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.
Today, that immediate revolutionary fervor has mostly subsided, but many of the organizations founded at its peak are still hard at work in Egypt and elsewhere, steering what little political debate survived the resurgence of the old power structures.
The most basic, and widespread, are service organizations. In Syria, for example, the embattled Assad regime has grudgingly allowed
citizens to form solidarity and aid groups. In
rebel-controlled areas, militia leaders have to share power with civilian coordinating committees. Vast new civilian aid networks have formed to serve the 2 million Syrian refugees and the 4 million more people who have been displaced within the country’s borders. Their work isn’t overtly political—securing housing, health care, and education—but their independence and resilience are new in Syria. Until now it’s been a crime for Syrians to form even a chamber music company without government permission.
The overtly political groups have had even more impact. In Bahrain, for example, where the regime cracked down on popular protests hard enough to marginalize its opposition, the 11-year-old Bahrain Center for Human Rights has established itself as one of the most important de facto political forces in the nation. As the three-year-long struggle simmers between the Shia majority population and the Sunni minority royal family, the small human rights nongovernmental organization has provided consistent evidence of sectarian discrimination and government torture, rallying Bahrainis and alerting the outside world. It is essentially a new element in society: an independent group that endorses equal rights under the law, eschewing both clerical oversight and government control.
Traditionally the political leader of the Arab world, Egypt has seen an even more impressive array of groups emerge, built on a broad but tenuous community of activists that had weathered the Mubarak decades. The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights has unnerved authorities by simply documenting government actions, like prosecutions of journalists for critical speech or harassment of civic groups for receiving foreign funds. The No to Military Trials campaign tracks the number of civilians brought before military tribunals, helps them find representation, and campaigns to turn Egyptian attitudes against the practice. The Egyptian video collective Mosireen, which began as a group of videographers and filmmakers documenting the Tahrir Square uprising in January 2011, has survived and grown into an archive and distribution system explicitly challenging government propaganda. (Disclosure: I contributed to Mosireen’s Kickstarter campaign this year).
Even Saudi Arabia, seemingly the most change-proof of the Arab states, has seen an uptick of the kind of sustained pressure that only mature civil society can produce. Women fighting for their right to drive have in the last month begun a civil disobedience campaign, posting online videos of themselves driving and calling for a nationwide drive, all in hopes of forcing a change in the kingdom’s restrictive law.
When I canvasseda dozen activists across the region about the legacy of the revolts today, many of them bemoaned the current strength of military rulers in Egypt and Syria, and the triumphalism of conservative, cash-rich monarchs in the Gulf. But they all returned to the idea that a psychological threshold was crossed when once-passive citizens decided they could control their political fates.
“The Arab uprisings, particularly Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt, seem to have done away with that haunting sense of powerlessness, of impotence, that was the badge of the ‘Arab malaise,’” wrote Farah Dakhlallah and Adam Coutts in an essay published in the 2012 book “Scepticism: Hero and Villain.”
This has not come easily. In the Arab uprisings, activists—most of them young and relatively unseasoned—have undertaken the gargantuan task of conjuring these new civic institutions from scratch. And over the last three years, they’ve suffered attacks from many directions—from Islamists with their own agenda for the future; from secular regimes; at times from vituperative nationalist public opinion. Dictators have succeeded before in squelching independent civic groups, and in co-opting any that survive.
Nonetheless, there’s reason to see this change as the foundation of a different kind of future. The iconic chant across the region, from the start of the protests in Tunisia and Egypt, demanded the fall of the “nidham,” which translates as “regime,” but also as “system.” People knew their problems weren’t just with a ruler, but with a whole web of control. Healthy states depend on checks and balances, and civic groups matter deeply to their emergence. Think of Solidarity in Poland, Mandela’s African National Congress, or Otpor in Serbia; these were popular civic groups that became the seeds of a new system. In political science, study after study shows that a dynamic and independent civil society plays a determinative role in transitions to democracy.
The flowering and maturation of Arab civil groups might feel slow to the crowds flashing cellphone messages to each other three years ago, and less dramatic than the call for the head of one dictator or another. But it may be the only work that ultimately can replace the epic abuses of the Arab authoritarian states with a new culture of citizenship and law.
Egyptian activist Abdelrahman Ayyash, in an interview from exile in Turkey, said he and many of his colleagues had been discouraged by the violent crackdown that has accompanied the rebounding fortunes of the old ruling class in Egypt, Syria, and elsewhere. But he also took encouragement from the spirit he had felt arising among his fellow citizens. “Even if we are down right now, we have changed,” he said. “All of us.”
Thanassis Cambanis, a fellow at The Century Foundation, is the author of “A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah’s Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel.” He is an Ideas columnist and blogs at thanassiscambanis.com.