The study of civil society in the MENA region points to several key factors inhibiting the role of civil society in bridging the political divide and promoting reconciliation in postwar countries. Societal transformations that are a direct consequence of the conflict and violence, as well as factors that are more strictly related to civil society itself, prevent civil society from playing the role scholarship might otherwise expect.
Societal transformations, the result of structural injustices, a history of conflicts and unresolved claims, and the emergence of informal affiliations to warlords generate deep social distrust and divisions that take time to heal. Years of violence and the lack of governmental will or capacity to normalize people-to-people relations further complicate the situation (Pouligny 2005, 496). In cases where the violence drives a mass exodus of moderate educated elites, who used to or could play a tempering role in a post-conflict environment, their departure leaves the landscape to the more militant or embattled as well as powerless members of society further delaying the ability of civil society to recruit active and influential members of society (Stanksi, 2005, 208).
This paper argues that civil society’s effectiveness in playing a constructive role in national reconciliation processes and in bridging political divides in post-conflict societies is directly related to four factors: 1) the space available for civil society to exist and to organize, 2) the accumulated experience and mobilization of civil society, 3) the level of power in the hands of former warlords and war-time leaders; and 4) the ability of warlords and war-time leaders to be essential actors in political institutions. (AbiYaghi; Yammine & Jagarnathsingh, 2019, 3-5)
Variation Across Cases
Across the MENA region, civil society organizations’ existence and level of influence have varied considerably from country to country (Marchetti and Tocci, 2009, 201-217). Prior to the fall of authoritarian regimes in countries such as Libya, Iraq, and Syria, an independent civil society was not allowed to exist (Samad, 2006, 6-12). In semi-authoritarian systems, however, civil society organizations found space to grow even if regularly checked by rulers and regimes fearing their existence, increasing influence in society, and potential challenge to their power. Such a phenomenon was seen in Bahrain starting in the late 1990s, in Sudan during rule of President Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir, and in Yemen during most of the rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh (Hafidh and Fibiger, 2019, 114-117).
Where civil society exists in semi-authoritarian countries, despite its often intimate knowledge (Pouligny 2005, 495-501) of the political situation and readiness to act, it is faced with limited experience in the areas of political reform, transitional justice, and conflict resolution (Stanksi, 2005, 216-217). These challenges are compounded by meager resources and limited capacity to build effective alliances and coalitions across a deeply divided society (Kinninmont and Sirri, 2014, 16-19) reducing its effectiveness and success in post-war political reform and reconciliation.
Countries of the region that have experienced an active civil society role in recent years, especially following a period of intense political violence or conflict, can be grouped in three categories. The first category is one where the overwhelming role of civil society has been concentrated in advocating for the rights of the downtrodden even at the expense of civil peace and an inability to play a role in the political reform process. Bahrain can be considered such a case where a large number of civil society organizations were pulled into the renewed political conflict in recent years, greatly limiting their ability to contribute to reconciliation and to bridging the existing political divide (Wimmen 2014, 6-11).
As for the second category, namely countries such as Yemen in the mid-90s and Iraq in the late 2000s, we witness a mixed role for civil society (Lussier & Fakher, 2018, 920), with some groups playing an active and effective role in the area of political reform and reconciliation. This is especially the case for human rights organizations, election observation groups, women and youth rights groups, and development groups (Safa 2005; Marchetti and Tocci, 2009). In contrast, civil society groups in the first category tend to side with one of the parties of the conflict, leading to the intensification of political tensions; considerably reducing their ability to influence political reform and the reconciliation process (Wimmen 2014, 12-15).
The Case of Lebanon
The third category includes more open societies such as Lebanon. Here civil society existed and had a visible role, albeit in a limited form, during the civil war of 1975-1990, and was later able to grow and consolidate despite the repressive nature of Syrian and Israeli occupations during the 1990s and early 2000s. In countries where civil society has been able to peacefully influence political reforms, it can play a conflict-mitigating role following the conflict period. The ability to play such a role is tied to accumulated experience, a high degree of mobilization, and advanced levels of local and international networking.
The real contribution of civil society in Lebanon and similar cases can be summarized along two main axes: activities that have paved the way for institutional reforms and, alternatively, those that have helped heal the wounds of war and build the infrastructure for sustainable peace.
Among the activities that fall under institutional reforms, one can include election law reform, human rights protection, women’s rights legislation, legislation for better governance and greater transparency, workers’ rights promotion, creating and supporting dialogues between political leaders and refugees (chief among them the Palestinians), encouraging Lebanon to join certain conventions that help reduce the risk of war and encourage greater accountability, and cooperation with international organizations to enhance governance overall.
As for the second axis, peace building, civil society has, and continues to, contribute to bridging the political sectarian divide and encourage people-to-people bottom-up reconciliation. Here one can note the work done in the Shouf between the Christian and Druze communities, or in Tripoli between the Sunni and Alawite communities, in the organization of camps for children and projects for youth from different regions to meet, discover and help the sectarian ‘other,’ and build an inclusive national identity. Such activities also include raising awareness about the fate of the missing and kidnapped (Khodr, Al Jazerra, 2018). Such efforts also include building coalitions for civil peace, as in the case of Wahdatouna Khalasouna, a coalition of organizations active in lobbying politicians and decision makers to adopt priorities supportive of reconciliation and transitional justice, lobbying and demanding politicians engage in dialogue such as during the Doha peace agreement, pressuring politicians from the street and through the media to resolve their differences peacefully such as following sectarian incidents in Beirut, the Bekaa, and Tripoli among other areas. Organizing war commemorations to push political elites to commit themselves publicly to peaceful ways of resolving their differences also fall under this umbrella, as does creating joint religious holidays and a new religious symbolism around Mary, mother of Jesus, (Grandchamps, L’Orient Le Jour, 2019) that political parties, religious leaders and other decision makers can rally around. Mobilizing professionals and opinion makers to take public stands against political violence, and using art, plays and dialogues to raise awareness among the new generations have also been successful at various times.
It has been possible for civil society to push forward its agenda and to pressure all political sides to agree on steps to keep the peace by maintaining an equidistant relationship from all sides and by not challenging their presence in power. Yet, such efforts have not yet been able to push former warlords from power or address thorny and pressing issues such as the fate of the 17,000 civil war missing and kidnapped, the need to adopt a new and unified history curriculum, deal with the legacy of war crimes and assassinations, or address human rights abuses in war-time prisons (Baytiyeh, 2016, 552).
The findings of interviews with 10 Lebanese civil society activists who played a leading role in the post-war era about the contribution of civil society in bridging the political divide and promoting reconciliation in postwar countries is mixed. While the majority recognizes the impact civil society has had in pushing forward essential political reforms, they remain skeptical that the efforts made to rebuild people-to-people ties and to achieve reconciliation are effective in overcoming future threats. This is particularly salient in the absence of government buy-in, despite successful programs that civil society activists recognize as essential in helping re-open the channels of communication and avoiding renewed conflict in the short term. While civil society can be credited for keeping a spotlight and working on the issues needed for long-term reconciliation, such work will remain incomplete as long as those who fought the war maintain political control.
The growing economic and social discontent that lead to the October 17, 2019 revolution has highlighted the active role of this civil society in influencing the political discourse and political demands for reform. While the revolution is still far from achieving its main goals, significant strides have been made in reasserting a cross-sectarian and one could argue non-sectarian national identity among a large section of the population, while concurrently demanding the departure of war-time leaders and in-depth reform of the dysfunctional and corrupted political system they have left the country with.
Makram Ouaiss is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Lebanese American University.
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