The term “civil society” has been used to describe those who are “active” outside the traditional societal organizations and within oppositional movements against other parts of society, mainly against state authorities.
Frequent calls have been recently made to unite the forces of “civil society” under one front to compete in the much anticipated parliamentary elections. More often than not, we hear about a meeting for “civil society organizations”, an intervention by a “civil society activist”, or a movement by “representatives of civil society”. Who is this civil society? Who does it represent? Who assigned its members to speak in our name? How do we join it or rise to become one of its “actors”?
Some say that civil society consists of all bodies and individuals outside state institutions. Great, but does that include companies of the private sector, and parties, who are also outside the public sector? We do not know. Does it include trade unions, student clubs, and occupational, crafts and sports unions? We do not know. Hence, who does it represent?
Indeed, the term “civil society” has been used to describe those who are “active” outside the traditional societal organizations and within oppositional movements against other parts of society, mainly against state authorities. Those who regularly follow up with activities of “civil society” organizations, on the one hand, would notice their ability to motivate and engage a significant number of citizens in campaigns revolving around local demands, such as the movement protesting the waste crisis, and on the other hand, its struggle to deal with core organizational issues, such as political discourse or internal administration, as well as its alienation from traditional political organizations such as parties and trade unions.
The main crisis in my opinion for all constituencies of “civil society” is that of popular legitimacy. In other words, it is about how much support and influence each group garners from the community. In the age of “scoops” and “social media”, the popularity of individuals and groups has been measured by the number of “likes” and media appearances. There is no longer a need to build an in-depth and distinct political discourse or plan for cumulative political battles. Politics was abandoned for violent speeches against the other and social media became the new platform through which competition for the “followers” and attention.
This is not an attack on technological development and the ability of communication networks to disseminate information and break down barriers between people. It is rather an outspoken criticism of all those who rely on these networks, exclusively in political action, and place themselves at the forefront of political debate based on the appreciation and “likes” of their friends. However, politics is not and should not be limited to persuading friends into supporting a political stance; the art of persuasion should be used to persuade those who disagree with us. Here lies the fundamental difference between movements that are similar to exclusive clubs and movements that seek to cross and transcend community barriers.
Change, whether through elections or other battles, requires an understanding of the nature of the components of the community that can influence political decisions. In Lebanon, the system of the ruling class relies on a network of individuals and institutions, both public and private, which have appropriated sectarian quotas and financial and military violence to establish their “legitimacy”.
Instigating change in the current political order cannot be done by relying solely “on political and organizational tools”, such as oppositional movements and campaigns on social media, which do not disturb the existing network of relationships. On the contrary, the pillars of governance, and their supporters locally and internationally, applaud and encourage a “clean” civil society. It is this kind of “acceptable” oppositional movements that has proven to legitimize the ruling elite by highlighting the “democracy and openness” of their rule.
The forces of “civil society” should seek to build political and organizational legitimacy that competes with the parties and institutions of the State, through the establishment of serious parties, associations, and trade unions that should strive to gain the popular support of all cleavages of society. It must establish clear and democratic internal mechanisms for association and for the elections, operate professionally and transparently, shake hands with parties and other constituents without complications, and develop long-term action plans. Instead of spending so much time on social media and tapping screens, such forces of change should instead meet in squares, cafes, and houses to discuss political acts.
The upcoming parliamentary elections are not a test for the ruling class. They are however a test for the forces of the so-called civil society to step up and to prove their worth and fight the battle inside the ring and not outside of it.
Published in the magazine “Alharak” in December 2017
This article has been translated by May Achour, Arabic Editor and Translator at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs.