Nick Troiano Professor Ibrahim History of the Middle East II August 12, 2011 Civil Society & Democratization in Egypt Civil

society can be understood as a lubricant of democracy. Sheri Berman writes, “Many scholars have thus seen the expansion of civil society activity in many parts of the Arab world in recent decades as reason to be optimistic about the region’s chances for political liberalization and even democratization” (Berman, 259). This paper specifically examines civil society in Egypt over the last forty years and the role it has played in efforts of democratization. Egypt provides an interesting case study to enhance our understanding of this topic in light of the February 2011 revolution that ousted the country’s leader, Hosni Mubarak. To begin, Saad Ibrahim offers a precise definition of civil society: “Civil society is the totality of self-initiating and self-regulating volitional social formations, peacefully pursuing a common interest, advocating a common cause, or expressing a common passion; respecting the right of others to do the same, and maintaining their relative autonomy vis-à-vis the state, the family, the temple and the market” (Ibrahim, 374). Ibrahim argues that democratization can follow the emergence of a strong civil society because the civic organizations that form often also strive for participatory government. Civil society fosters core democratic values. “It is supposed to moderate attitudes, promote social interaction, facilitate trust, and increase solidarity and public spiritedness” (Berman, 259). Through a dense network of relationships and associations, civil society

creates “the conditions for social integration, public awareness and action, and democratic stability” (Newton, 201). Based on this understanding of the potential of civil society to liberalize countries, it is worthwhile to explore how civil society has developed in Egypt, a country that, until recently, was controlled by an autocratic regime for many decades. The history of civil society formation in Egypt is marked by several periods of expansion and contraction. Professor Hamdy Hassan suggests five main phases through which civil society in Egypt has evolved over the past two hundred years. The first phase was the inception of civil society beginning in 1821, primarily as a result of an emerging professional class of middle income workers who organized to demand their right of association. A second “colonial phase” took root in 1882 and focused on expanding the rights of citizens more generally. During this time period, the first political parties formed in 1907 and a feminist movement materialized in 1919 (Hassan, 5). The third phase was a liberal phase, marked by the 1923 ratification of a new Egyptian Constitution, which guaranteed various basic democratic freedoms. Hassan writes, “This phase witnessed a flourishing of civil society, with the publication of more than 80 daily newspapers, as well as weekly and monthly magazines in both Arabic and European languages” (Hasan, 6). Progress was stymied by the Egyptian Revolution of 1952, which ushered in the “Nassersist Phase.” President Gamal Nasser greatly suppressed civil society and concentrated power in the hands of the government. For example, a 1964 law gave the government the right to “refuse the creation, dissolution or amalgamation of any civil association without recourse to the judiciary” (6).

The open-door economic policies instituted by Nasser’s successor, Anwar ElSadat, brought about the fifth phase of Egypt’s civil society evolution in 1974. In addition to liberalizing the economy, Sadat established a multi-party political system. “This phase saw the second fumbling inception of organized Egyptian civic society” (Hassan, 7). Although the government, particularly under the Mubarak regime beginning in 1981, exercised significant control over civil society, a plethora of new organizations formed. Taking a wider view, we can see it was during this time period that the Arab world, in general terms, began to see a revitalized civil society, due in part to internal, regional and international factors. From an internal perspective, the regimes in power had a diminished ability to completely suppress or accommodate organizational growth. Regionally, Arab states were weakened by prolonged military engagements, which consumed significant state resources and contributed to a lack of confidence among citizens in their governments’ ability to manage conflicts. Lastly, from an international perspective, a global wave of democratization elsewhere in the world influenced and expanded the Arab middle class, which began to make new demands upon government. These factors opened the door to a more robust civil society throughout the Arab world, although how this opportunity manifested itself varied unevenly across the region. While most states experienced rapid population growth and urbanization, capitalization and industrialization lagged, which contributed to the uneven development of civil society throughout the Middle Eastern states (Ibrahim, 377). Where the socio-economic conditions were right, as in Egypt, new civil society organizations formed to help fill gaps in needed government services and to push for

