Al-Ahram Weekly Online   18 - 24 August 2005
Issue No. 756
Books Supplement
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Uncivil society

Civil Society Exposed: The Politics of NGOs in Egypt, Maha M. Abdelrahman, Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2004. pp225

As social researchers direct their analytical gaze towards the globalisation/marketing of "democracy", the variety of forms of local level political engagements are increasingly addressed in relation to the notion of "civil society". According to a number of recent scholarly works, such conceptual emphasis has not produced recognisable enhancement of analytical productivity. This has been associated with a tendency towards atomisation, de- historicisation, and confusion between civil society as a heuristic device, a conception, and its concrete actualisation as an arena of political action.

The problem is such that in surveying the proliferating popular and specialised literature on civil society, and its non- governmental organisations (NGOs), one is sometimes reminded of philosopher Harry Frankfurt's remarks in his treatise "On Bullshit" (Princeton University Press, 2005). Specifically, the salient similarity relates to what Professor Frankfurt describes as "indifference to how things really are." Acclamation showered on generic civil society organisations (CSOs) sometimes resembles hagiography, particularly when such organisations are presented within an Orwellian dualistic framework where their constructed polar opposite is a demonised state, de- socialised and de-historicised. The issue is not, as some would have us believe, a matter of difference between those who aim to develop over-arching theory and those who opt for descriptive specificity.

While an increasing number of scholarly works have gone a long way in interrogating reductionism and unfounded generalisations, with some civil society researchers raising basic questions about the analytical utility of this historically derived Eurocentric term, empirical studies focused on Arab societies in general and Egypt in particular remain limited. Maha Abdelrahman's book is a welcome contribution towards addressing this lacuna in the academic literature. To non-specialists it is a useful source of information that counters the equating of opposition to foreign-funded NGOs with rejection of "western democracy." The author demonstrates that historically voluntary associations have not been alien to Egyptian society, even if they were known under designations different from those of today's CSOs.

For Egypt, as for other Arab and Third World societies, the author brings into analytical purview the framework of global structural power relations within which CSOs are created and funded. Thus, today's NGOs are revealed not only as homespun grass roots organisations, which some of them undoubtedly are, but also as potential conduits for the agenda of dominant neo- liberal international policy makers. Describing such an agenda within the framework of the Washington Consensus, Abdelrahman reveals the resolve to undermine the role of the state: "[The Consensus] stressed that the freeing of markets, monetary stabilization and limitation of the State's role were essential." Commenting on the shortcomings of this policy orientation that privileges NGOs as vehicles of development, the author shows how it ignores the "deeper sources" of Third World problems of development, which, she contends, are rooted "in large part (in) patterns of state formation and insertion into the international system over which policy had little control".

Maha Abdelrahman defines the specific purpose of her book as an examination of the debate on the relevance of the concept of civil society to programmes of progressive social and political change and the role its non-governmental organisations play in promoting these emancipatory projects. Although well aware that her study could be equally well served by other concepts, Abdelrahman opts for retention of the concept of civil society, arguing that this "provides the added opportunity to further substantiate the critique of popular claims about the inherent 'goodness' of civil society based on concrete case studies".

In the Introduction, the terms of the book's central debate are detailed in relation to academic and policy concerns pertaining to democratisation and development. In addition to a typology of CSOs that documents their diverse professed missions, the author provides a useful summary of the major analytical frameworks that have informed civil society-focused deliberations. She brings attention to the associated "conceptual confusion," the "vagueness" of popular current usage, and how the notion of civil society has been "manipulated by different ideological camps to suit their own interests." As for Abdelrahman's own analytical orientation, she describes it as one that places emphasis on "the political and socio-economic environment which produces (CSOs)", and gives attention to "relations of power and social class" and how these organisations operate in relation to the state. Concern with the state extends to its "position within a changing world system, changes in domestic social forces and the forms they take, and the interconnectedness of relations among actors on these three levels."

In addition to the book's Introduction and a much too short concluding section of less than four pages, the author devotes six major chapters to servicing her interrogation of the predilection for certainty that often accompanies mere assertions linking NGOs to emancipatory social and political transformation in a causal relationship. The chapter devoted to "A Conceptual Framework of State and Civil Society" provides an instructive analysis that lends support to the idea that global compradorial relations are not confined to the economic sphere but have recognisable socio-political manifestations. Whereas this line of argument, and the entire chapter focused on methodology, is more likely to be appreciated by specialists, the remaining chapters of the book make for easier but also informative reading for non-specialists. These address the relevance of CSOs to projects of socio- political change, not only in Egypt but also elsewhere around the world.

As a scholarly production Maha Abdelrahman's book is a timely publication that evaluates the usefulness of the concept of civil society by framing this ideal of liberalism in a concrete socio-historical context. Based on empirical research, the author's "exposure" of civil society through an analysis of the politics of NGOs is skillfully linked to developments in Egyptian political economy as a whole, thereby revealing socially detrimental internationally- generated policies that are often camouflaged by the idealistic rhetoric of NGOs.

For the non-specialist reader, the book, written in an accessible style, effectively demystifies the international donor industry's propagandist "civil society" rhetoric and challenges associated claims of CSO's emancipatory functions. It gives specific meaning to Arundhati Roy's notion of the "NGO-isation of politics" by showing how Egyptian NGOs, far from addressing structural inequalities and generating social emancipation, in fact often contribute to the reproduction of asymmetric power relations. More generally, Abdelrahman's study brings attention to what Jonathan Schell of the Nation Institute has described as the "faking of Civil Society." With the adoption of an analytical orientation that extends due consideration to the historically specific evolution of Egyptian political economy, Abdelrahman's study represents a genre of scholarship that has challenged Eurocentrism in studies of Egypt and other parts of the Arab region over the past few decades.

As such her book will no doubt prove useful to other scholars engaged in comparative research. It provides an important complement to Ray Bush's excellent work on civil society in rural Egypt. Sharing Abdelrahman's analytical orientation, Bush concludes that within the framework of state policies of market-liberalisation, and international donors' emphasis on the need for expansion of "what they call civil society," peasant communities have undergone "political de-liberalization" in conjunction with increased rural poverty and unemployment. Other researchers around the world, including indigenous investigators in the Arab region, have reached similar conclusions.

It is now evident that the increase in the number and variety of CSOs has neither substituted for the support of the welfare state nor resulted in political liberalisation and democratisation. In addition to numerous accounts that reflect popular sociological imagination, the contributions of independent Arab activists also support Abdelrahman's findings in relation to her central concern with "substantiat(ing) the critique of popular claims about the inherent 'goodness' of civil society."

Among those who have long opposed what anthropologist Julia Paley has described as the global "marketing of democracy" through NGOs are Arab activists /researchers who have produced incisive analysis of foreign aid and its more recent channeling through CSOs. Worthy of note here is the late Sanaa El-Masri's work on Egypt, and Adel Samara's on Palestine. Like many other independent activists who stand on principle in shunning affiliation with foreign-funded NGOs that implement Northern donors' agendas, El-Masri and Samara have been among the first to pen well-investigated works that explode the myth of "the inherent 'goodness' of civil society".

As is the case with Abdelrahman's book, their published studies demonstrate that nothing less than serious empirical research is necessary to determine if the claims of CSOs' "civility" are to be upheld, or whether placing the spotlight on NGOs results in their "exposure" as far from independent, less than honourable, or even perverted. Maha Abdelrahman's assessment is neither one of a priori vilification nor groundless adulation. Her Egypt-based empirical research leads her to deduce that civil society "constitutes a politically contested terrain characterized by authoritarian and repressive tendencies".

By Soheir Morsy

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