International Encyclopedia of Civil Society

Living Edition
| Editors: Regina A. List, Helmut K. Anheier, Stefan Toepler

Civil Society and Social Capital in the Middle East

  • Alaa SaberEmail author
Living reference work entry


For its lack of a singular conceptual construct, the notion of civil society is even more complex and fervently contested among scholars and academicians when it relates to the Middle East. The Middle East here refers to the Arab East or “Mashreq,” the Gulf Region or “Khaleeg,” and several of North African countries or “Maghreb” (Hudson 1976, p. 483). Depending on what conceptual lenses one uses when looking at civil society and social capital in the Middle East, one can see them with different forms, actors, and dynamics. The conceptual lenses of Cohen and Arato (1992), for instance, can be used to compose civil society of all the actors that comprises the terrain between the state and individuals. But broader boundaries for civil society can be drawn with the lenses of Hawthorne (2004, p. 3) as the zone of voluntary associative life beyond family and clan affiliations. The definition of social capital, on the other hand, is derived from Putnam (2000) as the connections among individuals, social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them to socialize into cooperative behavior and the production of trust. Social capital in the Middle East can be depicted either as abundant in terms of social networks and ties of family and kinship or as scant in terms of the bridging ties that go beyond these social units.


Since the 1990s, interest in the civil society in the Middle East has been rising following the successes of Eastern European countries with democratization processes in which the civil society played prominent roles (Allen 1997). In the search for comparably similar roles for civil society in the Middle East, numerous scholars, policy makers, research centers, and media pundits began to ponder questions not only about the prospect of such roles (Hawthorne 2004), but also about the very existence and nature of such society in the Middle East and its foundation of social capital (Salam 2002). The debates can be traced back to three distinctive, oftentimes conflicting, strands of thinking about the Middle East. The Orientalism strand has dominated the study of the Middle East since at least the eighteenth century, though it has lost some of its significance since the end of colonial period. Mainstream Orientalism sees the Middle East as a monolithic, fundamentally static, and thus a “peculiar” entity (Bayat 2010). It invokes culture and religion in its analysis of the region, seeing that it is inherently uncongenial to civil society and lacks the basic elements for its emergence (Kdourie 1994; Lewis 1994). Driven by predispositions of cultural supremacy, argued (Said 1978) in his seminal work “Orientalism” that Orientalists’ discourse was fraught with either falsely positive or beside the point conclusions. Treating culture as an unchanging construct placed in an ahistorical dimension obscures the real dilemmas that the Middle East faces and the possibilities for its change.

In stark contrast, the second strand of thought is the apologetic discourse of scholars who emphasize the roles that formal political institutions, policy choices, and geo-political, and economic circumstances have played at different times in shaping the Middle East and its civil society. They consider that genuinely autonomous civil associations have existed and flourished in the region as early as the eleventh century A.D., driven by the deeply-rooted, religion-based traditions of charity and its diverse expressions, particularly in the private endowment institutions (Huwaydi 1992). This perspective is critical of the use of the Western conceptual lenses to define and view the Middle Eastern civil society or to measure such society up to the Western ideals (Karajah 2007). Some of the literature within this strand also addressed the differences between the various countries in the region, effectively calling into question thinking the Middle East as a singular homogenous unit. Still recognizing the cultural specificities of the region, they at the same time sought to discern the origin and evolution of the institutional phenomena in relation with the colonial legacies, political and ideological underpinnings of state formation, and the resultant policies under which civil associational life has evolved in different countries. Contrary to received cultural biases about the Middle East, these studies suggest that the weakened state of contemporary civil society in the region is “within reason.” The authoritarian nature of the ruling regimes in the Middle East, the cooptation strategies and corporatist arrangements they employ, and the “rentier” character of the economies across the region are cited as reasons for hindering the emergence of a robust civil society.

