IS CIVIL SOCIETY A SYNONYM FOR COLLECTIVE EMPOWERMENT? THE JORDANIAN CASE

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There is a general assumption that an active civil society will favour the development of a more democratic environment thus guaranteeing that the demands of a country’s population are met. Is it truly so or can civil society associations turn into the governmental authorities’ invisible hands causing a reduction in the democratic level of the society?

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The state of democracy in Jordan

According to the democracy index compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), Jordan ranks 114 out of 167 examined countries with a score of 3.93 out of 10.  The scores assigned to each country are inferred from public-opinion surveys based on five categories: electoral process and pluralism, the functioning of government, political participation, political culture and civil liberties. Based on its scores each country is then classified as one of the following types of regime: “full democracy”, “flawed democracy”, “hybrid regime” or “authoritarian regime”. With regard to the Mena region no country is included in the “full democracy” category. On the contrary, the majority are classified as “authoritarian”. Among the latter, there is the Jordanian kingdom.

 

However, the country went through an important process of democratization during last decades which facilitated the growth of a wide range of civil society associations. As a consequence, various NGOs have growth which continue to have a stance in opposition to the government’s position both on domestic and regional / international issues. While it is true that their growth is surely motivated by economic and political needs, it is no coincidence thatsome of them are closely related to the Hashemite Royal Court, with the queen, prince or princess likely being the chair. In view of the above, the aim of this paper can be easily summarised in Max Weber words “the quantitative spread of organizational life does not always go hand in hand with its qualitative significance”.[1] Hence, the spread and growth of civil society associations, labour syndicates and non-governmental organizations does not implicitly mean an improvement in the democratic level of the society. As argued by several scholars, civil society can be used for non-democratic purposes and actually threaten political freed.

Civil society and state: towards a more democratic environment? The Jordanian Case

In order to better understand the impact of civil society on the political realm in the Middle East – that is, to comprehend whether popular forms of associationism have favoured the democratization process or strengthened state’s control – we must analyse how this kind of activism developed. Regarding the Middle East, it didn’t have spontaneous origins: it was not a “from below” process, rather a top-down” political instrument.

During the last decades of the 20th century Middle-eastern governmental authorities, namely in Jordan (in addition to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco and Algeria), faced a series of economic difficulties thus being incapable to provide the population with basic goods and services. Therefore, to limit the loss in legitimacy that the situation could cause, these governments implemented various liberalization policies which better addressed public needs. They mainly consisted in the constitution of consultative assemblies (usually with limited powers), fair and free elections, legalization of political parties, and parliamentary elections. Liberalization measures created new opportunities for associationism, and civil society organizations proliferated rapidly. In fact, the number of nongovernmental organizations in the kingdom expanded substantially after 1989.

However, while these measures surely facilitated the growth of civil society associations, the principal aim behind their adoption was regime survival. All of this leads us to wonder: did these measures truly empower the population thus favouring the democratic process? In Jordan, as well as in Egypt or Palestine, NGOs had, and still have, a distinct impact. For example, although Jordan signed a peace treaty with Israel, the normalization process between the Hashemite Kingdom and the Jewish State is strongly opposed by the citizens. Syndicates and civil society organizations thus become a tool to express the population’s dissent. In this regard, professional syndicates, according to their own policy, can forbid their members from doing business with Israel.

However, we cannot affirm with certainty that collective associations in Jordan had a relevant impact on democracy. On the contrary, the Hashemite Kingdom seems to utilize bureaucratic processes, regulations, and practices to maximize surveillance and social control through formal civil society organizations. These are governed by the Law of Societies and Social Organizations, Law 33 of 1966, which narrows civil society organizations’ field of action. Not only must all forms of group associations and collective action be registered at a specific ministry, which is charged with controlling the organization’s activities, but the law also assigns to each type of association a specific set of activities that can be held, apart from the ones with a political purpose which fall outside any association’s scope.

In addition, according to the law, civil society associations are obliged to send to the Ministries an annual report with a detailed record of all the correspondences, activities held, and financial aspects with the aim to monitor how money is spent and, particularly, that it is not spent in activities which cannot be adequately monitored by state’s authorities. It is clear that civil society is thus partitioned and segmented into administrative units and fully embedded into the statal bureaucracy. The obligations, rights and duties provided for by law, allow the State to meticulously monitor each organization maximising social control.

 

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The importance of the socio-political context

In conclusion, collective action and group associations are undoubtedly regulated by a specific set of norms, being the political context either authoritarian or democratic. This means that civil society is never completely autonomous, it just has a varying degree of independence. Notwithstanding this, the political context and the motives behind the growth of this type of activism play an important role as far as it concerns the democratization process.

With regard to the Jordanian case, it is clear that the citizens didn’t actually gain much power; instead, these organizations have proven to be the authorities’ invisible hands. The consistent use of repressive methods (evident, for example, in the limitation of NGOs’ field of action to any sector except for the political realm) as well as the political culture – meaning that independent civic participation or a truly active membership remain extremely low in Middle-eastern societies – are among the most evident factors contributing to civil society weakness. [1] The socio-political context in which it emerges plays a fundamental role on the more or less democratic influence civil society could have. Indeed, it could ostensibly be a platform for the development of a prodemocracy context but are not sufficiently autonomous to do so. However, in a region characterized more by dictators and authoritarian regimes than by democrats, civil society can still be seen as a possible remedy for the limited political participation.

Note

[1] Quintan Wiktorowicz, “Civil Society as Social Control: State Power in Jordan”, Comparative Politics, Vol. 33, No. 1 (2000), pp. 43-61.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Amy Hawthorne, MIDDLE EASTERN DEMOCRACY: Is Civil Society the Answer?, CANERGIE, n. 44, 2004.

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Martina Brunelli

Ciao a tutti, sono Martina Brunelli, laureata in Mediazione linguistica e culturale e attualmente laureanda in Relazioni e istituzioni dell’Asia e dell’Africa presso l’università degli studi di Napoli “L’Orientale”. Sono fluente in quattro lingue e la mia voglia di migliorarmi mi ha portata ad approfondire i miei studi a Siviglia (Spagna) e Rabat (Marocco). La mia collaborazione con lo IARI è iniziata ad ottobre 2019 spinta dal desiderio di mettermi alla prova e di comprendere al meglio l’ambiente socio-politico mutevole e dinamico della regione del Medio Oriente e Nord Africa, la macro-area di cui mi occupo nelle mie analisi per lo IARI. Scrivere per questo giovane think tank mi dà la possibilità di coadiuvare i miei interessi per le relazioni internazionali e gli equilibri geopolitici dell’area MENA al mio desiderio di crescita professionale. Mi permette, inoltre, di confrontarmi con un ambiente giovanile ma allo stesso tempo stimolante.

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