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In his article “The Future of Civil Society in the Middle East”, Augustus Norton argues that fast growing populations and limited resources together mean that the governments of the countries of the Middle East are in great trouble. People are demanding changes to their political systems and these demands have become more pressing with the global revolution in communications and the migration of labor within and -out the Middle East.
Most of these countries are facing legitimacy crises. The Fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the Gulf War in 1991 increased the demands for democratization in the Middle East. As the demands for democratization have increased, some political leaders are willing to liberalize but they are not willing to democratize comprehensively. “Democratization means that there should be free and fair elections while liberalization is the freedom of expressions and permission of forming political associations” (Norton, 1993, 207). Allowing democratization would cause the regimes to lose power.
The impact of Islam on the political framework in the Middle East is decreasing as most of “the region’s Islamic movements are attempting to work within the existing systems” (Norton, 1993, 208). The author negates the view of some commentators that there is no civil society in the Middle East as he argues that there exist women`s organizations, businessmen’s groups and labor groups. The author further states that “the emergence of a civil society is a necessary, though not sufficient condition for the development of democracy” (Norton, 1993, 212). He defines civility as the ability of people in a society to accept diversity and disparate political views. The author considers civility an important factor in building effective civil society; he argues that most Middle Eastern countries lack this quality. The author ends by expressing his hopes for a better future for civil society in the Middle East, a future in which talk of the exceptionalism of the Middle East would be no longer appropriate.
This article gives a very good insight into Middle Eastern society. The author makes certain points about the form and structure of civil society. At the outset, he states: “Governments with limited resources are failing to meet the needs and demands of their fast growing population” (Norton, 1993, 205).the author`s point of view is quite valid because when people do have access to basic necessities, they feel satisfied with their existing political and economic systems. But when governments fail to fulfill their citizens’ basic needs, then people push for political or economic change. Often this desire for change in the system leads to change in the governing regime.
A growing population and limited resources in the Middle East are causing people especially the disenfranchised unemployed youth to rise up and demand new system which can give them what they need. As we have seen from the recent examples of Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen, “the civil society is protesting against the government for unemployment and a high inflation rate as oil reserves decline and water reserves are also depleted” (IBtimes). Rising prices and high youth unemployment together with entrenched monarchic system and systemic state terror have driven the street protests of Tunis, Cairo and Benghazi.
Another significant aspect that needs endorsement is that Islamic organizations are changing their behavior towards existing systems in the region. As the author says, “Islamist movements are attempting to work within the existing systems. Rather than toppling governments, the tactic is to push for reform from within” (Norton, 1993, 208). Since the Iranian Revolution of 1979, there is no example or event in the Middle East which could show that Islamist movements are against the existing system. Rather we see that most of the Islamist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon are now trying to achieve their goals within existing political structures. According to the author, this is a “wise approach” (Norton, 1993, 208). I think it would be difficult for these Islamist movements to implement their agendas in pure form as this would require drastic change in the regimes. The advantages of this approach are obvious from the electoral victories obtained by Islamist parties in Turkey, Iran and Gaza. For instance Justice and Development party in turkey which known as AK party is an Islamic party. AK party won elections in 2002 but it did not propose to introduce Islamic law as most of the people were expecting. Similarly Hamas and Hezbollah have also some electoral victories in the past several years but these parties did threaten the contemporary system. Especially Islamic militants Hamas won a majority in the Palestinian parliament in 2006 but it continued with the existing system rather to change. Similarly, Al-Qaida seems to be increasingly irrelevant even though, for instance, Ayman Al-Zawahiri rose up originally through the Muslim Brotherhood.
 The author negates the contention of those commentators who say that there is no civil society in the Middle East. He argues that civil society exists to the extent there are women’s movements, businessmen’s groups and labor groups (Norton, 1993, 209) which are advancing their demands through legitimate channels. This article was written in 1993 when these countries had stable economies. The author is right in his observation that civil society did exist in indigenous forms because people did not have as many demands to make from their governments. If we look at the experiences to date of Tunisia and Egypt we see strong civil societies. But at the other hand we do not see any revolt against the governments in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and United Arab Emirates because they have stable economies and hence their governments are able to fulfill their citizen`s demands. The existence of contemporary strong civil societies in the Middle East bears out the author’s prediction of strong civil society in the future.
What is happening now in Tunisia and Egypt disproves the concept of the Middle Eastern exceptionalism according to which there is a “failure of the Muslim Middle East to join in the global trend of democratization (Meforum). As “civil society is necessary for democracy” (Norton, 1993, 212), therefore the idea of the Middle East exeptionalism ultimately means that the Middle East does not have a civil society. So, the present day situation of the Middle East rejects the concept of the Middle East exceptionalism and bears out that civil society do exist. It is not true to assume that civil society always wants democratization. It is also possible that civil society may be conservative and thus might not necessarily seek democratization as is the case for religious movements in which elements of civil society struggle for the restoration of traditional systems and traditional political culture which may be autocratic, aristocratic or even totalitarian.
Norton argues that “civility is a quality which is missing in large parts of the Middle East” (Norton, 1993, 214). It would not be wrong to hypothesize that author is off-track as there are plenty of examples which show that these countries have become more tolerant over the years. It is possible to say that some Middle Eastern countries have fairly pluralistic societies. For example, in Lebanon, “70 percent of the total population is Muslim while 30 percent is Christian” (Mideastweb). There are also divisions as between Muslims: for instance in Kuwait “45 percent of the Muslims are Sunnis and 40 percent are Shia” (Mideastweb). There is diversity in ethnicity: in Qatar, “40 percent of the total population is Arab, 18 percent Pakistani, 18 percent Indian and 10 percent is Iranian” (Mideastweb). Looking at these figures, one can say that there is pluralism in Middle Eastern countries. Despite the great diversity found in Middle Eastern countries, there does not exist any significant conflict among different communities or sects. The author is wrong to state that tolerance is absent in these countries as it is tolerance which has enabled different sects and communities to live together without conflict. Without tolerance, such diversity might not have existed. 
The Future of Civil Society in the Middle East” provides a very good insight. The present situation of the Middle East provides evidence for the accuracy of the author’s views. But it is only to be expected that an article written nearly a decade ago does not altogether fit with the present scenario. As we see the revolution of Egypt and Tunisia and now the demonstrations of the Lebanese people against the government, these really bears out the  author prediction about a strong civil society in the Middle East.

Written By: Masood Khan

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