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Civil society involvement in violent conflict provides a particularly stark example of the geopoliticization of civic actors.1 Conflicts across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) have endured for over a decade since the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings descended into violent confrontation. In Syria, President Bashar al-Assad unleashed war on his people, resulting in the largest population displacement in history, while in Yemen, the Saudi-led coalition’s war against the Houthis has driven the world’s biggest humanitarian crisis.

Elsewhere, Libya has become a theater for the proxy involvement of regional actors as well as global superpowers such as Russia; European states have supported different sides in this conflict according to their national agendas. The twenty-year-long conflict in Iraq endures as internal strife threatens to break out into a new civil war, while in Sudan, all major regional and global powers meet in a competitive standoff as the country moves through its first years after the presidency of Omar al-Bashir.

Nonstate actors have been crucial to all of these conflicts, particularly where these actors are engaged in violence. Various interest groups and countries, many of which assist each other in one place while being adversarial elsewhere, have backed nonstate actors in these conflicts. It is particularly in theaters of conflict that powerful states have sought to commandeer nonstate actors for geopolitical ends, often blurring the lines between standard civil society organizations (CSOs) and militarily active groups.

Many of the countries in MENA that are now in conflict had little to no active civil society before the 2011 uprisings. International powers then flooded conflict zones with financial and military support that flowed through to nonstate actors, armed and unarmed alike. As the wars have unfolded, the digitization of conflict has deepened polarization. Social media has been a primary tool in spreading misinformation and disinformation and in fostering culture wars that have penetrated societies and deepened social fractures, which will endure long after the fighting stops. This is another aspect in which international geopolitics has conditioned the nonstate sphere in MENA conflicts. Finally, funding from external actors has been geared toward influencing the court of public opinion to drive support for these actors’ positions in the conflicts.

Regional Conflict Dynamics and Civil Society

External direct or indirect armed backing has served a wider range of international interests as more MENA countries have descended into war. This backing includes Russian involvement in the war in Syria; the activities of the quartet of Egypt, France, Russia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in Libya; Qatar’s and Turkey’s engagements in Libya, Syria, and beyond; and the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. The most documented intervention by a proxy actor—and one that created a large geopolitical fault line across MENA—was that of the Islamist-supporting Qatari leadership, which sought to promote Islamist oppositions both in nascent transitions to democracy and in the early stages of conflicts or counterrevolutions.

Civic actors have found themselves trapped both physically and financially in the visceral geopolitics of conflict by the broader proxy wars that are playing out. The battle for the hearts and minds of citizens across the region has translated into moves by proxy actors to expand their conflict support to include traditionally unarmed, nonviolent civic actors as a means for these proxies to promote their messaging and policies. The most widely reported example of this approach is Russia’s direct engagement in the Syrian war. In this case, hefty support for illiberal civic actors has coincided with substantial military backing.

Russia’s Involvement in Syria

As Russian bombs dropped on Aleppo led to an all-out siege of the city’s millions of residents, Russia has used Syrian and Arab civic actors to promote its policies and spread misinformation about its role in the war, the Assad regime and its practices, and the opposition and armed rebels Russia and Syria are fighting against. Support for nonstate actors has also been military in nature, in an especially direct example of geopolitical tool kits that extend beyond traditional state-to-state tactics. In Syria, Russia has targeted its support for nonstate actors by providing funding to elevate pro-regime narratives and groups and by weaving regime messaging into civil society networks and platforms.

Hafsa Halawa
Hafsa Halawa is a nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute.

This type of support has had a specific, two-pronged effect. First, because many of these nonstate actors include female voices, support for them has visibly politicized and polarized the question of gender in the broader civil society debate. This has negatively impacted the role of female human rights defenders and feminist movements in the region, which were already disadvantaged by an inherently male-dominated society and are more widely targeted online. Second, funding for think tanks and institutions that support the Assad regime has elevated illiberal policies in foreign policy making, splitting advocacy movements and effectively poisoning the multilateral system, including by politicizing basic humanitarian efforts for war-torn areas.

The Digitization of Conflict

Concurrently, social media has become a new venue to share and debate issues in the digital era and, as such, has become the new playground for external actors. Online trolls have worked to discredit and silence liberal voices in traditional forms of civil society, including through threats and intimidation, which have forced groups to become less visible and focus on more minor outcomes related to direct community engagement on a smaller scale. This, in turn, has threatened these organizations’ funding from partners that see fewer results and less impact in a conflict context where the narrative remains inherently focused on armed factions and continued fighting.

While externally coordinated bot armies have previously been deployed to combat opposition figures, there is a new and disturbing trend toward external powers funding illiberal civic actors who spread false information about conflicts, support authoritarian regimes, and instrumentalize the media blackouts in many conflict zones. In the current confrontations, state-supported media, backed by proxy actors such as Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, have sought to question the facts provided by those on the ground, discredit citizen journalists, and offer state-funded tourist trips for social media influencers to present half-truths about the state of a country and its conflict.