The third line of thinking underscores the region’s social structure, centered on family, kinship, and social networks, and how these serve as the primary determinants to the evolution of both the civil society and social capital. Singerman (2006b, p. 1) eloquently argued that in the Middle Eastern context, notions of civil society emphasizing the social networks and family, rather than voluntary associations, better capture the essence of civic life in the region. This strand of thinking about civil society resonates with Putnam’s definition of social capital: the connections among individuals whereby norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness arise (Putnam 1993). Looking into the literature on social capital, one may be left with the impression that the Middle Eastern region is richer in terms of social capital more than civil society, which remains only a mere shadow, if present at all, when compared with its Western counterpart. Some literature suggests that the coercive policies of the “fierce” states across the Middle East particularly prior to Arab Spring may have hindered the existing social capital to open up space for civic engagements (Auybi 1995).

Looking at the entire Middle East from even a broader perspective, the eminent historian Fernand Braudel suggests that the region’s “uniqueness” is probably owed to its history above anything else; not for being exceedingly long, but for the fact that warfare and conquests have been its inseparable companions (Braudel 1993, pp. 41–54). Endlessly renewing themselves with fleeting times of serenity in-between, wars and conquests compose an almost unaltered story for the Middle East. The Assyrians, Persians, Greek, Romans, Byzantium, Arabs, Seljuk, Mongols, Crusades, Ottoman Turks, and the European colonizing powers, all either gained dominance or waged wars in various historical periods. Such unparalleled history combined with the region’s landscape, vast stretches of empty desert separated by densely populated areas, seem to have conspired to create the perilous world of the Middle East, where insecurity and scarcity are definitive features (Braudel 1993, pp. 41–54). The region’s insecurity, some would argue, is the overriding, trans-temporal force molding the social structures of the Middle East. The well-known Arab “tribalism” or “familism” is not a cultural trait, as some Orientalists once claimed, but rather an adaptive response to insecurity, under which “family” serves as a political resource (Sayigh 1981). Whereas individual self-interest, freedom, and independence are the hallmarks of Western liberal ideologies, kinship and family in the Arab World are cited as the more valid units of society by the mainstream sociologists, anthropologists, and political scientists (Bill and Leiden 1984). These units seem to provide the element of stability, a basis for communal solidarity, that people in the region use to counterbalance the deep-seated elements of instability and insecurity.

Civil society and social capital in the Middle East are the products of the region’s history and landscape. Not being well endowed by nature, the wealth of the Middle East has been historically based above everything else on commerce and trade movement and transit (Braudel 1993, p. 62). No wonder, the first civil association we encounter in Middle Eastern history, known as “commanda,” was an association between merchants to organize trade, and dates back to the time of the Prophet Mohammed (Braudel 1992, p. 556). Ismael (1997, p. 2) recounts that the peak of such form of association was reached during the Islamic dynasty period of Abbasids, from about 723 to 945 A.D. The bourgeoisie classes then flourished in the urban centers across the region alongside the growth in factories, markets, commerce, and crafts. While windmills, glass and porcelain factories mushroomed in Baghdad, textile, crystal, wax, metal, paper, and boats industries blossomed in Egypt (Hassan 1967, p. 462). The business activities these involved spurred the emergence of numerous autonomous civil associations or guilds (asnaf) (Ismael 1997). Associations formed during that time derived their autonomy from an independent legal and judicial system. Their expansion seemed part of the then thriving economy and a growing culture of knowledge that the ruling leaders laid the basis for with increasing translations into Arabic from the Greek sciences and philosophy. Braudel (1992, p. 160) argued that one might say of Islam the same that Max Weber theorized about Protestantism: “it has been suggested that Islamic law and the Islamic ideal of society shaped themselves from the very first in accordance with the ideas and aims of a rising merchant class.”

Parallel to the associations of merchants and businesses, the institutions of endowment, awakf (plural), emerged as the long-standing anchor of civil life in the region from the fifth century and until the early nineteenth century. Through these institutions, the wealthy and notables dedicated land, buildings, or other possessions for public benefit, financing public utilities, hospitals, schools, universities, infrastructure projects, houses, and research institutions. These charitable institutions also extended to feeding the birds, sheltering of stray animals, accommodation for wayfarers, and the provision of water for humans and beasts of burden alike (El-Karanshawy 2003, p. xx). Endowments were managed solely by independent judges, whom their legal and financial autonomy were almost sacred. Abou El Fadl (2001, p. xvi) recounts that the independent institutions of juristic nature that emerged within the first 300 years of Islam served the roles that we, more or less, attribute to civil society today, which entailed then, as it does now, mediating between the public and political elites and between these and other social and commercial elites.

