the class of 2015 at The Fletcher School.
Increasingly a buzz word among foreign policy wonks and international circles, the term “civil society” is often used to refer to a wide array of non-governmental, non-profit organizations and activists who – particularly in the Middle Eastern and North African context – are largely portrayed as progressive, “liberal,” “secular” actors. But just as the understandings of “liberal” and “secular” differ across societies, so does the term “civil society.” The U.S. emphasis on support for Tunisian civil society during the country's democratic transition (President Obama's “Framework for Investing in Tunisia” mentions the term no less than six times) warrants a deeper look at what exactly constitutes civil society in Tunisia.
With the help of the IGL and The Fletcher School's International Security Studies Program, I spent the last two months in Tunisia conducting research for my thesis. What I quickly found was that there was no uniform understanding of the term even within Tunisia. When asked how they defined “civil society,” some Tunisians responded that it included political parties, while others insisted that the two were separate. Some roped unions into their definition, including the powerful labor union UGTT (the French acronym for the Tunisian General Labor Union). Another interviewee extended this somewhat into the security sector by explicitly including the police unions. Some counted religious groups (depending on the speaker, this could mean anything from an NGO that explicitly mentions Islam in its mission to one whose members are predominantly Islamist), while another NGO founder was adamant that religion had no place in civil society. One analyst, rather than attempting to identify all the qualifying candidates, instead defined the term by what it excludes, as a “multi-organizational space, more or less autonomous...everything that is not the state.” 
Further complicating our understanding of civil society is the mismatch between its definition – once clearly defined - and its reality. Many of the same people I interviewed who adamantly asserted civil society's necessary political independence also admitted the evident politicization of Tunisian civil society groups. This can be attributed to a number of factors. First, under former Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, many civil society organizations were co-opted by the regime. As Laryssa Chomiak, Director of the Centre d'Etudes Maghrebines a Tunis (CEMAT) put it, Tunisia's civil society has “always been a civil society that was somewhat either created by the state or co-opted by the state. You didn't have an independent, interest-based associational sphere.” Second, because Ben Ali dominated the political sphere, what little political discourse that was tolerated was pushed inside large non-governmental associations, including those whose leaderships were largely perceived as having been co-opted by the regime, such as UGTT. 
Yet this politicization continues even after the revolution. This is partly because critics of the larger, co-opted organizations of Ben Ali's era formed their own alternatives, partly because some political parties use affiliated organizations to collect donations, and partly because the still young, post-revolution Tunisian civil society knows no different. As International Crisis Group analyst Michaël Ayari told me, “Each time there is an association, there is always a political party that tries to go inside – in Tunisia, it's the tradition.” Indeed, Al Bawsala, the prominent Tunisian watchdog NGO, will not work with Tunisian civil society groups because of this. As their young founder, Amira Yahyahoui, explained, “We are criticized a lot by Tunisian civil society because we don't work with [them]...But we [civil society] are giving statements about ourselves that are not true...We'd love to be less polarized, more open, but we're not.”
This highlights the importance of speaking and defining “civil society” as it is – not as we wish it were or as we ourselves experience it at home. It also means that donor countries should do their due diligence on potential grant recipients to ensure that they meet their own criteria for civil society funding. 
An interesting example can be found in the case of L'Association Tunisienne des Femmes Democrates (the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women, or ATFD), an internationally renowned Tunisian women's rights organization. As explained to me by Monica Marks, a Tunisia-based Rhodes scholar and PhD candidate at Oxford University, “Les Femmes Democrats is loathed by...[Ennahda] women especially because they say, 'While we were being raped, tortured, persecuted in the 1990s...where was this premiere, world-famous women's rights organization?'” Yet the EU funds the organization. “I'm not saying that's wrong,” she told me, but as she pointed out, it begs the larger question of what the EU “thought were unbiased civil society institutions. Who gets that label? Does Les Femmes Democrates get that label?”
If U.S. engagement with civil society is a cornerstone of its post-Arab Spring efforts to build relations with societies, and not just their rulers (which hasn't been going so well) , it must begin with a deeper understanding of civil society and a clear-eyed look at the context in which they are operating. At times, this may mean providing more low-profile support, or as prominent Tunisian blogger Sami Ben Gharbia argues, it may mean stepping aside altogether. 
But that's a much larger discussion.

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