We are in a crisis that does offer opportunities.  Just before I came here one of my colleagues asked me if we are really ready for democracy in the Arab world and my immediate impulse was to answer "yes we are".

          Bahrain is probably the most ready for democracy in the  Gulf.  Why? Because it has the oldest civil society.  Bahrain had the first girls school  in the Gulf at the turn of the century.  Many people don’t know that.  Bahrain had a robust trade union, labour movement, a middle class, a diverse work force. All the things which give rise to civil society. Civil society is the pre-requisite, the concomitant of genuine rights. I believe that Bahrain  was more ready for democracy than Kuwait.

          In Kuwait next door, the people  have basically  the same legacy, tradition, language and culture. It is nonsense to  assume that some people  are not ready for democracy as a gentleman who was quoting the minister of foreign affairs in Bahrain  during an international commission on human rights said.  He said that Bahrain was different. It should not be considered in terms  of the same standards applied in the West.

          This is the statement which is made by despotic rulers everywhere from China  to any land you can imagine. Everyone would claim that  somehow  there is something very culturally specific that makes democracy,  or respect for human rights, or even creating the climate for civil society alien in this culture.


          And usually foreign guests shake their heads  when  a despotic ruler here or there thinks that he has convinced the visitors that they don’t understand us well, let us tell you what we are. But he does not mention whether the rulers themselves are ready for democracy.

          Anyway this is the generalisation I will start with. Then I will roll back to  the concept of civil society. I think it is a relatively new concept in Arabic.  If we open our newspapers, our magazines, even our scholarly books we will never find the term.

          The term came into popular usage after the events eastern countries, especially afterSolidarity in Poland and the challenge of Poland to  its regime. A trade union challenged those who claimed to be speaking for the working class. That was really the beginning of  popularising the concept of civil society.

          There were a group of theorists called the social contract theorists who  used the contents of the society to refer to the independent social organisations or collective will that somehow entered into a contractual relationship: it was the emperor, it was the king. From that point on we begin to witness this dialectic between  state power and the autonomous social power of different groups in society, different classes, parties and so on.

          That is really the origin of the concept of  social contract: an agreement between the society and the sultan, or the ruler. There are  rights and obligations on both sides. And that is why when you talk about civil contract even in today’s language you always mention the dual qualifier to social contract, the parties to this contract x,y, and z have all declared their qualifications or their worthiness to sign that contract.Every civil contract has got its qualification. And that  basically, essentially  is the social contract theorists doctrines from the 17th, 18th, and 19th century.

          During the 1980s the term  was resurrected or reincarnated. When people took a good look at it they realised that civil society not only as a term but as a concept, as reality is so important.

          Why is that the case? Civil society as we define it today means all those self initiating, self managing organisations that exist between the  family and the state. Here we are in the Gulf Club, it is not a state organisation, it is not a family organisation, the people  who are sitting here came by agreement to attend an activity that makes this gathering a civil society gathering. The people came to the Gulf Club through their own free will. No one has jurisdiction over it except its own members. In that sense it is a bona fide civil society.

          More  and more people are  providing the infrastructure for this kind of organisation. Why? Because this kind of organisation will learn how to hijack speakers, how to debate and members of the club learn how to articulate how to initiate matters that concern all of them and that concern the public good. What they claim to be the public good, the welfare, the well being of the Arab world, the   Gulf or Bahrain. That is what you are doing. Because of an implicit assumption that you are here to serve the cause or to pursue an interest, or to express a sympathy.


          And that is the rest of the definition of civil society.  A civil society is a self initiating, self regulating organisation that pursue interests or goals or expresses   a collective intent. So in that sense civil society organisation becomes so important not only as a school for teaching democracy but also as pressure group, as a veto (oppositional ) group, as a counter  avenue it can insulate or it can cushion the individual against the tyranny of the state or the despotism of the ruler.

          Thus it is easier to crush an individual who is not part of civil society. So members of the Gulf Club here,  may be disliked by governments of the countries from which they come because they are critical and they are in the news  all the time exposing the performance and the behaviour of their own governments.


          And if these governments could put any of these individuals behind bars they would do it. But they have to think twice before doing it to a member of a club. There is the hostility of other members of the club who will blow the whistle, who will scream, and who will say foul.

          So I am trying to really simplify the question of why civil society becomes so important in the so-called third wave of democracy, because since 1974,  the world has been witnessing a wave of democracy.

          It began with Portugal, the coup d’etat of the revolution against the dictator at the time and from that point on there was Franco and Spain went democratic like Portugal and a year later there was Greece. The military dictatorship in Greece also came to an end and with southern Europe  the  contagiousness spread from southern Europe to Latin America and back from Latin America to Eastern and Southern Europe and from there to Asia and from there to  sub Saharan Africa.

