The purpose of this paper is to explore the impact of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) on international relations in the Middle East. It is organized in the following manner: First, the concepts of civil society and NGOs are defined and placed in their larger societal setting. Second, to put the later discussion in context, the actual experience of selected Middle Eastern countries with NGOs is explored. Third, the impact of NGOs on international relations today and in the future is probed from the perspective of their influence on states’ policies as well as their reach across borders. The role of international NGOs is also briefly mentioned.
CIVIL SOCIETY AND NGOs
Jean Cohen and Andrew Arato in their seminal work Civil Society and Political Theory define “civil society” as “. . . a sphere of social interaction between economy and state, composed above all of the intimate sphere (especially the family), the sphere of associations (especially voluntary associations [i.e., NGOs]), social movements and forms of public communication.” On the one hand, they distinguish civil society from political society (parties, parliament, etc.) and economic society (organizations of production, partnerships, etc.). On the other, they insist that the elements of civil society are not of the informal type, but only those that are, or are in the process of becoming, institutionalized.
Finally, Cohen and Arato
. . . stress that under liberal democracies, it would be a mistake to see civil society in opposition to the economy and state by definition. [Their] notions of economic and political society refer to mediating spheres through which civil society can gain influence over political-administrative and economic processes. An antagonistic relation of civil society, or its actors, to the economy or the state arises only when these mediations fail or when the institutions of economic and political society serve to insulate decision making and decision makers from the influence of social organizations, initiatives and forms of public discussion.1
Taking the subject from a slightly different perspective, Mustapha K. al-Sayyid of Cairo University lays down three minimal conditions that must be met before it can be said that civil society exists: the presence of formal organizations of various types among different social groups and classes; an ethic of tolerance and acceptance by the majority of minority legitimate rights, no matter how such minorities are defined; and limitations on arbitrary exercise of state authority. Undoubtedly, such criteria are not met entirely in any society, nor is it conceivable to find a society in which all three conditions are totally missing. It is safe to assume, however, that these conditions are largely met in liberal democracies.2
Both studies agree on the position and place of civil society. Al-Sayyid, however, would differ with Cohen and Arato; he asserts that it is a contradiction to say that a civil society exists where a distinct degree of tolerance is not present or where state authority is oppressive. His is a more value-laden or normative definition. Cohen and Arato (and this writer) disagree, they contending that elements of civil society can still be present, but that they are just in an antagonistic relationship with the state or economy rather than in a cooperative or mediating one. Returning to NGOs per se, both studies would agree that NGOs may exist irrespective of whether society is civil. Also, neither is asserting that a state should establish a laissez-faire environment for NGOs. They would both likely agree with John Keane: “Democratization is neither the outright enemy nor the unconditional friend of state power. It requires the state to govern civil society neither too much nor too little, [because] while a more democratic order cannot be built through state power, it cannot be built without state power.”3 From a slightly different perspective, this view of government partly meets one of al-Sayyid’s criteria that society has to be tolerant. The state can help with this, but it cannot guarantee it. But, the state is not necessarily just a hindrance or possibly a neutral force with respect to the existence of civil society. The state can contribute to its existence.
NGOs are important components of civil society – formal associations of different kinds found among various social classes. More broadly, they are community, regional and national groups that bring people together for the purpose of rendering services, solving community problems, observing religious belief, cultivating social and cultural pursuits, and communicating ideas in the community, regional, national or transnational arenas. Where they exist, they serve as a place where people combine their energies to resolve problems and address issues such as health care, job creation for the poor and deprived, education and rehabilitation of the handicapped. They may also focus on respect for human rights, population and demographic issues, the environment and civil rights.
But the role of NGOs is more than just the function or ideals each pursues. They also contribute to society as a whole. First, because many work at the grass-roots level, they are often in a position to reach those afflicted with poverty, the deprived of nation, region and village. Thus, they play a significant role in social and economic development. And they are a means for expressing common people’s needs. They are also part of the social safety net that every country requires.