Notwithstanding the earlier associations, most scholars take the mid-nineteenth century as their point of departure for the region’s history with civil associations based on the European model of civil society that emerged in Egypt and Lebanon, the first was the Greek Society in 1821 in Egypt (Abdelrahman 2004, p. 123). Richard and Waterbury (1990, p. 47) assert that significant state and class transformation in the Middle East’s modern history began in the mid- to late-nineteenth century with European penetration into Middle Eastern markets. The increasing trade relations with Europe during that period resulted in the emergence of a new bourgeoisie class of traders, merchants, and artisans, who gradually dominated the middle class at the cost of religious clerics and traditional wealthy families (Clark 2000, p. 9). The associations they founded, though they remained primarily charitable in nature, represented a clear deviation from the earlier forms of private endowment, and epitomized more the working-class secular endeavors with associations. It was not long, however, before another significant shift in the character of the middle classes across the region took root. Upon attaining independence from colonial powers, the nationalist regimes that followed promoted public education to provide the civil servants needed to carry out their directives, increasing numbers of salaried employees – teachers, physicians, students, technocrats, journalists, and army officers. These new professional population groups began to outweigh the merchants and traders and changed the outlook of the region’s middle classes (Clark 2000, pp. 10–11). The boundaries between the new white-collared and the old merchant-dominated middle classes have, however, remained highly fluid and overlapping. For the new middle class, having little wealth yet seeking to play larger roles in their societies, “civil associations” were among their means to move forward. They continued to promote civil associations, particularly in response to the emerging new needs for social, education, and health services.

The Middle East is thus like elsewhere: the middle classes have been standing behind the formation and evolution of the civil society, and the character of the middle classes have been changing over time in relation with socio-economic circumstances and state policies. While new classes emerged and started to rise, older ones declined. Bill and Springborg (2000) conceptualized that social structure in the Middle East is an intricate web of vertical and horizontal stratifications – those based on family and tribe (vertical stratification), and those based on class (horizontal stratification).

Civil Society

Linguistically, the term “Al-ahly,” denoting “family and relatives,” altogether, is widely heard in the Arab Middle East as a reference to the nonprofit sector. In Arabic language, the term “Al-ahly” denotes the “intimacy” with which philanthropic behavior of individuals and organizational practices have been culturally determined. The term captures the essence and historical underpinnings of that sector in the region, better than the term “madany,” which is the direct translation of “civil” in the English language. Although the media and international organizations promote the latter as a substitute to the homegrown concept, the public continues to misperceive the term as deriving from the word “city,” in English language. Kandil (1994) coins the word “indigenous” as the English equivalent widely used within the Arab region. Whereas some scholars see that the more intimate connotations of the term “al-ahly” historically conferred the region great advantages for a thriving civic life, Karajah (2007, p. 4) considers that such connotations that give preeminence to family and clan ties stifle the development of a “civil” society as currently defined in Western terms.

Abdelrahman (2004, p. 79) contends that a distinguishing feature of associations in the Middle East, vis-à-vis their western counterparts, is that they did not arise out of class conflict or in counterbalance of the government. Rather than confrontation or pressure, the degree of autonomy of civil associations is a function of how much freedom the state allows. The reason that most discussions of civil society in the Middle East are centered on the nongovernmental and voluntary organizations, with only few references to syndicates, labor unions, or political parties, is the heavy control of the state apparatus on the latter, which includes legislation that the regimes invented to forge their hegemony. The “low-membership” civil associations such as NGOs are more prominent than the “high-membership” organizations such as the political parties. Although NGOs in the region provide valuable services in diverse realms, they also tend to segment and disperse, rather than coalesce and amplify, political power (King-Irani 2000, p. 1). “Whereas resistance groups and popular unions of students, workers, and professionals in the 70s arose from and reflected broad-based movements…proclaiming unabashedly political objectives, NGOs reflect the fragmentation and segmentation of a wide popular base and the de-politicization of popular discourse” (King-Irani 2000, p. 1). In a similar vein, Marzuk (1997, pp. 191–202) sees NGOs’ evolution as more of a horizontal accumulation of organizations with little decisive effect on the established political and social landscape.

