Paul Aarts and Francesco Cavatorta, editors, Civil Society in Syria and Iran: Activism in Authoritarian Contexts. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2013.
Jadaliyya (J): What made you put together this book?
Paul Aarts and Francesco Cavatorta (PA & FC): We started collaborating in early 2009 on a project looking at civil society dynamics in the Middle East and North Africa. We were not entirely satisfied with the mainstream understanding of civil society activism and its natural or inevitable link to democratization. This was particularly true for traditional civil society organizations involved in defending and/or promoting human rights and democratic political reforms. We felt that the reality on the ground contradicted the normative liberal assumptions behind much of the civil society literature. We were both inspired by Jamal’s work, and her book Barriers to Democracy in particular.
We were lucky that the Dutch NGO Hivos (an international development organization which had started a project on “Civil Society in West Asia,” with a special focus on Iran and Syria) was interested in fresh analyses of civil society activism in authoritarian developing countries, because they also felt that traditional tools and associations were not central to political liberalization. In conjunction with Hivos, we began to draw up a research plan that would allow us to investigate what at the time we thought of as “unusual suspects” in terms of civil society activism, looking therefore to groups and organizations that operated largely under the academic and policy-making radar. In short, we wanted to see what kind of civil society dynamics existed in the authoritarian states of Iran and Syria by focusing on non-traditional actors to locate where democratizing potential might be, but also to highlight that in specific contexts, civil society was a pillar of authoritarian rule.
We were also fortunate that a number of excellent scholars accepted our invitation to participate in the project and lent us their expertise, each of them focusing on civil society actors and processes that had not been systematically analysed before in one volume. The reason for the book is to offer a different conceptualization of civil society through a number of theoretical tools that are then employed in the case studies.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
PA & FC: Like many scholars of the region, we were interested in addressing issues related to democratization and authoritarian rule. We were critical towards the assumptions, theoretical tools, and teleology of democratization because we felt that they did not explain the political dynamics of the region and of Syria and Iran in particular. This is not to say that we believed that authoritarian rule would last forever, but we thought that there was a degree of simplicity in the assumptions of democratization that were both unconvincing and problematic. We decided to focus on one specific aspect, that of civil society activism; in particular, we attempted to move beyond the analysis of traditional human rights and democracy-promoting organizations to focus instead on apparently less politicized non-traditional activism.
The authors of the different chapters concentrated on online activist communities, as well as on business associations and GONGOs (government-organized non-governmental organizations). At the same time, we were also interested in examining, and to a certain extent comparing, two countries that have been rarely analyzed together systematically: Iran and Syria. We thought it would be interesting to look at civil society dynamics that non-traditional actors created in countries that, at the official rhetorical level, had not bought into the tenets of liberal democracy and that are still today inimical to Western countries.
The findings are quite interesting, because what emerges is the unexpected complexity of civil society activism that pulls the individuals involved in many different directions. Some firmly want a positive relationship with the regime despite its authoritarianism (or precisely because of it, in order to secure selective benefits); others are ambivalent about it and simply pursue what they see as non-politicized objectives; and still others still operate within authoritarian constraints, but with a view to expand their room to manoeuvre and test boundaries.
J: How does this work connect to and/or depart from your previous research and writing?
PA: The Hivos-funded project, of which I was one of the main coordinators, offered an excellent opportunity to test several theoretical assumptions on civil society activism in non-democratic contexts in a very concrete, empirically-grounded research project. In previous years, I had become familiar with both Iran and Syria via student exchange programs, in which the research component usually is rather light. This project gave me the opportunity to deepen my interest in both countries.
FC: In terms of my own research, this project represents the end-point of a few years of engagement with issues related to civil society activism and democratization in the Arab world and beyond. I had finished a large project, funded by the Irish government, on civil society in the Arab world in 2009, covering Lebanon, Morocco, Algeria, Jordan, and Yemen, and I wanted to pursue some of the themes that had come out of that project. This edited volume gave me the opportunity to do that in the very intellectually stimulating environment that Hivos and the University of Amsterdam provided.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
PA & FC: From the very beginning, the book was intended for two types of audiences. We wanted to write a rigorous book that would be academically significant, address important debates, provide new insights derived from recent fieldwork conducted in the two countries, and contribute therefore to the wider discussion on authoritarian rule in the Middle East and North Africa. The 2009 demonstrations in Iran and the Arab Awakening challenged some of our assumptions and validated others, so we think that we made a valuable contribution to scholarship.