Second, they help give structure to society. In addition to family, they provide formal groups, which people can relate to, participate in and benefit from. They are places where leadership can be nourished, not only for civil society but also for the political and economic arenas.
Third, NGOs help develop and sustain democracy. One cannot argue that civil society and NGOs produce democracy, but we do know that the existence of civil society is associated with the existence of democracy. We are not aware of any democracy with success over time that has not also enjoyed a flourishing civil society.
NGOs AND THE STATE IN THE MIDDLE EAST
During the Ottoman period, the Middle East was made up of a thin layer of civil society sandwiched between the state – a military-fiscal apparatus imposed by conquest – and a fragmented society. The civil society consisted of waqfs, sufi orders, churches and synagogues, guilds in urban areas and occasional water-use associations in the rural regions.4 The twentieth century, especially the last three to four decades, has witnessed a rapid growth of civil society in most countries, especially NGOs. However, each set of NGOs and the other components of civil society have had a profoundly different environment in which to operate and thus quite different experiences. To limit the scope of this survey, only the state of NGOs in Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine (West Bank and Gaza) and Syria will be characterized.
- Egypt has a rich array of NGOs from clubs to charities, religious groups to professional associations, cultural centers to advocacy organizations numbering in the thousands. Their experience in the country, though, is mixed, to say the least. The state has always sought to control them. The Egyptian NGO law is one of the most restrictive in the world; it allows the state, if it so wills, to completely control or eliminate individual NGOs. And it exercises this authority largely in light of the threat it perceives from an NGO. The tools it uses are constraints on registration and restrictions on NGO activities and freedom of expression. Most NGOs are left to operate with only “normal” government oversight. Others though are not allowed to register or may be closed at the will of the state.
The actual reason for such state actions is usually that the NGO has a religious or political orientation that the state does not like. Fundamentalists, leftists and liberal critics of the regime are the usual targets. It should be noted that in many situations the NGOs, whatever their orientation, are more able to deliver essential services than is the government. Thus, aside from the constant desire by the government for control, it is also embarrassed by the NGOs greater capability and capacity to act. In a particularly egregious act of “control,” the Egyptian government, during 2000, jailed Saad al-Din Ibrahim, a noted intellectual and leader in democratization and civil-society circles. He was also president of the Ibu Khaldun Center, an NGO whose focus is on the promotion of civil society.
In sum, due to state constraints on many organizations as well as on freedom of expression, one must conclude that a portion of civil society is in confrontation with the Egyptian state. Al-Sayyid, cited above, even concludes that the requisites for civil society do not exist.5
- In Syria, NGOs are even more constrained than in Egypt. While some certainly exist, most are associated with the state or the ruling party. One does not hear about independent activity on the part of Syrian NGOs, thus they fall outside the standard definition of NGOs as part of civil society. It follows from this that, at this time, they have virtually no independent impact on international relations. From a legal standpoint, as in Egypt, there are stringent limitations on registration and freedom of expression.6
- Israel, Jordan and Lebanon have similar civil societies, each with its own unique qualities. Zionists formed a plethora of NGOs in the early part of the twentieth century, some of which evolved into organs of the Israeli state in the late 1940s. It has been said that Israel was built on the back of the kibbutzim, its unique form of cooperatives. After independence, the state has been largely tolerant of NGOs and often delivers services through them. In the last two decades or so, Israeli NGOs have enjoyed considerable growth in their reach and variety. Equally, Israeli Arabs have started to become a part of Israeli civil society as they establish numerous village charities, clubs and associations, some of which have a national character.
- In Jordan, a large variety of NGOs participate in a vibrant civil society. While Jordanian NGOs have been active locally and nationally for years, they have experienced exponential growth in the last two decades. While the social and economic need and desire for more NGOs is certainly a contributing factor, the partial democratic opening of the country during the last decade has contributed as well. In the continuum of relations with the state, the Jordanian NGOs would fall on Cohen and Arato’s liberal democracy end as opposed to the confrontational one. The government frequently involves itself in local social or welfare NGOs, seconding an employee to the NGO or giving it funds. Some national NGOs are closely related to the Hashemite Royal Court. Their chair may be a queen, prince or princess, and they may receive funds from the royal purse. International aid donors also favor these “royal” NGOs.