          Those who have studied why certain countries have embarked on the march to democracy or the road to democracy, have realised that this is always associated with the growth  and extension of civil society, whether  it is recognised legally or not.

           People create  self initiating, self regulating  structures of their own free will. The more these groups exist, the more you are providing the infrastructure of democracy and it just becomes a matter of time.

          And  even though the Arab world is clumsy, there are all kinds of signs that we are not going to be far behind.

          Let me give you two examples. In 1980 when Israel invaded Lebanon a group of Egyptians organised a protest. The demonstration started from Al Azhar mosque in Cairo. It was led by  one of the older public figures and after the Friday prayer the march began from Al Azhar  was  met by troops and security forces.  A public meeting was organised.Lebanon was bombed. We saw a mass demonstration in Tel Aviv. The people were protesting against the invasion of a sovereign country.  We as Arabs, as Egyptians, could not demonstrate or protest against the invasion of a sister Arab country whereas  in the country of the invasion the citizens were allowed to participate in the demonstration  against the invasion.

          Many of us who have a collective memory of the Arab street during the 40s and 50 ask why people could organise and demonstrate. Come the 1980s the Arab street did not shout, it do not cry, it did not do anything because of the despotic, dictatorial regimes. The older generation asked what have we done. They still had collective memories of how active and how free they were.

          So they met secretly in Tunisia.  They came to the conclusion that we have to go back to the colonial period of the 1960s, to the abc of human rights.  And we have to start from scratch so to speak. I  understand that now there is the Bahraini Organisation of Human Rights. It started after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and our inability to even demonstrate, to protest.

          When we announced that we are going to form a human rights movement and we are looking for an Arab capital to hold our conference we could not find an Arab capital. So we held our first congress in Cyprus.

          On returning from the conference some of us were jailed, held at the airport or worse, we were shot. One of our Iraqi comrades was shot, killed at the airport.


          I am giving this example to say that in 1982 there were no Arab human rights organisations. Now, 15 years later,   11 out of the 21 Arab countries have human rights organisations.  Never mind if they are fair and honest but at least there are in  Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Palestine, Yemen, Kuwait and  Lebanon. These are all countries that have a modicum of democracy.

          Back in 1982 not a single country had a human rights organisation. Even Kuwait had dissolved its parliament. There was a civil war in Lebanon. So in 1982 there was not a single pluralistic democracy or anything close to it in any Arab country.


          I am saying that 15 years later the situation is not very bright but it is not very dark. It was much darker 15 years ago. Today, thanks to the initiatives of civil society, such as the club here, even in the face of adversity  there are initiatives for human rights movements and  from that  point on there will be pressure, pressure to mobilise and to force many of the despotic regimes to concede that they have to do something.

           Even if elections do not include all the parties the very fact that there is an election and that some of these opposition voices do win in an election is a big step forward.

           We are not saying its civil rights or human rights or civil society in the Arab world alone which led this. There were some objective conditions. One of these conditions is whats known as the demonstration from other parts of the world, eastern Europe, south Asia, Latin America. So many countries turned  to democratic systems.


          There came a time during the 60s and 70s when Arab governments  were providing so many services like  free housing.  They are  giving you this, they are giving you that so don’t speak of this luxury, liberalist democracy. We still have to liberate Palestine, we have to create Arab unity. This was the kind of talk during the 60s and 70s all the way to the 80s. Democracy was suspended because there were other urgent matters to be taken care of. This was called the populist social impact. In other words there will always be this paradox that we need to liberate Palestine first, we need Arab unity first and after all of that we will come to democracy.

          We have not developed democracy, we have not liberated Palestine and we do not haveArab unity. That method of discourse, that language of discourse was popular during the 60s. It became less and less popular after 1967, it became less and less popular in the 70s and it became totally discredited during the 80s.

          So the state had to dream it could deliver the houses, the education, health, jobs  and even continue the development that had started;  the state was retreating without  declaring its retreat.It was a disorganised retreat and it caused even more problems than a systematic, organised retreat.

          The populist regimes of Assad, Nasser  and Boumediene  started afresh when they were still credible  and managed to build an economic infrastructure and start  key industrialisation projects. Within ten years they ran out steam,  money and ideas. But during the hype when  they were able they contributed to the expansion of the so- called  middle class, the new middle class.

          What do we mean by that? We mean the modern educated people. I see a lot of the brothers in this room.

          Populist social contract went through one stage when it was credible, when it was honourable, when it contributed to  the expansion of the middle class. People were awarded scholarships and that sort of thing.