The rise of Islamism in the early twentieth century has had an important influence on civil associations in the Middle East. It inspired, and remains an inspiration to, a large number of NGOs. The traditional charitable and social service associations, often infused with religious and family overtones, dominate the sector across the region; estimates of these traditional forms range between 30% and 50% across the region (Kandil 1995). Health, education, direct assistance to the poor, and catering for the needs of orphans and disabled children are the main vocations of these associations. The “gap-filling” conception seems to hold sway in the region: associations flourish where states are weak or lack popular support; this is the case, for example, in Algeria, Palestine, Lebanon, Yemen, and Sudan. The situation is different in countries where governments deliver services more effectively, as the oil-rich Gulf States exemplify.

The variations in size, scope, and structure of the sector in the region reflect a wide array of historical underpinnings and policy choices that the various countries made over the past five decades or so. Generally, associations in the region are characterized as being few in number, carrying little weight, elitist, undemocratic, and marked by patronage relations with both the governments and population they serve (Ben Nefissa 2001, p. 12). One trend to note is the slow, but steady, increase in the use of social media and the internet by civil society groups and activists to compose statements, distribute anonymous political messages to targeted audiences, particularly young supporters, and to mobilize followers for demonstrations. Statistics on the region (UNDP 2016) indicate that two-thirds of the Arab region’s population is below 30 years of age, half of which falls within the 15–29-year age bracket. Furthermore, today’s generation of young people is more educated, active and connected to the outside world, and hence has a greater awareness of their realities and higher aspirations for a better future. The Arab region, which is experiencing an unprecedented escalation of conflicts that undermine development gains and in some instances reverse progress, still scores lower than the world average on the Human Development Indicators. The analysis of human development seems to indicate that inequality is rising in Arab countries, most widely in terms of education.

Social Capital

The Middle East is endowed with a rich and pervasive network of family and kinship relationships and social networks which constitute the many manifestations of social capital in the region. Nevertheless, social capital remains a contested concept in the Middle Eastern context, presenting a debate no less polarized than the debate on civil society. Bourdieu (1986, pp. 241–258) viewed it as an instrument that the privileged in a region where a “rentier” economy is commonplace use to wield power and gain economic benefits. For the less privileged, social capital then becomes a survival mechanism that they use to help themselves overcome inequalities and gain access to goods and services that are otherwise inaccessible. Singerman (1997, p. 172) confirms this view based on her research in urban Cairo. She sees that the role of the prevalent social networks at community level is “to organize individual consumers and households into a more powerful, collective body, to increase access and influence of men and women in the society, over scarce private and public goods.”

Using the case of Egypt, Singerman (2006a, p. 17) explains the prevalence of informal networks not merely as a cultural phenomenon, but also as deriving from the “historical legacy of intentional political exclusion by the State, which benefits some of its citizens and harms others.” She contends that the abundant informal social networks are a consequence of the State’s policies that constrict and limit avenues for citizens to exercise formal and legal politics. Joseph (1983, pp. 1–22) supports this viewpoint based on her research with the working class in Lebanon, where she views family-based networks serving as the resource of the popular classes to provide security where economic and political uncertainties are ever-present. She contends that the family affiliations give individuals identity, loyalty, physical protection, and the basis for creating a political community.