Some other NGOs are in partial confrontation with the Jordanian state, for example, the various professional syndicates (associations of engineers, journalists, doctors, etc.), which together have a union of syndicates. At times dominated by fundamentalist or religious conservatives, this group of NGOs has taken active positions on issues, both domestic and regional, in opposition to Jordanian government policies. Another category consists of religious groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, that both deliver social services to the poor and take political positions opposed to the government. While the Muslim Brotherhood is officially an NGO and not a political party, it identifies with the leading Islamist party in Jordan.
- Lebanese NGOs operate in a virtual laissez-faire atmosphere. Hundreds existed before the civil war. Indeed, they dominated many functions often performed by the state in neighboring countries, such as the delivery of education and health care. Many are associated with one of the Lebanese religious sects. Depending on the geographical location and the mission of the religious-based NGO, many deliver services to members of other sects, especially the larger schools and health facilities. During the civil war, with the virtual collapse of the state, most social services fell to them. Realizing the NGOs’ ability to reach people at the grass roots, many political factions sought to form their own service organizations. Some of these survived the civil war; others fell by the wayside. There were reports that the Lebanese government was considering passing a law restricting NGO activities, but it has not done so.
Due to the continued weakness of the state and the evident desire of the Lebanese people for social services, it is highly likely the Lebanese NGOs will continue to dominate the educational, health and welfare sectors. Palestinian NGOs are the heroes of the military occupation and first intifada (198792). Prior to 1967, just as in the rest of Jordan, the West Bank had flourishing charities, clubs, Arab Women’s Unions, associations and the like. In Gaza, though, the number of NGOs was much more limited among the largely refugee population under Egyptian administration. In the many years subsequent to 1967, the Palestinian NGOs multiplied and came to play an indispensable role in the delivery of essential services as well as constituting places where people could come together and resolve societal and economic problems. All of this was undertaken despite a relatively hostile state atmosphere. While constraints on NGOs varied over the years of direct Israeli military rule, suffice to say the relationship was largely confrontational.
Registration of new NGOs was frequently problematic and their activities often constrained. Recognizing the importance of NGOs, in the early 1980s the Israeli military government even tried to foster its own groups, the much-despised Village Leagues. And during the early months of the first intifada, the military government even outlawed the popular committees, a new type of NGO that had gained considerable popularity in the 1980s. While the contrast is not absolute, the Likud government put far more constraints on and roadblocks in the way of Palestinian NGOs than did the Labor governments. From another perspective, many Palestinian NGOs had strong relations with outside groups. They received financial and technical assistance from Jordan and other Arab countries and international NGOs (INGOs). Also, as in Lebanon, political factions saw the value of NGOs. Accordingly, they formed some of their own and attempted to take over the leadership of others. Despite or perhaps because of the above, Palestinian NGOs have flowered, especially during the last two decades.
In the post-Oslo period, since 1993, the relationship between the Palestine National Authority and the NGOs has evolved, at times in a state of tension. The PNA brought with it the Egyptian and Syrian mindset about NGOs. It wanted to dominate the political and social scene and did not want competition from NGOs, especially the successful national ones that often had their own political agenda. The PNA did not confront many of the smaller NGOs such as agricultural cooperatives, village or town-based educational, health and welfare charities and the like. It did assert its right to control, but for the most part did not interfere in a heavy-handed manner.
There was a long, at times strident, debate over various draft NGO laws. One draft was modeled after the restrictive Egyptian law; another was virtually an international model of a liberal law. Eventually, an adaptation of the latter was adopted by the Palestinian legislature and signed by President Arafat. To the consternation of the NGOs, however, they are required to register with the Ministry of Interior, not the Ministry of Finance, which they preferred.