An emerging tactic has been for geopolitical powers to use local and social media promoters in partnership with government-organized nongovernmental organizations (GONGOs) from the proxy countries to spread false narratives about the wars in the neighborhood. For example, Egypt’s military involvement in Libya and the security-dominated Egyptian mainstream media have supported the narrative that Egypt’s interest in peace would be realized by backing Libya’s eastern forces, led by General Khalifa Haftar.

Furthering this agenda by housing and financing parties to the Libyan conflict, Egypt and the UAE have acted as platforms from which to shape narratives about the conflict and mobilize their supporters. By promoting a narrative of combating the Muslim Brotherhood–affiliated government in Tripoli, the two countries have substantially altered and influenced analyses of the conflict. In doing so, they have successfully vilified several civilian actors, describing them as dangerous Islamists. Such narratives partly fueled support for the regional blockade of Qatar that has lasted for much of the past decade. The media, digital, and civic spheres have fused as part of a wider cross-border geopolitical conflict dynamic.

Proxy Tactics

Meanwhile, in other places, governments use and stir sectarian divisions as part of their involvement in a conflict. Iran and its proxies, like Hezbollah and the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) in Iraq, have widened their military engagements in the region to include more actions in the civic sphere. Iranian support for the PMF has come in the form of building grassroots legitimacy by providing basic services like healthcare and subsidies for essential goods and the Arbaeen religious pilgrimage. Such external support has extended to nonstate actors who partner with armed groups, are allied to a particular political actor or sectarian group, or are merely active in areas where such groups are powerful.

At the same time, Iran and its proxies increasingly stoke anger toward certain reformist civic actors and have fomented conspiracies against the West. Civil society groups in Iraq are regularly threatened, intimidated, and accused of being foreign agents in attempts to strangle their activities, especially their efforts to limit the role of militias in Iraq’s public and political space. During Iraq’s 2019–2021 protests, militia leaders called for the removal of foreign hands, unleashing violence against thousands of unarmed young men and women as they took to the streets to protest against the country’s leaders.

In Iraq, Libya, and other conflict contexts, similar tactics have been used by other proxy actors, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the UAE, and others. Where funding for nonstate actors is a less prominent factor, access to traditional and social media and diplomatic access to regimes have provided nonstate actors with a valuable and visible presence that opposition political parties cannot reach. More recently, offers of residence from Egypt, Qatar, and the UAE, and of citizenship from Turkey, have been used to support directly funded or politically aligned civil society actors. The ability to provide a pathway for security and safety has become a valuable commodity in promoting politicized groups or proxy-backed actors.

Turkey’s Regional Role

Turkey’s geopolitical concerns have also had an impact on the country’s actions toward civil society actors on conflict-related issues. Turkey leverages its membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to promote its security role in the region, despite inflicting massive harm as a direct military power in Iraq and Syria in the name of defending itself against the insurgent Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

The more entrenched Turkey becomes in the protracted conflict against the PKK and its Kurdish-backed allies, the more legal, social, and financial rules Turkey heaps on civil society groups that have found refuge in the country. These include not least the hundreds of Syrian organizations that have followed the displacement of over 3.7 million Syrian citizens to Turkey since 2011.2 Many groups talk about needing to tone down their rhetoric or, in some cases, cease their work entirely in specific areas of Syria to keep their Turkish residence or legal status, as ordered by the Turkish authorities.

The International Community and Civil Society in Conflict

As these geopolitical dynamics intensify, they are having a major impact on traditional, long-standing partnerships between Western powers and CSOs in the MENA region. Geopolitical fault lines continue to shift so dramatically that there is now growing discontent with traditional Western donors and allies. Civic actors who are funded by the international community find themselves questioning the policies and moral authority of their allies.

A crisis of identity and realpolitik, particularly as a result of the Syrian war, has led these groups to seek alternative, more independent ways to mobilize resources. Crowdfunding and the search for philanthropic donors, including from the region, instead of government funds, have become active strands of funding strategies. Some civic groups have decided to distance their policies or advocacy goals from Western governments’ foreign policies. This civil society repositioning is having geopolitical consequences in terms of the West’s presence and alliances in the region.

Much of this shift can be encapsulated in the relationship between local civil society in conflict and the United Nations (UN). In Syria, CSOs’ ongoing accusations that the UN has allied with the Assad regime to secure nominal amounts of vital funds and resources have damaged the body’s relationship with broader civil society. In Libya, the UN experiences the same criticism, albeit with less deadly results, as civil society chastises the organization’s continued goal to implement a 2012 political agreement that has regularly failed to gain the endorsement of successive political configurations in the country.

