This book is predicated on the belief that a thriving civil society is a necessary but not sufficient requirement for the emergence of democracy. By examining the development, current health and future of civil society, it is thus possible to estimate the potential for democratization. This is as true for Middle Eastern states as for others, argues the editor of this new volume. He goes on to suggest that civil society is alive and evolving in the Middle East. Political space is opening up, new non-state actors are emerging in record numbers, and authoritarian state structures are on the run. As a result, democratization is possible and even probable in a region that on the surface appears closed to political reform.
Unabashedly upbeat and liberal, the authors describe a set of Middle East states in ferment, experiencing "persistent crises of governance," such that each is moving toward some type of political reform in their decaying structures. Seemingly caught between competing paradigms of liberalism and Islamism, these societies are working out their own mixture of state/civil-society relations. In some cases (Palestine, Kuwait), civil society is strong and the hope for the emergence of pluralism and democracy is high. In others (Egypt, Tunisia, Syria), extensive restrictions, fear and cooptation mark the state/civil-society nexus, providing a more pessimistic prognosis.
Yet, however bleak the current status of civil society, it is clear to the authors that political space is being carved out by a variety of factors. Economic requirements in the international system are forcing states to adjust internally, creating room for the growth of civil society. Islamic fundamentalism, perceived by many as the antithesis of civil society, actually contains within its complexity some support for it. Other positive factors include the increase in the domestic demands for the right of the individual to be free from the state, the calls for regime accountability and performance, and the insistence by emerging important constituencies (businessmen, organized labor, women, human-rights advocates) for a voice in politics.
Armed with a common definition - though not always a shared understanding - of civil society, each author sets out to assess its health in a particular case study. Since this is the first book of a two-part study growing out of a "Civil Society in the Middle East" program at New York University (1992-94), only some of the cases are contained in this volume. Along with the introduction and a discussion of "Civil Society and Prospects of Democratization in the Arab World," the book lays out the economic imperatives for hope and explores the complexity of Islamist perspectives on state-societal relations. The case studies cover Tunisia, Jordan, Kuwait, Syria, Palestine and Egypt (Volume Two, also scheduled for 1995 release, should include nine other countries and additional papers).
Overall the book is a worthwhile addition to comparative political analysis on the Middle East. The discussion of particular countries is of good quality, and the analysis of the interaction of state and civil society thought-provoking. The articles on Syria, Jordan and Tunisia are particularly insightful. Those looking for informed discussion of recent political reform within Middle Eastern states can find it here.
A number of underlying problems, however, mar an otherwise useful and well-written volume. The book never deals adequately with the deeper theoretical substructure of the concept on which it is built, leaving the analysis at times superficial, often confusing and tending toward the idealistic. A simple manifestation is in the multiple and often conflicting uses of the term "civil society," even within the work of a single author. Such confusion is symptomatic of an underlying problem of poor definition emerging from inadequate conceptualization.
The definition of civil society suggested by the editor has three important components: (1) a "melange of associations, clubs, guilds, syndicates, federations, unions, parties and groups... provid[ing] a buffer between state and citizen"; (2) a shared boundary definition in the community along with explicit rights and responsibilities such that "citizenship" can be defined and articulated by both state and civil society; (3) a quality that Norton calls "civility," a "willingness to live and Jet live" regulating the interaction among the associations.
To illustrate the difficulties and implications of poor conceptualization, let us focus on the first of these components and highlight four issues that arise. The first is the question of exactly what "units of analysis" are being discussed, since there is a failure to clearly define the concept "associations." Since the listing of examples is the only form of definition available, are we to assume permanent boundaries and a high degree of internal cohesion for these entities across time and issue, such that they are non-cooperative with other associations? If we say that these types are significant and not others, important civil-society/state dynamics may be missed or one type of actor emphasized over another.
The specific role of NGOs in development and in mediating the state-grassroots interface is lost in this collection, since the status of political parties as a crucial indicator of the health of civil society is never challenged. The articles on Egypt and Palestine in particular could use greater attention to the role of NGOs. In the Palestinian case, NGOs, as opposed to political parties, were the crucial agents for change during the occupation. Yet they are lumped with political shops and popular organizations, thus obscuring much of the more interesting aspects of the case.
