Global Civic Activism in Flux


For civic activism, it appears to be both the best and worst of times, argues analyst Richard Youngs. The positive dynamics of empowerment and the negative trend of constraints on civil society are interconnected. Regimes are reacting nervously to potent new forms of civic activism; in turn, as government restrictions bite, activists look for new types of civic organization to stay ahead of regimes’ repressive intent, he writes in Global Civic Activism in Flux, a report for the Carnegie Endowment’s Democracy and Rule of Law Program:

[S]ocial movements and protesters have been powerful enough to push governments out of power in Brazil, Egypt, Thailand, Tunisia, and Ukraine. Yet after they did so, very different forms of activism developed in these countries, and the impact on democracy has varied significantly across the cases. In other countries, increasingly illiberal political contexts have both driven forward a new locally rooted type of civic activism and made life very difficult for the new activists. Turkey is regularly cited as one of the most emblematic cases of the emergent informal, contentious politics, yet it is also a country where the gains of this activism are proving hard to sustain. Tis is also true of the otherwise very different cases of India and Kenya.

Emerging forms of civil society include both liberal and nonliberal movements. Not all new civic activism is progressive, or benign in terms of its implications for the quality of democracy, Youngs adds in the report, an initiative of the Civic Activism Network, which details civil society developments in Brazil, Egypt, India, Kenya, Thailand, Tunisia, Turkey, and Ukraine:

Some new activism is led by leftist radicals, some by conservatives. A key feature of new forms of activism is that they span a wider range of ideological positions and policy concerns than has been common among the old forms of activism. Some new activism is carried forward by marginalized members of society who seek far-reaching overhauls of entire existing systems, but some activism is undertaken by well-off middle-class groups more concerned with preserving certain features of society.

In many of the countries examined, conservative, nationalistic, and even overtly antidemocratic civic activism has gained traction in recent years. In Brazil, right-wing movements are rising in prominence, and in the MENA region and Africa, civic radicalization is a growing concern. There are also misgivings about the antidemocratic impact of social movements’ reliance on digital activism. This is both because online campaigning excludes large parts of the populations in places where most citizens do not have Internet access, like Brazil, Kenya, and Tailand, and also because it provides a platform for nonliberal or even antiliberal activism.

“Interestingly and crucially, new forms of civic activism are both associated with the much commented-on surge in political populism around the world and often aim to push back against this populism. In essence, it is the new terrain upon which today’s existential struggle between liberal and nonliberal concepts of politics is being played out,” the report adds.

“Civic activism organized around direct citizen mobilization mirrors this spirit of populism because it resonates with the idea of a direct link between people and their governments, cutting out intermediary organizations like traditional NGOs,” Youngs notes. “Yet new activism has also been galvanized to resist illiberal populist projects in many countries.”

The broader implications of the country case studies focus on five crucial characteristics of the emerging civil society:

  • common trends among countries versus unique national qualities;
  • old versus new forms of activism;
  • overarching political versus bread-and-butter practical concerns;
  • liberal versus illiberal identities; and
  • effective versus ineffective forms of activism.


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