The Constriction of Civil Society Under Semi-Authoritarian Regimes
1. Emily Bayens
Middle Eastern Politics
Dr. Katja Žvan Elliot
10 October 2014
The Constriction of Civil Society Under Semi-Authoritarian Regimes in the Middle East
and North Africa During the 1990s
At the end of the Cold War, in the nineteen-nineties, the world saw a dramatic
transition between the bipolar struggle for hegemony to a new system, in which many
countries made new transitions to their political systems based on domestic and international
characteristics. A collection of these states in the North Africa and Middle East region
particularly saw a transition to a semi-authoritarian government, where for the first time in
history, these states saw the characteristics of democracy. With democracy, came new human
rights organizations that sought to improve conditions for citizens in the region, especially
women. Although the organizations were set up in this region to improve human rights
conditions, particularly that of women, semi-authoritarian regimes still sought control over
these organizations in order to retain power, constricting the work of civil society.
First, it is important to understand the political systems states were transitioning to at
the end of the Cold War in North Africa and the Middle East. The term, semi-
authoritarianism, is not synonymous with “failed democracy,” but rather refers to what Olcott
and Ottoway refer to as the “gray zone” on a continuum which has authoritarian regimes on
one end and democracies on the other (7). Authoritarian leaders deliberately decided to
transform their governments to include more democratic characteristics, but still limited these
powers for their own interests (12). One reason authoritarian leaders may have done this is in
order to retain power while allowing citizens to believe that they are in fact living in a
democracy, a situation which looks desirable where the citizens have much more freedom,
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and seemingly the best political arrangement, especially at the end of the Cold War. Aside
from appeasing their citizens, authoritarian leaders would choose to transform their
governments into systems closer to democracy to reduce accountability in the new, chaotic
Despite having some qualities of a democracy, semi-authoritarian political systems
proved that the end of the Cold War did not signify democracy as completely triumphant. In
fact, semi-authoritarian governments have four characteristics, all of which one would not
typically associate with democracy: a difficult transition of power, weak institutionalization,
reform disconnect, and limits on civil society (Olcott and Ottoway 17-19). Heyedemann
depicts these multi-faceted qualities of these political structures in North Africa and the
Middle East as,
hybrid form[s] of authoritarianism… combin[ing] tried and-true strategies of
the past-coercion, surveillance, patronage, corruption, and personalism-with
innovations that reflect the determination of authoritarian élites to respond
aggressively with the triple threat of globalization, markets, and
Due to these characteristics, semi-authoritarian regimes can indeed hinder the growth of
democracy, and in effect, limit the success of human rights NGOs.
The difficulty of transitioning to a more democratic form of government generally
comes from authoritarian leaders reluctant to suppress their own power within the state.
Several tools including sticks and carrots, strong civil society organizations, political parties,
and democratic institutions can weaken the authoritarian leaders’ tendencies to hesitate on
expanding democratic qualities in a political system (12-13). However, outside powers or a
strong grassroots movement must be present for these mechanisms to have any real effect
without being dismissed by the authoritarian regime in question. The fact that there is a
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struggle in power transitions limits the amount of growth for human rights organizations due
to the difficulty of expanding citizens’ rights.
Characteristically, democracies have strong institutions, whereas authoritarian
regimes have weaker ones in order to preserve their power (16). The method is to have a
weak institution that cannot challenge or overthrow the authoritarian leader, but in effect,
citizens may suffer due to the lack of institutional protection of human rights. For instance,
the institution of education, if not egalitarian, will cater only to the upper class, ensuring that
the rich remain well educated while keeping the poor in poverty. In addition, lack of
education among a society will keep citizens out of politics, stunting the growth of
democracy, and by effect, the ability for prospering human rights organizations.
