Democracy Needs a Civil Society: Lessons for the Middle East from Post-Communist Europe
Whether the Middle East can become -- or be made -- democratic has been a vexing question for decades. The current round of political unrest in Tunisia, Egypt, and other Arab countries raises the question again, with profound human and strategic considerations in the balance. The toppling of the Hariri government by Hezbollah in Lebanon brings up the follow-on question of whether democracy in the region can be sustained where it is established. In his classic analysis of the 19th-century American republic, Alexis de Tocqueville identified “voluntary associations” as crucial to the functioning of the country’s governing institutions. Such associations – mostly small and local, such as churches, societies of common interests, and economic groupings – served an essential mediating function between individuals and the state, ameliorating the potentially damaging effects of radical individualism on one hand and a centralizing state on the other.
This “civil society” played a key role in ensuring that the state could have the powers necessary to function while sustaining the basic notion that it existed to serve its citizens, rather than the reverse. While the exact role of civil society came to be contested, both left and right could agree on its importance either as an agent of change or an agent for conserving what should be conserved. After the downfall of communist governments in Central and Eastern Europe – regimes that viewed individual citizens as means to support the collective state, rather than the reverse – those wishing to encourage enduring change toward democracy undertook extensive democracy-building and civil society promotion programs in the region. These programs were successful to a remarkable degree in supporting central European governments as they built institutions necessary for democratic elections, peaceful transitions of power, and eventual membership in the major Western security and economic organizations — NATO and the European Union. But while those governing institutions have been broadly successful, they are just that – institutions. They differ from what Tocqueville saw in voluntary associations that were, in a sense, spontaneous and not imposed from above or outside. These associations were not viewed by their members as a means to a free society. They were ends in themselves for the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness in association with others of like mind and belief.
They could not be “engineered” like democratic institutions. The distinction between civil society associations as means and ends is an important one. The institutions of free government are essential to a free society. But political and economic freedoms are rights of individual persons, not of a society as a whole. Governments have centralizing and enlarging tendencies that can compromise individual freedoms – hence the role of civil society in mediating between individuals and government institutions. The absence of such spontaneous and individual-based free associations therefore becomes a major hindrance for countries emerging from authoritarian or totalitarian regimes. In effect, if not by conscious design, such associations demand and teach individual responsibility for the maintenance of a larger free society. While it is natural for people searching for dignity, justice, and fairness to try to learn from the examples of other countries that overcame authoritarian rule, have we understood the right lessons from the post-communist transitions in Europe that might apply to Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere in the Arab world? Although the countries of Central and Eastern Europe had significant historical, political, social, and psychological differences with one another – with some emerging peacefully as new democracies and others suffering through bloody civil wars, as in the Balkans – they serve as good examples for identifying the necessary ingredients for successfully overcoming the legacy of totalitarianism.
First, we learned from the European experience that democratic breakthroughs can occur surprisingly fast, but that the development of a true culture of civic participation takes time. Two decades after the collapse of communist regimes, some nations are still struggling to overcome the legacy of the past. Second, although foreign financial and material assistance, coupled with sensible expertise, was very important in developing and strengthening civil societies in these countries, the courage and creativity of local reformers and democracy activists were crucial. Third, even in countries that are geographically close or culturally similar, national specificities and public sentiments mattered greatly in the development and impact of civic groups. Last but not least, solidarity and cooperation among democracy activists and democratic governments was critical in sustaining the course toward more prosperous and stable societies that respected human rights and freedoms.
It remains to be seen whether the countries of the Arab world now convulsing after decades of political oppression want to — and are able to — transition to a form of democracy enjoyed by many in the West. In any case, the experience of Europe offers useful guidance for those seeking a region where individuals are politically and economically free.
Pavol Demes is Senior Transatlantic Fellow with the German Marshall Fund (GMF) in Bratislava and Joseph Wood is Senior Resident Fellow with GMF in Washington.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.