The book, however, was also destined for a policy-making audience, and therefore it provides suggestions to those interested in promoting or stimulating civil society activism in authoritarian contexts, and in Iran and Syria in particular. In that respect, the main contribution is that there is a significant degree of activism “below” the radar of institutional politics and outside the traditional civil society actors that have been at the forefront for decades. “Unusual suspects” do exist and should be engaged.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
PA: I have several ongoing projects. The main one is a series of articles on the “resilience of the House of Saud,” attempting to explain why it has managed to stay in power for so long. I am organizing a workshop at the Gulf Research Meeting (Cambridge, 3-5 July 2013) on “Saudi Arabia and the Arab Spring.” Last but not least, I am co-authoring a book in Dutch with a senior journalist, provisionally titled “Saudi Arabia: The Revolution That Has Yet to Come.” The volume focuses mainly on youth-generated issues. Apart from my work on Saudi Arabia, I keep on trying, like so many of us, to make sense of Arab Spring-related events, focusing not so much on where it should go (that is, having a defined end point that coincides with some form of liberal-democratic government), but on where it is going and how to explain the different trajectories that are seemingly being taken. A third project, which is near completion, is a substantial piece, co-authored with a former student, on Dutch policy vis-à-vis the Middle East, to be published in a volume edited by Timo Behr.
FC: I am working with a Tunis-based researcher, Fabio Merone, on a project related to the re-emergence of Tunisian Islamism on the public scene in all of its forms. The project is funded by the Germany-based Gerda Henkel Foundation and examines the different forms of expression and politicisation of Islam in contemporary Tunisian politics. For the moment our work concentrates on Salafism. We published an article about Tunisian Salafism in Middle East Policy in December 2012 (a Rome-based researcher, Stefano Torelli, is also a co-author of this article) and we have another one forthcoming in Middle East Law and Governance.
J: What methodologies did you use in the writing of this book?
PA & FC: Being an edited collection, the authors of the different chapters used different methodologies. However, it should be highlighted that all the chapters draw extensively on fieldwork conducted in Syria and Iran. Thus, while there are some descriptive statistics, the bulk of the evidence has been collected through interviews with activists and policy-makers.
J: How do you see the book feeding into current Syrian and Iranian realities?
PA & FC: Though most of the contributions in the volume were written before the Arab revolts started, ongoing events in Syria certainly can be better understood by using the framework we have tried to develop in the book, namely zooming in on non-traditional civil society actors, which form a core element of the forces that are contesting Bashar al-Assad’s regime. As far as Iran is concerned, here again the “not-so-usual” suspects within Iranian civil society are essential to understanding the current stand-off between the regime and its (weakened) opponents. In this context, of particular relevance is the insight being delivered by Ali Fathollah-Nejad (“Iran’s Civil Society Grappling with a Triangular Dynamic”) on the nefarious effects of the international sanctions on Iran’s civil society. He convincingly shows that economic sanctions widen the gap between the authoritarian state and civil society, cementing and even boosting existing power configurations while hollowing out social forces indispensable to a process of democratization.
Excerpts from Civil Society in Syria and Iran: Activism in Authoritarian Contexts
Civil Society and the Inter-Paradigm Debate
Much of the debate on Middle East politics has fluctuated between two seemingly contending paradigms. The literature on democratization with its assumption about the inevitable linear development of societies from authoritarianism to democracy dominated analyses of the region during the 1980s and 1990s. When it became apparent that democracy was not actually coming to the region, a significant number of studies began to question the mainstream approach of examining the region only through the lenses of democracy and democratization. The emergence of the “authoritarian resilience” paradigm seemed to be better suited to explain the mechanisms through which authoritarianism survived in the region and this literature supplanted the one on democratization by providing a thorough critique of the main assumptions of transitology.
