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Middle Eastern Democracy: Is Civil Society the Answer?

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The idea that with sufficient outside support, civil society organizations can democratize authoritarian regimes "from below" is an article of faith among many policy makers and democracy promoters. Accordingly, programs to strengthen such groups are emerging as a key element of the United States' new Middle East promotion initiatives. However, the United States and other donor countries should not overestimate civil society's democratizing role in the region.

The United States has for many years provided funding and training to Arab NGOs with the goal of spurring democratization, but such assistance has not achieved much in this regard. For civil society to contribute to democratic political change, a critical mass of civil society organizations must develop three main attributes: autonomy from regimes, a pro-democracy agenda, and the ability to build coalitions. Although NGOs have grown in number in the region in the past decade, these conditions have not yet been met. In addition, the United States brings its own problems to its relationship with civil society in the Middle East. These include the narrow range of organizations with which it typically engages, popular antipathy to Washington's policies in the region, and the broader challenge of designing effective civil society assistance programs. Hawthorne recommends several ways in which Middle East civil society aid can be improved, while cautioning that modest expectations should be the watchword of such assistance.