For the most part, the NGOs are not in confrontation with the Palestinian quasistate. But a few are. One category is the religious based NGOs that reflect fundamentalist political thinking. While they do deliver essential services, they often do so with a political message. And it is thought some have connections with Hamas, the leading Islamist political organization. Another category is the national NGOs that specialize in issues concerning the environment, health, agriculture, human rights and the like. Some of these, as organizations or their leaders, take public positions in opposition to the PNA. At times, they also speak through their NGO association, which comprises over 100 such NGOs.
As in the period before the PNA was established, many NGOs still enjoy strong relationships with international donors.
INTERNATIONAL IMPACT OF MIDEAST NGOs
Before turning to the impact of NGOs on international relations per se, it is worth noting four societal trends in the Middle East that affect the nature of this impact.
- First, from the 1950s through the 1980s, there was a kind of social bargain between the state and the people in the Middle East. The state would provide what were perceived as adequate social services – education, health care and welfare – as well as employment (Egypt even guaranteed employment for college graduates) and, in exchange, the state had virtual executive privilege to do what it wanted. In the last decade and presumably in the upcoming one, this bargain appears to have waned. States, given the shortage of resources, the growth of populations and the evolving nature of demand, can no longer provide what the people perceive to be adequate social services and jobs. (This is obviously one reason for the growth of NGOs: they are filling a gap left by the state.) In addition, individuals and groups are seeking more ways to influence state policy.
- Second, privatization of the economy – largely the state selling government-owned industries and corporations to people and companies in the private sector – necessarily lessens the overall role of the state. As the state’s role becomes smaller, it is likely that there will be more room for NGOs to function.
- Third, communications have always been important in the Middle East, from the camel’s making long distance commerce possible to Gamel Abdel Nasser’s use of the radio to talk directly to the Arab people, bypassing government leaders. Today, two new phenomena have growing influence. Satellite television – whether in the form of al-Jazeera, Abu Dhabi and Dubai TV or CNN – bypasses state-controlled TV and radio, giving the people immediate access to information and opinion. Its impact during the second Palestinian intifada has been profound, roiling public opinion, turning people not only against Israel but also against the United States.
The other major new technology is the Internet. Due to cost and availability, it is not yet widespread, but Internet use is growing rapidly, including in the Arabic language. This communication tool – marked by its breadth of reach and lack of governmental control – has a growing impact on society. We do not know how it will evolve in the West, and we have even less of an idea of the many uses to which it will be put in the Middle East.
- Fourth, despite these trends, the state security capability continues to grow. States have acquired technology, systems and training that are superior to what was available one or two decades ago. This trend is likely to continue. Thus, somewhat ironically, as the role of the state diminishes in the social, economic and communications spheres, its security capacity is growing.
NGOs’ Impact on Policy
In some countries, NGOs currently have an ability – and they use it – to influence foreign policy, while in others it is minimal or nonexistent. To address the latter first, in those states where NGOs are exceptionally weak or virtually arms of the state (Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia) NGOs have little or no influence. In the short term, the prospects for change are minimal unless the nature of these states is fundamentally altered. On the other hand, where NGOs are quite active, such as Egypt, Jordan and Palestine, they have a distinct impact. For example, Jordan has a peace treaty with Israel, and the government promotes a policy of normalization with the Jewish state. At a popular level, the normalization policy is frequently strongly opposed. A major force in this opposition is the professional syndicates. They have their own policy forbidding their members from doing business with Israel. This policy is reinforced by the monopoly the syndicates have in licensing their members. Thus, a syndicate can disbar a lawyer or take away the license of a doctor if he/she does business with Israel – a powerful tool to say the least. Anti-normalization has been the policy of the syndicates since the mid 1990s. Various Jordanian governments, while not happy with this contravention of the normalization policy, have not felt strong enough to challenge the syndicates. In 2000, the Abu al-Ragheb government in this context did warn the syndicates that it would take legal action against them for “infringing the civil liberties” of individuals. However, as the new intifada in Palestine grew, the Abu Al-Raheb government failed to act, even when the syndicates published a blacklist of Jordanian “normalizers.”7
Popular feeling about the social and health conditions in Iraq, perceived to be caused by U.S.-supported U.N. sanctions, is also reflected in NGOs’ public statements. They express this opinion, but also take action in gathering donations and delivering them. The Jordanian government does not oppose this expression of popular feeling.
