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Researcher at the Arab Center for Research and Political Studies

The November 15 weekly seminar at the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies focused on the question of Arab social movements and their contribution to democratization. Held under the auspices of the Program to Study the Arab Democratic Transition within the Center, this latest meeting was divided into two separate sessions of two speakers each.

The first of two sessions was chaired by Abdelfattah Mady, who heads the ACRPS' Democratization program, and included interventions by Mouldi Lahmar, who spoke on the role of the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT); and Tariq Dana, who spoke of the role played by Palestinian civil society institutions in overall social change, particularly since the Oslo Agreements.

Lahmar's discussion illustrated the centrality of the UGTT to the country's 2011 "Jasmine Revolution", and in fact to the entire modern history of Tunisia and the national identity of the Tunisian people. Lahmar further explored how the role of the UGTT changed from the combatting of foreign occupation to the challenging of the tyranny of the post-colonial state. In this regard, the UGTT enjoyed a number of advantages compared to similar organizations in other Arab countries. These include its unassailable independence from the state and its century-long role as a focus of social power. By the time the revolution to oust Ben-Ali had come around, Lahmar pointed out, 94% of its members had taken part in the street protests across Tunisian cities. In triumph, it was the moral credibility of the UGTT, claimed Lahmar, which allowed the group to pressure the country's leading political parties to find accept a democratic compromise.  

Lahmar's discussion of the role of the UGTT was followed by Tariq Dana's expose of how international donors have become an active player in Palestinian civil society. Titled, "Four Aspects to the Transformation of Palestinian Civil Society," Dana touched on how Palestinian society has changed since the signing of the Oslo Agreements, which also shifted how Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories related to the Israelis. In the new post-Oslo reality, said Dana, brought changes to the overall political economy of the Palestinians and to the work of civil society institutions: their agenda; their relationship to the grassroots; political processes; and the production of knowledge.

During his presentation, Dana illustrated how Palestinian civil society groups went from a grassroots political movement committed to national liberation to a globalized economic caste looking after its own interests. Dana also explored how the institutions in question, foreign-funded civil society bodies in the Palestinian territories, typified many of the features which they claimed to combat in Palestinian politics, and specifically the autocracy of their leaders and the personalization of power within these bodies. Such practices, Dana said, served to show the dichotomy between the supposed commitment to democratic ideals and the failure to implement them. In sum, said Dana, the changes to Palestinian society since Oslo meant that Palestinians were far less politicized, and less likely to ask questions of their political leaders. Additionally, Palestinian "indigenous knowledge" was increasingly replaced by the knowledge of the "new imperialism" exemplified by foreign donors.

A second session, chaired by Haider Saeed of Siyasat Arabiya, similarly hosted two interventions. The first of these, by ACRPS researcher Abdou Moussa, provided a broad critique of the "new social movements" which ostensibly drove the Arab Spring and which defined "collective action" within it. Moussa explained how the Arab Spring was born of the Arab Spring was born of two twin refusals: the refusal to be marginalized, and the refusal to be impoverished, on the part of the Arab masses. Moussa also explained how the functioning of Arab social movements was constricted, and therefore defined, by the repression of the post-colonial Arab state. This was through both direct, physical suppression by state authorities and also the prohibitive bureaucratic environment which made the work of such organizations impossible. Moussa also described how the "new social movements" fed into the de-politicization of the Arab masses, favoring a piecemeal and gradual rights-based approach to advancement rather than an overall political change.

The second paper, by Doha Institute visiting lecturer Sabah Al Nassery, was titled "What civil society in the lack of a nation-state? The Liberal Civil Society Shows the Emperor has No Clothes". In his presentation, Al Nassery gave an overview of the development of the myth of the liberal civil society over the preceding five decades which, he says, it would be a mistake to accept wholeheartedly. Al Nassery suggested that the failure of present-day, Western inspired "civil society" institutions could be overcome by furthering cooperation between the various social and political movements operating in the Arab world today. These include not only well established class conscious movements but also the more recent activist groupings.

According to Al Nassery, the neoliberal agenda in de-politicizing the nature of fair and sustainable economic development has led not only to the protection of corruption, but also prevent the prospect of any real change in society. Al Nassery claims that the neoliberal credo now spread throughout Arab societies has made it difficult to create a consciousness that could precipitate a genuine democratic transition.