In addition, despite long-standing relationships with civil society, the United States has experienced its own domestic crisis of values. This has contributed to further distancing from values and principled policies in the region, leading civic actors to move away from the United States as a primary donor and backer. Although this trend was exacerbated during the presidency of Donald Trump, the return to Democratic leadership under President Joe Biden has not brought with it the sought-after U-turn on supporting authoritarians in the region, leaving civil society feeling increasingly vulnerable in its relationship with the United States. Middle Eastern civil society has been squeezed between the geopolitical interventions of Russia, the Gulf states, and other powers, on the one hand, and the indecision of actors including the United States and the UN, on the other.

This situation has presented a significant gap for Europe to fill in support of traditionally like-minded civil society, as civic actors in the region generally view the European agenda as softer than that of the United States. But the European Union (EU) has not yet fully stepped forward to play this role. The EU has funded CSOs in conflict zones as part of its geopolitical agenda but does not compete at the same level of direct engagement as other external and proxy powers.

Moreover, a double-standards propaganda battle has emerged amid the ongoing war in Ukraine: many MENA CSOs feel bitter that the EU is providing the kind of strong support to Ukrainian civil society that it has declined to offer in the Middle East, despite the region’s geographic proximity to Europe. However, for the EU, the broader geopolitical aim to support liberal civil society risks alienating civic partners by being implemented alongside the goals of countering Russian influence and serving a local priority before a regional commitment. In short, civil society support has also become part of the EU’s geopolitical calculus in conflict zones.

A Geopolitical Realignment

The impact of all of these trends is that geopolitical dynamics are driving new divisions in MENA civil society. For many civic actors, there are few places left to turn. Communities have been split as money from conflict-driving actors, such as Egypt, the Gulf states, Iran, Israel, Russia, and Turkey, divides traditional alliances within a civil society built on a unified set of principles. Many civil society activists now find themselves regularly sparring online or in person with old friends and colleagues, bitterly divided by conflicts and political positions. Many also find themselves physically threatened online or harassed by local security forces in their countries of residence because of their work. This is a particular risk for female civic actors. So palpable are the mistrust and anger among civil society, and the suspicion over who funds what and whom, that there is neither unity nor any notable attempts to redraw civic space in a manner that corresponds purely to values or commitments to civic engagement.

Civic actors are caught in a geopolitical tussle for influence, power, and money that has greatly determined not just whether conflict occurs and who sits on the right side but even the principles and values that should command and steer civic engagement. Across the region, intellectuals, journalists, activists, and opposition politicians have all engaged in the wider trends of questioning facts, spreading misinformation and disinformation, and dismantling traditional forms of advocacy and desired governance. Meanwhile, perceived U.S. and European double standards in the promotion of values have created a crisis of the so-called liberal alliance.

Across the Middle East, geopolitical fault lines are taking hold that encourage the prioritization of rapprochement and détente over division and conflict. In this context, civic actors are likely to find it almost impossible to reset the game and return to a more standard form of doing business. Rather, it is more probable that the geopolitical lines drawn at the local and regional levels across civil society will remain determined by the policies of allies and backers—even where established divisions dissolve and are replaced by less acrimonious diplomacy.

Conclusion

Conflict has ended the long-standing features of civil society in the Middle East, leaving Western foreign policies adrift. It is not clear that there can or will be a reset of the values-based principles according to which foreign policy and funding parameters are set in conflict zones. For this to happen, the international community and regional civil society alike would need to acknowledge that the new role of civil society actors includes countering narratives and misinformation spread among themselves, within their own communities, and about their own former allies.

Concurrently, to inform potential responses, the international community should conduct a broader examination of the ways foreign policy reflects on civic actors and the trends in civil society. To merely box actors into pro- or anti-liberal designations ignores the complexities of the conflicts and dynamics in the region and portrays the situation dishonestly. Nevertheless, as conflict dynamics shift amid a broader geopolitical realignment of actors, global factors including access to energy, the role of natural resources, climate shocks, and access to food, nutrition, and healthcare will force countries and their proxy civic actors to engage with each other. Possibly, these factors will even force states and proxies to cross their dividing lines to redress the cracks in their own communities away from the policies of those who fund and arm them.

Hafsa Halawa is a nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute.

The Carnegie Endowment thanks the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation and the Ford Foundation for generous support that helps make the work of the Civic Research Network work possible. The views expressed in this publication are the responsibility of the authors alone.

Notes

1 Much of this chapter is based on the author’s own experience of civic activism, including civil society organizing and support for local civil society in conflict zones in recent years. The chapter also comes from personal conversations and interviews with colleagues and advocates whom the author has worked alongside or supported in various forms.

2 “Number of Syrians in Turkey April 2022,” Refugees and Asylum Seekers Assistance and Solidarity Association, April 21, 2022, https://multeciler.org.tr/eng/number-of-syrians-in-turkey/.