Egypt also enjoys a peace treaty with Israel. While this treaty is an integral part of Egypt’s foreign policy, relations between Egypt and Israel are characterized as “cold.” One of the reasons for this cold peace is that a number of Egyptian NGOs – and other elements of civil society – do not want normalization. While the peace treaty is a strategic part of the Egyptian government’s foreign policy, a warm relationship with Israel has no strategic significance. Thus the government can easily accommodate this NGO influence on policy.
In Egypt, in comparison to Jordan, the NGOs have less impact on foreign policy for two reasons. First, the Egyptian NGOs are heavily focused on such things as the role of Islam, women’s issues and civil rights. Second, political parties and the press are stronger in Egypt than in Jordan. Thus these institutions are in a position to assume more of a role on international relations. Similarly, in Lebanon the NGOs have little impact on foreign policy. Parties, such as Hizbollah, and personalities dominate that arena. The NGOs focus much more on their services and increasingly on domestic issues such as the environment.
Assessing trends for the future is a complex exercise. One must look at the current condition of the NGOs, the changing nature of the state, privatization and the growth of non-state-controlled communications. On the one hand, if the current trends continue, it would seem that the impact of NGOs on international-relations policy will grow. On the other hand, if political parties emerge or become stronger, they will assume that role, and NGOs will focus more on their traditional role as a part of civil society.
The International Activity of NGOs
NGOs are involved in relations across borders in a variety of ways.
1. Perhaps the most common relationship is manifested by the flow of funds and, at times, ideas. The donors are usually NGOs in the rich Arab countries, which tend to give to welfare, health and child-oriented NGOs in poorer countries. At times, the donors’ intent is purely humanitarian, especially in response to the needs created by the second Palestinian intifada. At other times, the intent is very much associated with the religious orientation of the donors. This is frequently the case with Islamist-oriented NGOs.
The recipient NGOs in Palestine, Jordan, Egypt and elsewhere often appeal to their richer brethren in the Arab world. At times, these appeals have a cause orientation such as Islamist or Palestinian rights. However, the majority of funds have come from rich individuals, governments or governmental institutions, e.g. the Islamic Bank or the Faisal Foundation in Riyadh. At times this flow has a decided Islamist flavor and is used by NGOs close to Hamas (Palestine), the Muslim Brotherhood (Jordan) or Jamaa (Egypt). At other times the funds may go to major secular institutions such as hospitals, universities, orphanages or welfare charities. In all cases, the donations tend to go to NGOs that focus on welfare, health care and education. They usually do not go to NGOs focused on agriculture, job creation, environment or human rights. The growth of this type of funding flow reflects first, the growing wealth of certain oil-rich countries; second, the growing efficacy of NGOs in certain poorer countries; and, third, the desire to bypass state authorities in both donor and recipient countries.
- Some NGOs occasionally hold regional meetings to share ideas and learn from each other. This has been the case with respect to agriculture and cooperatives, micro-credit and micro-enterprise NGOs, universities (some private and some state-owned), professional groups and environmental NGOs. Traveling and meetings entail costs. These are at times covered by the NGOs from their own resources. Funding is also provided by governments, international foundations and international bilateral and multilateral donors.
- A few years ago there was an attempt to form an Arab human-rights NGO that would focus on all of the Arab states. While it may still exist, its impact has been minimal. There are a number of human and civil-rights NGOs in the more open Arab countries, though they frequently have a strained relationship with state governments. As these human-rights NGOs grow in domestic strength, it is entirely possible that they will form links across borders. The Internet could certainly help this along. If the NGOs foresee potentially greater strength and impact from joint activities across borders, it is conceivable that more initiatives could occur in this decade. International donors may come to the assistance of such initiatives.