A second problem arises regarding the "linking" role civil society plays between state and citizen. Expressed in the term "buffer," the concept is undefined anywhere else in the book. What does it mean structurally? If this is simply another word for broker, why not draw on structural analysis for a detailed discussion of competing types of brokerage other than the "protection" implied in the term "buffer"? For example, Roger Gould and Roberto Fernandez in "Structure of Mediation: A Formal Approach to Brokerage in Transaction Networks," (Sociological Methodology, 1990) present five ideal types of brokerage roles that could be considered, based on questions of agency and boundary specification (unfortunately neither of which is directly discussed in this book): liaison, representative, gatekeeper, itinerant broker and coordinator. Perhaps buffer means gatekeeper, but NGOs, for example, can play all five roles, sometimes concurrently, in the interstices between the state and the grass roots.
The intermediary role for associations could imply the straightforward transfer of power and resources downward from the state to the people. This leaves a vast set of questions unanswered; for example, whether Islamist organizations "link" in the same way as NGOs or unions. Various authors imply that traditional and modem forms of association differ, yet they can serve a similar buffer function. Is this actually true? To what degree and over what issues? How does such an intermediary role vary across different contents (transfer of power versus sources of information) or as regimes change. Finally, are such intermediary roles one way or asymmetrical, and across what issues? To understand political phenomena in complex networks, it is usually more important to understand the links between entities than the dynamics within them. Little of this is teased out explicitly by the authors of the case studies, and it is not dealt with by the editor.
A third problem is that this study seeks to understand the nature of civil society without discussing the problems of "coming together" among the associations themselves. Is it possible to draw conclusions about the ability of civil society to resist state pressure or manipulate state structures without understanding the nature of networking among the associations? It would be useful to know what types of networking arrangements are helpful in resisting state attack. The networking of networks that is the hallmark of political organizing and class formation is missing in this analysis. Where does it begin, and what types of structures are best for "coming together"?
Finally, a fourth problem lies in using associations as indicators of changes in or the emergence of civil society. Unfortunately, in a number of instances authors equate either a simple increase in the number of associations in a system or the appearance of a greater diversity of types of associations with the development or expansion of civil society. Such a facile assumption ignores the very argument at the core of the book that civil society is "a set of associations with an attitude." More important, arguing for the emergence of civil society based on numbers and poorly defined types helps create a rosy picture of the potential and growth of civil society that may not actually be valid. Despite the protestations of reserve, this book is positive about the growth of civil society. A more rigorous definition and application of the concept might have muted the enthusiasm.
There are similar difficulties with the other two aspects of civil society. As indicated in an offhand remark by the editor, "the concept of civil society is resistant to analytical precision." Yet this should not stand in the way of clearly presenting the concept, delineating its component subconcepts, and then drawing conclusions from the cases based on the framework employed. The problem is that the analysis in this book operates on two levels. In terms of general political analysis the book has strong merit, with most of the articles helping the reader understand some of the ways in which Middle Eastern states and certain types of non-state institutions have interacted over the last 20 years, along with some of the constraints and opportunities that may exist for political reform. At this level the editor's goal of "nudging the policy debate" may have been achieved.
On a deeper social-science level, however, when the collection seeks to "jar" the framework for analyzing Middle Eastern politics by helping us understand an important class of political phenomena, the arguments remain muddled. Although a number of the articles are more careful than others at conceptualization and specifying assumptions (Syria, Jordan and Kuwait), all of them could use more attention to conceptual clarity.
The book attempts to understand the nature, dynamics and implications of a particular set of power structures without employing any clear analytic sense of structures and structural dynamics. The reader is left confused about important dynamics in state/civil-society relations, unclear as to what civil society actually is, and questioning the book's sanguine view of the democratic imperative in the region.
Despite the lack of a rigorous theoretical foundation, however, the book is extremely useful for understanding the diversity of state cooptation techniques, the stages of state-party interaction, or state fears of decentralization. Its greatest service is in demonstrating the complexity of political reform and in exposing some of the mechanisms by which authoritarian states seek to retain control.
One minor complaint to the publisher: The typeface and the run-together words and strange spacing patterns between or within words lead to some distortions that call attention to the many typos. By the middle of the book this becomes irritating indeed.