The Real Call of Arab Civil Societies

Human Rights protest at Al Khalil (by members of the International Human Rights association in Hebron) Photo by Nayef
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The modern concept of civil society is centered on the free joint action between individuals within private and official associations to achieve equitable societal settings and comfortable socioeconomic conditions. Typically, the causes and effects of social and civil movements are mainly of socioeconomic and socio-political nature.

On the socioeconomic front, efficient civil societies struggle to have proficient public administrations and good social services instead of depending solely on private organizations. The objective of social services is to provide individuals and the society with the necessary components of decent life so that to strengthen its civil fabric and elevate the sense of citizenship.

In many democratic countries, governments are the responsible side for the planning, delivering and monitoring of social services, like health care, education and social security. Nonetheless, democratic governments usually incentivize and encourage private organizations and voluntary societal associations to render similar social services to its citizens.

On the sociopolitical front, advanced governments usually open channels of dialogue with political activist groups and active social organizations, which do not operate within the government system, to know the interests, opinions, demands, and complaints of citizens about their public policies.

In the developed world, justice and equality are now important as liberty and freedom were in the early democratic stages. Highly developed civil societies tend to demand the inviolable implementation of justice and equality in which all citizens, like senior citizens, women, and children; for example, are transfigured into equal citizens. Actually, through purpose-built lobbying and keen social networking, civil and social movements have become the most effective vehicles for change.

After World War II, major western players were soaked up in securing their broad political and economic interests, nationally and internationally; while their communities were much occupied with rebuilding their own civil societies. However, it was not before few decades since the west along with the international community started to take on a more potent international stand in the push for civil-oriented societies. Obviously, standing firm for equality and justice for all have turned abusive racial discrimination, human trafficking, and honor crimes, for instance, into unpardonable statutory offense; and thus elevated the call for equality for women to become a major international concern.

Given the civil settings of western societies and as the world has become like a global village, one has to look at the developing world, where more than 85% of world population lives, to perceive the civil picture of around 6 billion people. Actually, the range of engagement of these people in the political and civil activities of their societies varies between developing countries. For that, a look at the Arab civil societies, where their chronic problems do overlap with most world’s troubles, would illustrate in some way the civil case of many developing nations.

Unfortunately, like in most developing countries, civil liberties in the Arab world are either shelved or do not really exist. Though most Arab governments and heads of state claim to be democratic, still they always drop several essential freedoms and civil liberties that define democracy. More knowingly than not, many Arab governments either restrict the practice of essential features of democratic society, like civil liberties, freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly and  participation in political activities, and freedom from  arbitrary arrest; or they just prohibit all civil and social movements in the name of national security.

In this developing region, most people are busy in securing their living needs or fear to lose their jobs and career or under some pressure not to exercise their civil rights, especially the ones of political and social nature. Actually, the concurrent slogan of all Arab Spring uprisings “the people want to down the regime” comprises several intertwined demands: to get rid of despotism, corruption, and underdevelopment; to be governed democratically through their freely elected representatives and political parties, and to stop the authorities from interfering in their civil and social life. Unfortunately, none of these demands seem to happen soon without further political and civil strife.

a protestor during the uprising in syria
Protesters during the uprising in Syria

Before and after the Arab Spring revolts, Arab civil societies were not politically organized nor societally configured to play its roles in the policymaking process. They never had effective civil and social organizations to defend the rights and interests of citizens, plans to improve social services, and resolutely call for the amendment of laws and constitutions.

In most of the Arab world, women’s rights are either totally dismissed or marginalized at best by the excuse of its incompatibility with the religious laws and some archaic traditions. Despite that women are about half of the Arab populations, Arab women are minimally represented in government cabinets and rarely elected to parliaments—not to discuss that not all parliaments permit the candidacy of women.

Arab women are unjustly denied by law the right to transfer their nationalities to their children and spouses. Over and above that, we still see the so-called honor crime incorporated in the penal laws of Arab states and somewhat lionized in social traditions—Let alone permitting the marriage of minors and tolerating domestic violence, sex abuse and sexual harassment of women.

Voluntary civil marriage is still illegal in most parts of the Arab world, though some countries, like Lebanon, for instance, recognize similar offshore marriage contracts. Civil marriage is a taboo to Islamic religious authorities, since Muslim muftis and other Islamic head clerics harshly denounce and judge such marriages as an unlawful act of infidels that should be severely punished.  Unlike the uncompromising Muslim muftis, some Arab Christian patriarchs and bishops adopt more moderate stance to approach this issue. Nonetheless, when it comes to the legalization of mixed marriages, these same religious authorities, Islamic and Christian authorities alike, compel one of the couples to convert to the other sect—mostly, to men’s sect.

Arab children rights are widely infringed. Child labor is accepted as a norm in most Arab countries since for them it adds manual skills to the poor and uneducated kids, while the fact is that the only skill they acquire is the art of panhandling; seeing most Arab cities are filled with young street beggars and flower kids—let alone the foreseen abuses therefrom. Most Arab children and adolescents, especially in non-rich countries, are not entitled to public healthcare or public medical coverage unless their parents are employed and registered in the state’s Social Security departments, not to mention the inhumane case of orphans and illegitimate youngsters.

Unfortunately, in more than two-thirds of Arab countries, those who are over 64 years old, along with the elderly, and senior citizens are abandoned to their fate without retirement pension, medical and hospitalization coverage, or any other social benefit for them or their families.

Obviously, the current severe conditions of Arab civil societies are in breach of international civil rights and incompatible with the Islamic and Christian societal cultures. Despite that, there are vigorous national attempts and modest international efforts to revitalize Arab civil societies and promote the adoption of human and civil rights in this region, the fact remains that Arab people still have a long journey to establish a rock-steady civil life.

Though there is little room to believe that the current governing elites and their dogmatists will bring on real societal change; yet the prevalent notion is that reform will be set about only when Arab people open their minds to the fact that they deserve to have full civil and political rights like many other nations; and hence work for their rights.

Arabs, all Arabs without regard to religion, color or geopolitical settings have no choice but to moderate their views, convictions, and beliefs so that to create common civil codes of which they can unite their efforts to effectuate it peacefully. Bearing in mind that, once civil activism starts it should never stop.

Meanwhile, Arab heads of states, politicians and religious authorities should take notice that the real outcry in the Arab minds and hearts is about democratization and modernization; and thus they must reform accordingly before Arab societies fall apart or reach an uncompromising state of mind.


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