Reform disconnect, the third characteristic of semi-authoritarian political systems, is
when economic reforms tend not to change with political reforms, which through regime
manipulation, results in “a façade of democracy and a façade of market economy”. Typically,
semi-authoritarian regimes will adopt liberal economic policies by privatizing markets, but
instead of making them accessible to public ownership, corrupt government elites will
transfer government assets to themselves (18). Cingranelli and Richards mention the theory
of a globalized economy in their article, which states that after the Cold War, when
economies became more interconnected globally through trade and investments, human
rights were expected to worsen (516). Through a Marxist lens, this can be explained as more
economies embraced capitalist practices, which created a periphery among the lower classes
under authoritarian control. In their study, Cingranelli and Richards found that a small
percentage of states, not necessarily authoritarian or semi-authoritarian, had decreases in
human rights violations, which only happened to states that had considerably large increases
in foreign direct investments at the end of the Cold War (530-531). Sanguta explains that by
integrating themselves in the globalized economy, authoritarian regimes in the Middle East
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and North Africa would have been able to exit the periphery and place themselves on track
for development if they had been able to adjust their economies and if the political systems
had been willing to restructure themselves to comply with new economic policies (453).
Understandably, semi-authoritarian regimes did not do this in order to preserve their power.
By effect, states were unable to prosper adequately in the new global economy, hindering
resources of poverty alleviating civil society programs.
The final characteristic of a semi-authoritarian government is a limited civil society
(18). The control of civil society by an authoritarian regime creates a difficult cycle to escape
when creating a democracy. Valentine M. Moghadam explains that the conditions for
creating an ideal democracy lie within the ability to work through civil society (10).
However, when governments obtain the right to interfere with civil society, they are deterring
the process of creating a more democratic government. This cycle is beneficial to
authoritarian leaders who are capable of suppressing civil society actors through legislation,
cementing their position of power.
Egypt, like many countries in the region of North Africa and Middle East, has
legislation to control civil society functions. While enacted, Law No. 153 in Egypt severely
limited NGO activities. After ten years of work by Egyptian NGOs, Law No. 32, an already
strict piece of legislation controlling NGO activities was repealed and replaced with the more
strict, Law No. 153. Under the new law, the Egyptian government had the right to “object to
whatever it deem[ed] contradictory to [Egyptian] law in the statute of association,” while
understandingly, putting a ban on activities that could potentially harm national unity, cause
public chaos, or deemed unethical. Law No. 153 also made it illegal for NGOs to accept or
send foreign contributions. Violations of these laws would result in the organization’s
dissolvement by the government after a court case and possibly a year in prison and a 10,000
Egyptian pound fine. Aside from dictating the actions of NGOs, the Egyptian government
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could also alter the organizations’ charters and board member roster (Alexander 13-14). From
a western view, the laws controlling NGO activities and funding is a violation of democracy
as well as the very purpose of civil society organizations, which Beverly Milton-Edwards
explains exist to “[protect] the individual from a monopoly of state control” (Milton-Edwards
184). Although, these laws were formed in order to protect the state, under the power of a
corrupt leader, there could be drastic human rights violations.
Despite the existence of human rights organizations in the region, by definition, the
governments created through the introduction of democracy in North Africa and the Middle
East in the nineteen-nineties at the end of the Cold War were semi-authoritarian regimes. As
authoritarian leaders developed more democratic policies into their governments, they also
had to be careful of the powers that were being given to the citizens as well as other parts of
the government and society. With these concerns, the semi-authoritarian leaders were forced
to set certain standards that would limit the possibility of losing power, and under these
conditions, civil society organizations were severely constricted in their actions and
expanding access to human rights.
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Alexander, Barbara Cochrane. "Law No. 153: It's Impact on Egyptian Non-Governmental
Organizationa." Human Rights Brief (2002): 13-14.
Cingranelli, David L. and David L. Richards. "Respect for Human Rights after the End of the
Cold War." Journal of Peace Research 36.5 (1999): 511-534. 8 October 2014.
Heydemann, Steven. "upgrading Authoritarianism in the Arab World." The Saban Center for
Middle East Studies (2007): 1-48.
Milton-Edwards, Beverley. Contemporary Politics in the Middle East. Cambridge: Polity
Moghadam, Valentine M. "Democracy and Women's Rights: Reflections on the Middle East
and North Africa." Comparitive Studies on Family Democratization and Socio-
Politics. 2008. 1-16.
Olcott, Martha Brill and Marina Ottoway. "Challenge of Semi-Authoritarianism." Carnegie
Endowment, 1999. 1-27. 8 October 2014.
Sangutta. "Aid and Development Policy in the 1990s." Economic and Political Weekly 28.11
(1993): 453-464. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/4399488 .>.