Whereas these researches in Egypt and Lebanon view the positive role of social networks and families at the lower stratum of Middle Eastern societies, Bill and Leiden (1984, p. 90) contend that family and kinship are part of a domineering patriarchal system where unquestionable obedience to the leader is the norm, power relations are difficult to alter and the class consciousness of individuals is limited. They argue that the underlying family and traditional social systems, so rigid as they are, make class conflict, often the agent of transformation, unviable and societal change in any realm as difficult as chipping away at pieces of the mosaic.

Family, kinship, and social networks in the Middle East may be viewed as contributing to what Putnam (2000) coined “bonding social capital” whereby intragroup ties are more notable than the “bridging social capital,” the linkages that connect different groups together (Singerman 1997), however, suggests that social networks involve both types of bonding and bridging social capital. She mentions that members of the informal social networks she encountered intentionally extend membership to the more powerful stakeholders such as communal and national institutions. In contrast, Khalf (1986, p. 14) suggests that the strong “bonding social capital” within the various factions and groups in Lebanon vis-à-vis the scarcity of “bridging social capital,” was the nation’s predicament that led to the outbreak of civil war and the erosion of civic ties and national loyalties.

In a nutshell, it is legitimate to say that social capital in the region is an abundant resource within an intricate web of social networks, family and kinship relations. In the region’s context, it may be useful to look at social capital from James Coleman’s perspective that social capital is conceptually neutral, and its use would determine its function and direction in any given place (Coleman 1988, pp. 95–120). Most research on the subject in the Middle East is limited to analyzing the role of family, kinship, and social networks at the community level in the creation of social capital, while the aggregate function of social capital at larger levels of nations remains unclear. The “bonding” dimension of social capital to cultivate reciprocity, trust, and solidarity among the politically excluded and marginalized communities seems more dominant and influential, than the “bridging” one. This may be understood in relation to the particular social structures in the region that tend to reinforce exclusive identity within family and kin, or the fact that social capital, under the authoritarian regimes in the region, tends to lock itself within the safer boundaries of families and kin relations.


The Arab Spring, Democratization, and the Future of Civil Society and Social Capital

Since 2011, the Arab Spring and its aftermath have certainly been a watershed in the history of civil society and social capital in the Middle East for at least two important reasons. One is that it changed the mainstream assumption and view of the Middle East as a non-changing region where democracy and liberty are alien, and shifted the focus of research on the region from the ruling dictatorship states and their policies to the civil society and social capital and their role in stirring wide-ranging changes. Second, it altered the landscape for civil society in the region by unsettling the entrenched coercive authoritarian regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Libya, forcing political reform in Morocco, Algeria, and Jordan, and inspiring change in Syria, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and Sudan. The bottom-up force for change that the uprisings heralded, despite observed setbacks that may be viewed as transitory in their culmination, can be a starting point for expanding the space for popular political participation for the region’s population, a field in which civil society can play multiple roles. The Arab Spring represents nonviolent trends and movements which (Bayat 2013, p. Loc. 6072) called post-Islamism that aim to bridge the gap between democracy and contemporary Muslim society.

Having emerged in contestation of the entrenched authoritarianism that offered no opportunities for political organization or action, the uprisings had weak involvement of formal civil organizations, the exception being the Tunisian General Federation of Labor (Beinin 2016). The sheer force behind the Arab Spring was new forms of civic associations of youth groups and social media advocacy circles that mobilized ordinary citizens into what resembles a social movement calling for change. The Arab Spring provided evidence of the existence of a potentially great stock of social capital in the region beyond family and kin relations. Much of the dissent and activism came from online networks, tribal affiliates, neighborhood circles, and otherwise unaffiliated youths who associated together, social capital that could not find expressions in civil associations in the pre-uprising era due to the repressive policies hindering people’s free associations. Some analysts contend that such capital is not fully evident yet, a great part of it still dormant in social media networks, and that the current state of inertia may only signal its search for a new wave of contestation for democracy (Hussain and Howard 2013, pp. 48–66).