          Then there was the second period of the populist social contract when it became discredited.It was defeated even in its attempts to manage  society. At that stage the middle class also discovered that the regimes which are still using the language of ten or 15 years ago are  no longer able  to face the challenges.

          And in the face of these challenges these regimes will collapse just like the demonstration which I described at the start of the lecture. In Libya, Algeria and Egypt movements emerged against the rising middle class that had grown in size but was demanding either that the social contract should be honoured or torn  up altogether and  a liberal democracy instituted.


          The regimes said they would play the game and construct some kind of democracy, a multi-party system and so on. They were  h alf-hearted attempts,  but at least they recognised that we can no longer rule the same way as our predecessors did.

          So what I am saying is that because of the growing middle class, some not all Arab regimes began to consider  some participation.

          There was one  other factor that forced Arab regimes to allow a  greater margin of freedom   for civil society with  their mismanagement of the domestic scene. And by that I mean in many Arab countries there is a good deal of diversity: ethnic, religious, linguistic, nationalistic. Many of these despotic regimes who could get away with things in the 50’s and 60’s  began to pay a heavy price in suppressing dissent and in managing or mismanaging diversity.

          We see that very clearly in the Sudan and in Iraq. We also see it in Saudi Arabia and in Bahrain and in many countries which have a pluralistic social culture and religion. There is an inability on the part of the regimes to manage that diversity.

          There is a pressure on these regimes to create  a new legitimacy by allowing some modicum of democracy.

          Now  11 countries  have allowed some modicum of democracy.  Even if it is not the Western kind of democracy it is far more than  what it was 15 or 16 years ago.

          I want to end my presentation by saying that the situation has become a bit more complicated and complex in the last ten to 15 years by the growing Islamist movements.


          We have populist regimes that became over time more and more  despotic with a diminishing ability to deliver the goods, to honour their contracts. Then you have these new forces which are demanding new civil social forces. They are demanding power sharing and   more participation.


          The third force here on the scene is the Islamic force. And the Islamic activists differ from one Arab country to another. They all have the same plan. And the plan is basically  cultural legitimation. People who are utterly discontented with their regimes and who would be suppressed by these regimes if they raise their voice and will be accused of all kinds of things.

          At  one time it was very fashionable to accuse any dissenter of being a lackey of the West  a communist or  Marxist or an  atheist. So if you are a dissenter these were the two discredited camps in which you would be placed.

          Well I think Islamic activists came with a reasonable way out of being accused  of being  communists  or  atheists  or lackeys or agents of the imperialists.


          How could the Islamists talk of cultural innovation. We have been living in this culture for over ten centuries. But the Islamic activists are utilising Islam as a political tool. This is the case of the contemporary generation.

          In Egypt it began in the late 20s with people like Hassan Banna and so on. But every time there was a credible alternative, like Nasser’s alternative or like the 1919 revolution it was destroyed and the Islamic activists as a political metaphor would subside.

          Today the Islamic forces in  the Arab society that claim to be Islamic  are using the Islamic banner as a  political weapon. There are two groups one of which is peaceful and an example of that would be the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hizib  Dawa, Hizib  Tahrir in Jordan, Islah in Yemen, and a variety of groups in Kuwait.

          These are the Islamists who are playing the political game. They will run for elections and there is chance they will win.  They are becoming part of the civil society, they are becoming movements.

          Then there is another  type  of Islamic activists who have not yet been brought into civil society or democracy. These are the ones who are using violence to change the situation and tofight despotism.  And I am afraid they are fighting despotism by using  methods  very similar to that of the despots.

          In other words they are fighting secular despotism but they are threatening to have a religious type of despotism. These are outside civil society.

          So we have today old despotic rulers like Assad and Qathafi and many of the Gulf regimes.  Then you have  the nascent  societies merging towards civil society and democracy and then you have the militant Islamists. That is the triangle of today. It is a triangle that is very dynamic in many ways. I am hoping that  more and more of the Islamists move towards civil society as the Muslim Brotherhood did. I am hoping that  as Islamic groups become more accepting of the rules of civil society, respect  diversity and tolerance they will join with the secular forces in civil society.

          This  is an incredible challenge to the remnants of the tyrants in the Arab world, the despotic regimes. And that is what we are working for and that is what we are hoping for. It is not very dramatic, it will not  grab many headlines but it is the way to the future. That is where optimism lies. Let us hope that the forces of civil society gather more and more strength, more and more converts and  activists   who have been raising the flag of Islam to become truly fundamentalist.

            We have seen this in Yemen, in Turkey ala Erbakan, and  in Egypt when the Muslim Brotherhood was allowed to participate in politics. We are hoping that these  Muslim democrats along with secular democrats will become,  in time,  a force that can challenge tyranny.

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