BEIRUT — Three years after the revolts of the Arab Spring, the reformers’ initial euphoria has given way in much of the region to weariness and even despair. Civil war has overtaken Syria; Egypt is under the thumb of a newly aggressive military junta. In Bahrain, the opposition is in disarray or detention, despite representing a clear majority of the people; Libyans haven’t managed to tame the patchwork of warlords that overthrew Moammar Khadafy. Just recently, the head of the Maronite church in Lebanon joined the pessimistic chorus by talking about an “Arab winter.”
In writings, private conversations, and political forums, many of the most committed partisans of the popular uprisings are starting to ask just what has changed. What, if anything, did the Arab revolts actually accomplish?
The full answer to that question lies perhaps a generation away. But surveying the scene, it is becoming increasingly clear that for all that hasn’t happened, at least one positive change has survived and taken root: a vigorous and healthy new version of civil society.
In one nation after another, Arab citizens have come together into organized independent groups, keeping their distance from the state, even actively criticizing regimes and braving jail time. Egyptian collectives have arisen to document state torture and capricious detention; bootstrap Syrian aid organizations smuggle in supplies to run clinics and refugee processing centers. Bahrainis are agitating for political reform, and new groups in Yemen are trying to ensure reform follows regime change there. Tunisia’s notable successes have come alongside a flourishing of labor, media, and cultural groups.
“Organizations are the most important thing we made in the uprisings,” said Moaz Abdel Kareem, an Egyptian activist who has helped found half a dozen, including a political party and citizens forum.
As these civic groups deepen their roots, they could prove genuinely transformative. The autocrats that ruled Arab societies could do it only because they had systematically suppressed independent civic life for so long. And collectively, the very fact that these new groups survive and thrive is evidence of something bigger taking place across the region: a meaningful new understanding of what it means to be a citizen and live in a state.
The groups are still fragile, and their success in no way guaranteed. But even with the old regimes still largely holding their political power, they represent a meaningful ray of hope. And to see the ways in which they have sprouted in one country after another is to appreciate just how broadly this new thinking has touched the Arab world.
In much of the world , civic organizations are taken for granted: They play roles from the local, like running shelters for the homeless, to the national, like crafting and lobbying for transformative new laws. The Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded 22 times to civic groups rather than individuals—the first time in 1904, to the Institute of International Law. Where they exist, they testify to an empowered citizenry—and to a deeper social contract in which the state’s powers extend only so far.
Such groups are anathema to totalitarian regimes, and accordingly the autocrats of the Arab world staved off meaningful challenges by corralling and neutering civic organizations for much of the 20th century. Independent political parties were outlawed. The media swarmed with censors and intelligence agents planted by the state; even religious clerics were vetted. Syndicates and labor unions, religious organizations, welfare for the poor, women’s societies—none fell far from government control. Any remotely political-sounding civic activities—which in some cases extended to acts like delivering food to the poor or holding training workshops for women—were often simply criminalized.
In the past, some Arab states witnessed brief flare-ups of civic activity. One happened in Syria in 2000; another in Egypt in 2005-06. But those were cases of brief openings, allowed by the state, and then quickly and thoroughly shut down.
Born in the 2011 revolts was something new. Partly galvanized by the genuine hope of change, partly because states had sunk to new lows in disregard for their citizens, and partly because of social networking, citizens began to coalesce into meaningful organizations. They often started very loosely—like the Egyptian Facebook group that protested the police murder of Khaled Said in 2010, or the online chat groups that discussed the potential presidential candidacy of Mohamed ElBaradei. But as the revolts gathered steam, so did the civic groups. The Khaled Said group organized small protests, then large ones, eventually attracting hundreds of thousands of citizens to risk their safety in the dangerous street actions that helped bring down the regime. ElBaradei’s Facebook fans eventually founded the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, which has emerged as a key political player.Continued...