greater political participation. But a lack of sustained progress in these efforts contributed to the rise of Islamic militancy, which was seen by many as a potentially more efficacious means of advocating for reform. According to Ibrahim, this ultimately either led to a three-way power struggle between autocratic regimes, Islamic activists and civil society organizations or efforts by the regimes and activities to co-opt civil society. The latter is most consistent with what occurred in Egypt, as Berman describes in her research. “Islamism” is a movement based on “the belief that Islam should guide social and political as well as personal life” (Berman, 257). Unable to topple the state itself, the Islamist movement in Egypt sought to “achieve their revolutionary goals directly by gradually remaking Egyptian society and culture” in a bottom-up approach through civil society (263). This approach is an alternative to traditional politics and is significant because it may, according to Berman, “[provide] a rich soil for oppositional and revolutionary movements to mobilize and grow” (266). Before examining this further, it is important to first understand the circumstances through which such infiltration of civil society became possible in Egypt, specifically. Under Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt’s government had an ambitious domestic and international agenda that sought, among other things, to institute “Arab socialism” at home and establish political unification of all Arab lands abroad. These plans fell woefully short of their goals. A stunning defeat in the Six Day War with Egypt in 1967 combined with rising unemployment and income inequality led to a precipitous decline in Egyptians’ confidence and support of their government. Berman writes that the government “could no longer provide jobs, social services, or a sense of hope and direction to its citizens, and it proved unable or unwilling to respond to the numerous

challenges it faced” (Berman, 260). This decline in state legitimacy and effectiveness served as a “basis from which Islamist revolutionaries...launched an impressive challenge to the status quo” through civil society, in order to fill the void left by the Egyptian government (259). Islamist groups were best positioned to fill this void because they already had preexisting networks in communities through local mosques, opportunities to raise funds through their supporters and a thin wall of protection against repression from the state because the regime was wary about the perceptions of cracking down on religious institutions. Thus, activists not only created new organizations, but they also successfully and peacefully took control of existing ones. By the early 1990s, the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest of the Islamist organizations, controlled the doctors’, engineers’, scientists’, pharmacists’ and lawyers’ associations. Other organizations became active in providing housing, healthcare, education and employment help. This kind of involvement in civic life allowed Islamist groups to better understand the needs of the people, gain their trust and recruit new supporters and leaders. Overall, Berman describes the Egyptian case as the reversal of the traditional revolutionary pattern. Whereas in most revolutions, political change precedes societal and cultural change, just the opposite has happened in Egypt. An Islamic scholar noted at the time, “We don’t need to overthrow the state because we are achieving our aims without violent insurrection” (266). The case of Egypt suggests that where there is a weak state, “a civil society approach that allows the gradual accumulation of support, skills, and organization, rather than open confrontation, may be the most logical and efficient strategy” (266). In this scenario, civil society further erodes political stability and public

satisfaction with the government, thereby laying a foundation for mass mobilization and popular revolution. Indeed, this may have been a contributing factor in the eventual revolution in Egypt in 2011. However, there were many limitations to the effectiveness of civil society as a democratizing force over the past few decades leading up to recent revolution in Egypt. These limitations primarily stemmed from government intervention, but also involved how the organizations themselves functioned. The government’s response to the growth of civil society under the Mubarak regime, for example, was to co-opt the leaders of nongovernmental organizations by appointing them to better positions in government and semi-governmental organizations. The government also sought to co-opt Islamist moderates, who were active in civil society and undermining the credibility of the regime, by bolstering the regime’s own commitment to Islam (Berman, 262). In addition, the government tried to undermine civil society by creating its own organizations that claimed to support human rights, but instead were more focused on advancing the political agenda of the government (Abdalla). Of course, the government also used more heavy-handed tactics, particularly against the more committed activists and organizations. The most direct challenge was the establishment of the Ministry of Social Affairs, later the Ministry of Social Solidarity, which was given the authority to decide what organizations could form and what ones could accept outside funding. In addition, emergency law, which was reenacted in 1981, gave the Egyptian government enormous power to limit political freedoms, such as by prohibiting demonstrations, censoring media and detaining citizens without legal justification (Hassan).

