Civil Society in Syria and Iran: Activism in Authoritarian Contexts

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Civil Society in Syria and Iran: Activism in Authoritarian Contexts
Edited by Paul Aarts and Francesco Cavatorta
Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2013
250 pp. $22.50
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This collection calls into question, not always convincingly, a body of scholarship dubbed “transitology,” which emphasizes the positive role played by civil society during the transitions to democracy in eastern Europe and Latin America. Contributors to this volume counter that in Iran and Syria, civil-society organizations are tools in “authoritarian upgrading”; rather than catalyzing transitions to democratic rule, they aid repression. For instance, Bassam Haddad points out that as Syria pursued neoliberal reforms in the early years of the last decade, the state fostered Islamic nongovernmental organizations to fulfill certain welfare functions. But the collection presents inconsistent evidence. For example, Salam Kawakibi and Paola Rivetti suggest that “government organized nongovernmental organizations” might in fact evolve toward autonomy and opposition to the state on specific issues. And Peyman Jafari shows that over time the state-sponsored Iran Chamber of Commerce, Industries, Mines, and Agriculture has become hostile to the quasi-state sector. But none of the authors grapples with the basic underlying question: Can authoritarian regimes evolve toward political liberalization, or is rupture (violent or otherwise) the only way to break their grip?

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