- Environmental NGOs are increasingly active in the Middle East. Most have activities, at times extensive, focused on their own individual countries. Encouraged by international, bilateral and multilateral funders, the environmental NGOs hold transnational meetings, exchanging ideas and strategies. Some have joined international associations such as Friends of the Earth. At times Israel has been a part of the meetings. But the ill-feelings associated with the new Palestinian intifada have been a major constraint. That said, it is most likely that the trend toward more regional environmental activity on the part of NGOs will continue.
- International bilateral donors, particularly the United States, have provided funds for joint programs involving Israeli and Arab NGOs in the areas of the environment, agriculture, science and curriculum development. Some of these activities actually started before U.S. funds became available, but they have grown considerably as a result of the new resources. Though the second intifada, as noted, has severely curtailed such joint projects, if and when it subsides, they will certainly see new life.
The Role of International NGOs
International NGOs (INGOs), while not the specific subject of this paper, do have an impact on international relations. Many of the INGOs have implemented their projects – job creation, health, child survival, education, population and agriculture – with local NGOs. In the process of implementing the projects, the local NGOs are strengthened. Consequently, they may gain a stronger role in society. The INGO, depending on local conditions, may or may not enjoy positive relations with the government. This usually relates to the attitude of the government to NGOs generally or to the specific NGO involved in the project. The INGO at times can “protect” the local NGO.
Moreover, some INGOs have “democratization” as their agenda. Their projects may be with political parties, the courts or legislatures, none of which concern us here. However, some INGO projects focus on strengthening NGOs as institutions of civil society in the context of the overall societal triangle of politics, business and civil society. Thus, by strengthening civil society, they are strengthening one of the attributes of democracy.
INGOs bring their own agendas to these countries. At the risk of over simplification, they may be summarized as follows:
- Humanitarian response to human need.
- Democratization, as outlined above.
- Religion. These INGOs may be based in the West or the East. The common theme is a religious agenda. (Islamist, Christian, Jewish).
- Leftist ideology. Some political parties and movements, especially some from Europe, have affiliated INGOs which implement projects in Arab countries. While they usually have a functional character, such as education or health, they generally partner only with left-leaning local NGOs.
- Alternatives to radicals. Some NGOs implement projects with local NGOs with the thought of building up those elements of civil society that are not associated with radical trends such as Islamist or far-left ideologies.
- People to people. In the wake of Israeli Arab peace treaties and agreements, American and European INGOs have sought to promote Arab-Israeli joint projects and dialogue. As noted, these are problematic in the atmosphere of the second Palestinian intifada.
NGOs by their very nature are focused for the most part on domestic issues. Since their issues are local or national, their activities are local or national. However, NGOs do take on an international role in some circumstances. In the absence of other means to influence a state’s international policy, people and their leaders utilize the organization at hand, in this case an NGO, to try to affect policy. Equally, international funders, individuals and states, seek out non-state-controlled entities through which they can help or influence local conditions or thinking. Given the growth of NGOs in the last few decades and the continuing need for people to improve their own lot, it is apparent that these trends will continue.
1 Jean L. Cohen and Andrew Arato, Civil Society and Political Theory (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992), pp. ix-xi.
2 Mustapha K. al-Sayyid, “A Civil Society in Egypt?” Middle East Journal, Vol. 47, No. 2, Spring 1993, p. 230.
3 John Keane, Democracy and Civil Society (London: Verso, 1988), p. 23.
4 Raymond A. Hinnebusch, “State and Civil Society in Syria,” Middle East Journal, Vol. 47, No. 2, Spring 1993, p. 244.
5 al-Sayyid, op. cit., p. 140.
6 Hinnebusch, op. cit., pp. 243-257.
7 Middle East International, No. 640, December 22, 2000, p. 9.
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