As previously alluded to, the internal operations of civil society organizations themselves also encumbered their effectiveness. These organizations were characterized by “weak organizational setup, lack of routine external audits, absence of strict internal rules and regulations and administrative inefficiency” (Hassan, 13). Hassan concluded that a lack of democratic processes and transparency would lead us to conclude that these organizations are “another case of political tyranny practiced by non-state actors” (13). Another internal weakness of Egyptian civil society was that too few organizations focused on advocating for political change, mainly because too few citizens were interested in participating in politically active organizations. A large proportion of civil society focused on providing economic and social services, sometimes in partnership with the government. Abdalla writes that one must ask, then, “whether these organizations [were] generally reinforcing the government’s authoritarianism rather than challenging it.” Because of these limitations, many observers and academics suggested the possibility that the conflict between civil society and the state would remain in a perpetual state of stalemate, “in which the existing regime retains political power while ceding substantial control over the societal and cultural spheres to the revolutionary challenger” (263). Of course, the recent popular uprising and overthrow of the Mubarak regime suggest that this stalemate has been broken and that Egypt is on a path toward a more democratic society. Amira Maaty argues that civil society had a long and prominent role in “marinating society for the events of January 25,” especially because it was able to adapt to the aforementioned limitations. For example, she notes that organizations formed as civic companies rather than NGO’s to circumvent the Ministry of Social Solidarity and

leveraged new technologies like online radio and Facebook to avoid media censorship and “push the boundaries of discourse on political change.” In addition, civil society organizations played a direct role in the revolution itself by disseminating information and providing legal help to those who were detained (Maaty). While the precise role of civil society in the recent Egyptian revolution will be debated for some time, there seems to be consensus that civil society can serve a crucial role in contributing to democratic progress in Egypt going forward. “Even in the best of circumstances, democratic transitions are notoriously messy, uncertain and unpredictable...getting rid of an oppressive regime, the dictator, well, that was the easy part,” commented Shadi Hamid, a researcher at Brookings Doha Center (Brookings). Civil society organizations are needed, he argues, to keep the transition process on a path moving forward and to ensure the demands of the revolution are fulfilled over the longterm. However, Hamid cautions that Egyptian civil society, which has spent the last sixty years as an oppositional force, will have difficulty in making the necessary transition to a model where it can work in partnership with the government on policymaking. To address this problem, advocates suggest that outside foundations and organizations concentrate on providing expertise and training for capacity building, rather than solely focus on philanthropic giving. If professor Hassan were to update his research, he would likely identify a sixth phase beginning in civil society evolution in Egypt, following the recent revolution – wherein voluntary associations and organizations not only have greater freedom to achieve their goals, but also much greater responsibility to help maintain order and keep pressure on the government during this uncertain period of democratic transition.

Works Cited

Abdalla, Nadine H. "Civil Society in Egypt: A Catalyst for Democratization?" The International Journal of Not-for-Profit Law 10.4 (2008). Amira, Maaty. "Civil Society a Force in Egypt's Democratization." Democracy Digest. 29 Apr. 2011. Web. 1 Aug. 2011. <>. Berman, Sheri. "Islamism, Revolution, and Civil Society." Perspectives on Politics 1.02 (2003). Brookings Institute. “The Role of Civil Society in a New Egypt.” Conference. Washington, DC. 24 March 2011. Hassan, Hamdy A. "Civil Society in Egypt under the Mubarak Regime." Afro Asian Journal of Social Sciences 2nd ser. 2.2 (2011). Ibrahim, S. E. "The Troubled Triangle: Populism, Islam and Civil Society in the Arab World." International Political Science Review 19.4 (1998): 373-85. Newton, K. "Trust, Social Capital, Civil Society, and Democracy." International Political Science Review 22.2 (2001): 201-14.

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