Since the early 1990s support for civil society has constituted the linchpin of international efforts in the Middle East North Africa (MENA) to promote democratisation and democratic values. The rationale for this support lies in an understanding of civil society drawn from a liberal-democratic model, which dominates debates about civil society. This paper highlights the inaccuracies of this model when applied to the MENA and, using Turkey as an example, draws attention to the perils of supporting civil society organisations (CSOs) based on its conjectures. A critical analysis of CSOs and their role in Turkish society, drawing on the theoretical framework laid down by Gramsci, highlights two key issues: (1) contrary to the dominant policy view which equates civil society organisations with democracy, CSOs often assist elites in both democratic and undemocratic states to extend and consolidate their political economic power; (2) the idealisation of civil society by Western policy makers results in a diminished awareness of the factors which weaken civil society and erodes its democratic potential. Overall, the findings support the assertion that CSOs in the MENA facilitate predominantly elite interests over those of ordinary citizens and democracy more broadly.
- Civil society
- Middle East