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The Future of Civil Society in the Middle East August Richard Norton: book review

Nada Malakani
2019 / 4 / 6

The Future of Civil Society in the Middle East
August Richard Norton
The Middle East Journal --;-- Spring 1993--;-- 47, 2--;-- ProQuest

Richard Norton is an American professor, who is known for his writings on the politics of Middle East. One of his intellectual contributions is the article on the future of civil society in the Middle East. On the one hand, he premises that the defining concept of the 1990s is democracy and this concept affects the language of the Middle Eastern politics. This language has become “the speaking of participation”. On the other hand, he confidently confirms that understanding the contemporary Middle East will be incomplete unless it takes into consideration the situation of civil society.
Norton raises many arguments to explain his premises. Arab governments face a continuous crisis of legitimacy. The 1991 Persian Gulf War accelerated this crisis by illustrating the inefficiency of many regimes. Thus, Arab governments sought to use the vocabulary of democracy because they were influenced by global trend of democratization in Latin America and Eastern Europe. However, their new orientation, as the author argues, doesn’t represent an idealistic conversion, but a pragmatic tendency in order to allow the venting of political steam. This is reflected in rulers’ willingness to liberalize rather than democratize. Norton explains that liberalization refers to reformist measures to open up spaces for the free expression of opinion and to put-limit-s on the arbitrary power whereas democratization is freely contested elections and popular participation in political life. The latter has been neglected from the ruling elites’ schemes.
He gives an example of Tunisian case, when the government suppressed labor --union--s, in the late 1970s and early 1980s--;-- this coincided with a noticeable rise of an Islamic movement. Richard Norton discusses this instance to show that it is hard to explore politics in the Middle East without paying attention to the status of civil society, particularly in the Arab context. a
The problematic issue regarding civil society in the Middle East is civility which implies a practice of tolerance. It is about accept different opinions on the same idea. This civility is absent in the region due to state’s control over CSOs. Nonetheless, the author points out, “while a democratic order cannot be built through state power, it cannot be built without state power”. He recommends cooperation between state and civil society instead of conflict.


Richard Norton believes that the icon of global trend of globalization is civil society. Therefore, he concludes by saying: “the time has come to stop talking about Middle Eastern exceptionalism when we discuss global trends”. Although there is still a transgression on the dignity of individuals in the region, Norton highlights that the trajectory of Middle Eastern politics is toward an emphasis on the right of the individual to be free from the arbitrary rule. I think 2011 year in Tunisia and Egypt came to prove his latter observation even if civility is truly still a dilemma.






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