Civil Society as Domestication: Egyptian and Tunisian Uprisings Beyond Liberal Transitology

Recent debates on societal transitions to democracy have focused their attention on the notion of "civil society," putting great hope in its democratizing effects. This essay re-examines the notion's utility in the context of the post-2011 Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. It argues that at least in its conceptualization along the lines of the "transition paradigm," the civil society framework is unable to capture the complex catalysts of the non-teleological, open-ended uprisings in North Africa. Not only does it largely ignore the importance of socioeconomic forces a well as the non-institutionalized, spontaneous forms of organization present in these democratization processes; the analytical failure of the civil society framework also takes up a transformative power in and of itself, structuring the empirical realities that it claims to describe. The concept of civil society therefore fails to accurately represent the dynamics at play in Tunisia and Egypt, and has negatively shaped them with respect to the outcomes of revolutionary contestation. "Civil society" has integrated an open and contingent arena into the closed structures of reproduced sovereign statehood. Rather than unleashing democratic energies in Tunisia and Egypt, it has sometimes even reinforced the very power structures it allegedly set out to challenge. Borrowing from the work of Hannah Arendt on revolution and Giorgio Agamben on the notion of "destituent power," this essay argues for a conceptual opening in our analytical framework that corresponds to the radical contingency that lies at the heart of any revolutionary process.

Niklas Plaetzer
October 01, 2014