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Arab Spring: Challenges During Political Transitions and Comparative Lessons for Civil Societies in the Middle East and North Africa

A Sub-Project of the CCDP’s Civil Society and Peacebuilding Project.

Project Coordinator: Thania Paffenholz
Principal Collaborators: Riccardo Bocco; Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou; Benoit Challand; Marie-Joëlle Zahar (Université de Montréal); Lyna Comaty; Stephanie Dornschneider (University of Oxford); Elisabeth Prügl for gender aspects and networking.




The recent wave of popular uprisings taking place in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) brought together several societal actors who have since pushed for a significant socioeconomic and political transformation of their countries. Amongst these actors, civil society movements (including women and youth organizations) have been particularly present and active. To a large extent and in varying forms, they have arguably been in the driving seat of these changes, whether in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, or elsewhere in the region.

Such a development is not unique to the MENA region. A similar key role for civil society was previously observed on an equally large regional scale during transitions from authoritarian to democratic rule in Latin America in the 1980s as well as in Eastern Europe in the 1990s. In other parts of the world, such movements have also substantially contributed to the ending of wars and, concomitantly, various authoritarian regimes.

Yet, research and experience demonstrate that civil society often loses its decisive role in the phase after the immediate transition. While civil society generally proves to be united by a common goal during the 'revolution' phase, the challenges of 'building a new order’ are manifold. In particular, there is a high risk that civil society will lose its influence over the transition process. Former elites may challenge or impede the set up of new institutional frameworks and their functioning, power struggles within and among groups can persist and lead to fragmentation, and civil groups may lose their leaders as these become politicians. Additionally, loose and consensual civil society movements can end up being transformed into non-governmental organizations with limited goals and increasing dependence on external donor funding. Overall, civil society often becomes a service provider for vulnerable groups in need instead of exerting a real influence and playing a role of counter power through different political roles inside and outside the official governance structures. Being aware of the pitfalls and challenges facing civil society during the uneasy and often lengthy transition periods is therefore essential.




The objective of this project was to strengthen the role and sustainable participation of civil society groups in the Middle East and North Africa during the consolidation phase of the current transitions. While the project made a clear distinction between each country’s dynamics of upheaval, it aimed to generate comparative international and regional insights on challenges and possible response strategies for civil society by providing:

  • A space for dialogue and reflection for civil society movements;

  • Comparative learning from transition processes both within and outside the MENA region;

  • A space for exchange between various civil society groups, politicians, regional and international experts, and donors.

This enabled different groups and organizations to:

  • Share and assess their experiences in the context of the Arab Spring and earlier transition attempts in the region, including an assessment of which actors were involved throughout the process and how their participation has changed over time.

  • Learn and benefit from existing research, expertise, and lessons learnt from past transitions in other MENA countries and other regions.

  • Provide international actors with guidance on how to support civil society groups in the consolidation of the current transitions.

Main Issues Addressed:

  • The role of civil society in different countries of the MENA region during the Arab Spring

  • From civil to political society: the transformation of civil society movements into political parties. What is the political impact of the transition on those who participated in the revolutions? Are the leading activists who spearheaded the revolutions still involved? What roles are they now playing in political parties? Which new parties have emerged and what are their constituencies, policies and approaches?

  • From socio-political movements to organized civil society: the building of an organized civil society after mass movements. Has there been a fragmentation of the movements along particular lines, including sectarian and gender lines? What is the role of the donor community and what impact does it have on how civil society is developing in terms of the nature and scope of work?

  • The changing nature of the relationship between civil society and the state in the MENA region. An assessment of how the participation of civil society has changed the nature of state governance structures, policy and programmes, and brought about legal reform so as to be more inclusive and responsive to civil rights

  • International policies and aid to the MENA region. An examination of the nature, role, and influence of mainly European, US, and Arab policies and aid


Project Format and Outcomes:


A first workshop was held in April 2012 in Amman (Jordan). The consultation brought together more than 70 participants from Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, Morocco, Algeria, Lebanon and Jordan which included civil society activists, international and regional researchers as well as diplomats and donor representatives. As a result, a conference report  and an issue brief (in English and Arabic) have been published, discussing the main findings of the event. 

A second workshop was held in Cairo (Egypt) in 2013. The consultation was the first forum of its kind to tackle the current challenges faced by civil societies in Egypt and Tunisia from a comparative perspective. An issue brief (in English and in Arabic) presents the main findings of the event. For more information about the workshop, please click here.

The project was concluded in late 2013.