Topics / Arab Region Transitions

Arab Civil Society Revisited

Students from the Arab region and beyond share research and professional development strategies

The American Political Science Association’s MENA Workshop program is a multiyear collaboration with early-career political science faculty from countries in the Arab Middle East and North Africa. The theme of the recent MENA (Middle Eastern and North Africa) Workshop was "Civil Society Revisited: Researching Associational Life in Comparative Perspective." Held in Amman, Jordan, in September 2016, the workshop brought together a large group of PhD students from the Arab region and beyond to discuss their research and professional development strategies with established figures in the fields of political science and Middle East studies. (Workshop participants had gathered the previous spring at the American University of Beirut in Lebanon.)

"Civil Society Revisited" attracted 23 participants from a variety of institutions. Presentation topics included: new forms of activism; finding space and claiming rights in authoritarian settings; the public sphere and modes of discourse; and building social capital and civil society. Other workshop sessions were dedicated to professional development, publishing, and networking. The absence of Italian doctoral student Giulio Regeni, who was to have attended the workshop, was a poignant reminder of the challenges facing many researchers in the region, and gave added weight to informative discussions regarding research design, privacy, and best practices for conducting field research.

MENA Workshop participants and leaders pose during an excursion to Ajloun Castle in Jordan, September 2016. (Photo: APSA MENA)

The sessions were helmed by workshop leaders Fateh Azzam, former director of the Asfari Institute for Civil Society and Citizenship at the American University of Beirut; Denis Sullivan, Northeastern University; Sandrine Gamblin, the American University in Cairo; and Noora Lori, Boston University. The leaders selected the workshop participants and the readings for the syllabus. Each workshop participant was assigned one of the four leaders as a respondent to their work in progress, and students were also assigned the work of their peers.

(l–r) MENA Workshop leaders Denis Sullivan, Sandrine Gamblin, Fateh Azzam, and Noora Lori. (Photo: Nehal Amer)

Workshop leaders began by framing civil society within the field of political science. Drawing from the literature on citizenship, they discussed the changing nature of the nation-state, and presented the refugee crisis as counter to the normative stance of the nation-state order. In other words, they asked: How is citizenship implemented when categories are changing, and what role does civil society then play?

Participants had 10 minutes to present followed by 30 minutes for discussion and feedback.

Rania Abdelnaeem presented her research on the question of distributive politics and the allocation of public finance in Egypt. In her work Abdelnaeem examines public finance and distribution inequality among the country’s municipal governments, with the aim of contributing to the academic literature on the ways in which clientele relations influence the distribution of resources in authoritarian settings.

Morocco's Mohammed Yachoulti presented on Moroccan civil society following the 2011 constitutional reforms. His research focuses specifically on the women's movement in Morocco, which he sees as a case study for understanding the ways in which civil society actors negotiate their rights and demands with specific actors in the Moroccan government—and how these negotiations have shifted since the 2011 reforms.

Egypt's Shaima Hattab discusses her comparative research on neoliberal alliances and regime change in Egypt and Paraguay at the MENA workshop. (Photo: Nehal Amer)

Saudi participant Ahmed Alowfi presented his sociological study of youth cliques in Saudi Arabian cities. Examining the role of informal civil society groups in intensely authoritarian settings, Alowfi argues that informality helps civil society cope with restrictive regimes. Groups like youth cliques allow individuals to shift between private and public settings, giving them the ability to create hybrid spaces that help them survive repression.

Yazan Majaj, director of the Jordanian civil society group Q perspective, was a guest speaker at the MENA Workshop. Q perspective, a private firm with regional operations, provides services for nonprofit organizations and initiatives in a number of areas, including: corporate social responsibility; training and capacity building; social research; organizational and strategic development; advocacy and resource mobilization; and communication strategies for nonprofit organizations and activities. Majaj spoke to the group about the failures of international funding streams to target imperative issues in the Arab region, as well as the lack of support for impact-driven projects. He suggested that civil society in the region has been largely compromised because of the forced imposed of agendas by international donors. Meanwhile real and relevant problems in the region are ignored. Therefore, Majaj explained, academics have a crucial role to play in agenda setting, not just for policymakers but also for donors and international institutions.

Workshop participants also met with local scholars and experts, who noted that the most pressing issues in the region today include the refugee crisis and the proliferation of armed nonstate actors. I had the opportunity to meet with Dr. Musa Shteiwi of the University of Jordan’s Center for Strategic Studies. Headquarters for the Arab Barometer, the center is currently working on a variety of issues, including regional security and the local impacts of international aid. Among several projects, Shteiwi emphasized in particular the center’s interest in examining the drivers behind support for ISIS and other related groups among Jordan’s population.

Read more about our work in Transnational Movements and the Arab Region​.

Read more about our work in International Peace and Security.