The notion that civil society is essential for a democracy to thrive dates back to the 1800s (Tocqueville 2003). Although a number of studies, e.g., Berman (1997, pp. 401–429), produced evidence that this notion is only true if strong and responsive political institutions are in place, otherwise strengthened civil society may serve to undermine, rather than strengthen political regimes, Western democracies embraced strategies since the 1990s to strengthen civil society in the Middle East as a means to build momentum for a bottom-up democratic change (Hawthorne 2004, p. 44). The Arab Spring that ensued in 2011, however, produced clear evidence that civil society in the Arab world is not necessarily a force for democratic change, the majority rather promote the status quo or be simply apolitical in the whole (Hamid 2011). Pollard (2014) concludes that on account of the nature of Middle Eastern regimes civil society is more a key dependent rather than independent variable, i.e., it is the expansion of democracy that facilitates more vibrant, liberal and secular civil societies in the region and not the converse. This seems in line with the contention that participation in voluntary associations does not always equate with political liberalism (Armony 2004). Moreover, ample evidence from multiple Middle Eastern countries is that under the authoritarian regimes in place, the basic attributes to social capital as literature draw, e.g., high levels of interpersonal trust, a desire to engage in civic action, and indeed a belief in the desirability and efficacy of democratic institutions themselves – are not particularly widespread among people who belong to and work within civic associations in the region (Jamal 2007). Such evidence suggests that Putnam’s conventional theory that civic participation helps promote democracy is valid only where liberal democracy is already in place.

Rather than pointing to weak civil society as a cause for the democratic deficit in the Middle East, views of entrenched Orientalists, e.g. (Karatnycky 2002; Huntington 1996), link religion and culture with the democratic stalemate in the region. However, other researchers like Esposito and Voll (1996), based on surveying the democratic process in six Islamic nation-states, point to the contrary: that Islam is not antithetical to democratization. The results of an in-depth Gallup survey in ten predominantly Muslim countries, representing more than 80% of the global Muslim population, published in 2007 showed not only a wide support for democratic values but also that that the substantial majorities in Muslim societies believe that men and women should have equal rights, and freedom of speech should be a basic right to all citizens (Gallup Report 2006). Inglehart and Norris (2003, pp. 62–70) rejects Huntington’s thesis of cultural/religious impasse for democracy in the Middle East, arguing that gender equality and sexual liberalization represent the real fault line between the West and Muslim World. He contends that culture cannot be treated as a destiny, rather a more favorable environment for democracy can develop if the underdevelopment gap, particularly as related to human development in the Muslim World, can be bridged. Along that same line of analysis, Fish (2002, pp. 4–37) argued that Muslim societies are not less “secular” than non-Muslim societies but the subordination of women is the one factor that does help explain the democratic deficit. Stepan and Robertson (2004, pp. 140–146), analyzing data relevant to electoral competitiveness across the Muslim World, found strong correlation that the non-Arab Muslim world has for the last 30 years with electoral competitiveness much more than the Arab Muslim world, concluding that it is Arab, not Islam, to explain the weakness of democracy in the Muslim World, where more than half of its population, despite their greater poverty than Arab population, live under electorally competitive regimes.

Taking into account the historical and current socioeconomic and political factors in the Middle East, the growth of civil society is only likely to take place under certain circumstances. Establishing peace across the region will be conducive to the development of a vibrant civil society as was seen in post-World War II Europe. In addition to this, the health of civil society in the Middle East will depend upon the extent to which the ruling regimes in the region can come to terms with a modernity project of which civil society is an essential element. In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, the pace with which political liberalization may ensue will determine the new territories for civil society’s action. Central to this in the Middle East is whether or not Islamists can be assimilated within civil society and whether they will accept its definitions and terms of references. Moreover, the future of civil society will largely depend on the extent to which the full potential of women in the region can be realized and reconcile the conflicting demands that modernization pursuits places on women against the more conservative cultural heritage in the region. Finally, civil society in the Middle East will only grow if the economies will advance in ways that move away from the “rentier” model, provide opportunities for the low-income population to move upward, and achieve higher levels of living standards and income levels.



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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Center for Development ServicesCairoEgypt

Section editors and affiliations

  • Regina A. List
    • 1
  1. 1.HamburgGermany