The popular uprisings of 2009 in Iran and 2011 across the Arab world have contributed to swing the pendulum back towards democratization studies with enthusiasm for transition processes and regime change prominent once again. The inter-paradigm debate has been an important contribution to studies of Middle East politics because it has highlighted problems with both, while providing a number of theoretical assumptions that can potentially be shared by proponents of the two approaches. For one, despite the momentous Arab Spring, it is becoming increasingly accepted in both camps that the belief in a linear path towards democracy does no longer, if it ever did, permit a clear analysis and understanding of regional, and even global, dynamics. In many ways the days of looking at political, social and economic developments in the region as if they were steps that would make countries move either forward or backward on the imaginary linear path between authoritarianism and democracy are gone. This remains also the case in light of the Iranian protests and the Arab Spring for two reasons. First of all, as highlighted by Ottaway, “presidents have left, but regimes remain in place,” indicating that the changes taking place might be more cosmetic than real with potential transitions facing significant obstacles. Secondly, even in the case of successful transitions to democracy, the scholarship on democratization would not be able to explain such processes given that they seem to constitute a novelty in terms of the protagonists and the dynamics of change, as noted for instance by El Alaoui.
As mentioned above, a significant section of the academic literature on the Middle East is now sufficiently developed to offer a different perspective on regional dynamics. The authoritarian resilience paradigm has produced a number of assumptions that allow scholars to examine the broad spectrum of Arab and Iranian politics in a less normative manner, investigating the mechanisms of the reconfiguration of power that still allows authoritarianism to be successful in many countries of the Middle East and North Africa. This literature is certainly on the retreat in the face of events that it did not foresee and that do not seem to make sense in the context of what was assumed to be extremely solid authoritarian rule. Criticism of this approach is well deserved to a certain extent, but some of its theoretical assumptions still provide a useful guide for understanding how authoritarian politics works. In addition, examining authoritarian reconfigurations of power even in a context where this might be collapsing is interesting in so far as what comes next through path-dependency owes much to earlier political, social and economic interactions.
The issue of civil society activism with which this edited volume is concerned highlights some of the terms of the inter-paradigm debate. On the one hand democratization studies postulate that a strong civil society is conducive to democracy and is a necessary ingredient for political transformations. This literature places a lot of faith in the capacity of civil society to make democratic demands, but the unexpected revolts in Iran and across the Arab world took by surprise almost the whole spectrum of activists and associations that one would have associated with the struggle for democracy. The protagonists of the “Spring” are not to be found in mainstream civil society. On the other hand, the literature on authoritarian resilience focused almost exclusively on the mechanisms of state domination and cooptation of civil society, ignoring informal and unofficial loci of dissent and activism presenting therefore a picture of stability that was not there.
Whether it stimulates democracy or reinforces authoritarianism, civil society activism is examined through studies dealing with traditional loci and actors of activism. This has led to neglect potential actors and milieu of dissent production that might exist under the “official” surface in a state of marginality. This book addresses specifically the issue of civil activism and builds on previous findings and assumptions linked to the inter-paradigm debate, to provide a much clearer understanding of civil activism in Iran and Syria. The objective is to examine how societies where authoritarianism has been upgraded and is still present respond and operate. From a theoretical point of view, the contributors in this project move away from a normative definition of civil society and concentrate their attention on ‘marginal’ realities of activism. From an empirical point of view, contributors highlight different aspects of civil society activism that characterize Syria and Iran with specific attention to the dynamics that occur outside formal groups. It is precisely the nature of protests and the reaction to them by the regimes that make Syria and Iran crucial cases to examine given the nature of such regimes and their status as international “pariahs.”
 Anderson, “Where the Light Shines”; Valbjørn and Bank, “Examining the ‘Post’ in Post-Democratization.”
 Ottaway, “The Presidents Have Left.” Also see Friedman’s "Egypt: The Distance Between Enthusiasm and Reality" and “Re-Examining the Arab Spring”; Tignor, “Can a New Generation Bring about Regime Change?”; Agha and Malley, “The Arab Counterrevolution”; Carothers, “Think Again: Arab Democracy”; Owen, “Military Presidents in Arab States”; and Paciello, “Egypt: Changes and Challenges.” In his recent The Origins of Political Order, Fukuyama extensively goes into path dependency phenomena which look to be highly relevant to understand the Arab Spring’s perspectives. “Ultimately, societies are not trapped by their historical past […] and yet societies are not simply free to remake themselves in any given generation” (p. 478).
 El Alaoui, “Tunisie, les éclaireurs.”
 Heydemann and Leenders, “Authoritarian Learning”; Bellin,”Reconsidering the Robustness of Authoritarianism in the Middle East.”
[Excerpted from Civil Society in Syria and Iran: Activism in Authoritarian Contexts, edited by Paul Aarts and Francesco Cavatorta, by permission of the editors. © 2013 Lynne Rienner Publishers. For more information, or to buy the book, please click here.]