THE BLOG
07/02/2013 11:38 am ET Updated Sep 01, 2013

A Civic Infrastructure for Arab Spring

I was going to leave this alone. I understand that the Islamic World is going through a transformation at least as powerful, and as profound, as the Protestant Reformation. Then 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head for advocating that Muslim girls in Pakistan be educated. Then came the Syrian civil war. Now the popular uprising against Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Even though in many ways it is beyond my ability to understand, I find myself compelled to say something.

Here's how I see it.

The organizers of Arab Spring were sufficiently prepared to topple a series of dictators, but not prepared to fill the vacuum they had created. Their sources of inspiration and information -- Gene Sharp's work on nonviolence, the example of Eastern Europe's Otpor ("Resist") movement, and even Muslim traditions of nonviolent resistance -- say little about what to do on the "day after."

The only circumstances in which robust democracy can fill such a vacuum is if its building blocks have already been established. In a word, Arab Spring lacks a civic infrastructure.

Without civic infrastructure, people forget how to work together, or even to be civil. Under such circumstances, more organized forces, used to managing society when it is in disarray, tend to move in and take over. They are often ill-intentioned, but even if their motives are good, they often don't know when to let go. They continue to think the People are "not ready" for real democracy.

Under those circumstances, the responsibility of progressive democratic forces is clear; they must build a civic infrastructure to balance the managerial class. Citizens' Assemblies are one way to begin, but under the present circumstances, any attempt to build community-wide decision-making structures such as these would no doubt be resisted or co-opted by Islamists or the military, or both.

Moderate political leaders interested in broader-based, participatory democracy might try another tack, adult education through Swedish-style study circles.

Study circles in Arab Spring countries could serve not only the need to create "free spaces" in which democratic deliberation can take place, but could also assist jobless youth prepare for higher level employment. The Arab countries have a glut of young people (aged 15-30), along with high levels of unemployment and a minimally developed civic infrastructure.

The Swedish system of study circles and folk high schools could create training and educational opportunities for Arab youth as well as provide settings for democratic deliberation for all adults in Arab countries. A century ago, the Swedes were quite low on the European social and economic ladder, facing problems of alcoholism and labor discipline, among others. They attribute their remarkable economic and social development to the study circle technique.

Study circles, meeting regularly, might become building blocks for a civic infrastructure that could one day balance the military, traditional authoritarian elites, and Islamic fundamentalism. (I distinguish Islamic fundamentalism from Islam, just as I would distinguish Christian fundamentalism from Christianity. Fundamentalism in general seems far too interested in secular power as opposed to spiritual balance.)

I say "one day," because this will obviously be a very slow, difficult and dangerous process.