Civil Society in Egypt: A Catalyst for Democratization?
|Sunday, September 14,2008 07:04|
|By Nadine H. Abdalla1|
Over the past decade, it has been noted that the West (mainly
Thus, strengthening civil society seems increasingly to be the watchword at meetings, seminars, and conferences in the official and academic spheres. Recently, at the European level, the development of civil society has appeared to be the only way to achieve democratization in the Arab world
Within this framework, Arab NGOs have been heavily funded, especially those of
1. Proliferation of NGOs or consolidation of authoritarianism?
The Egyptian regime cannot be called authoritarian, but rather “semi-authoritarian,” according to Marina Ottaway3; or “liberalized autocracy,” in Daniel Brumberg’s phrase.4 That is to say, this regime is able to consolidate its authoritarianism while putting in place measures that can be considered more or less liberal. For such a system, the proliferation of NGOs is less likely to be a means of empowering groups seeking to change the regime’s strategy than a part of the controlled-liberalization strategy itself. The presence of these NGOs and their various activities, even those seen as anti-government, can be viewed as outgrowths of a policy of controlled liberalization.
Thus, the government has much more to do with promoting civil society than civil society has to do with democratization.5 This situation creates a plight for donors, who find themselves funding organizations that bolster the regime’s survival strategy, rather than organizations with a realistic chance of affecting this strategy.6
2. A "romantic" Western vision for civil society?
We should be wary of romanticizing civil society. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) can play a positive and effective role in the democratic transition process only if they have two prerequisites:
First, they must have a degree of autonomy vis-à-vis the regime.7 But in a country like
For NGOs to make a difference, they also must possess the capacity to build alliances with other sectors of civil society as well as a clear agenda for advocacy and, where appropriate, militancy.10 Through alliances, they can pressure the government for socioeconomic or human rights reforms.11 However, structural deficits afflicting Egyptian NGOs interfere with their ability to ally with other NGOs, and hence their ability to play effective leadership and mobilizing roles.12
These structural deficits are of two types. The first is the absence of internal democracy and transparency. These NGOs, especially those of political nature, are most often centered around a charismatic personality, and feature a staff with scant experience.13 The situation probably promotes authoritarian leadership of these NGOs.14 In addition, the imbalance between the voluntary and professional side and staff within these NGOs affects their ability and their effectiveness. Donors, consequently, must give qualitative rather than quantitative aid if they want to enhance the effectiveness of these NGOs, a problem afflicting mainly the assistance offered by the European Commission in
3. Receiving funds versus acquiring a social base?
Certainly, without external funding, NGOs of an advocacy type or political in nature may never emerge. The Egyptian government prohibits NGOs from receiving funds without its permission, which is rarely granted.
Even if permission is given, the culture of the country can be a real obstacle. The public has relatively little interest in politically active organizations, by contrast to its considerable interest in organizations of a religious nature that provide economic and social services; these social service NGOs are much likelier to receive local funds for their activities.15 This creates contradictory interests between external donors interested in democratization, on the one hand, and the community, relatively uninterested in political activism, on the other. Political groups in general have little or no social base.
An additional problem is that the democratization-oriented NGOs compete for external donors. Scarcely any cooperation between them exists, which weakens their ability to lead and mobilize effectively.16
4. Nongovernmental partner in the government?
The government welcomes partnerships with NGOs working in development and providing services, especially given the rising Egyptian population.17 These organizations, unlike those in
5. The Islamist dilemma
A further problem is that Islamist NGOs in
6. Civil society, a catalyst for democracy?
One way of framing the issue is whether we wish to foster the demand for democracy, by increasing the capacity of civil society organizations to pressure the government and rally the citizenry; or whether we wish to foster the supply of democracy, by enhancing the ability of state institutions to behave consistently with democratic values. In a famous article, Berman showed that civil society in
The West knows that the dynamics of democratization, in terms of political openings or more radically in terms of regime change, could at least in the short term lead to instability. The Muslim brotherhood, for example, is the only viable opposition in
1 Nadine H. ABDALLA is a Researcher Assistant in the AL Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo and a Ph.D. candidate at the Institut d"Etudes Politique de Grenoble in France.
2 For further information about the Indirect Strategy for Democracy Promotion in the Arab World, see CAROTHERS Thomas, Is Gradualism Possible? Choosing a Strategy for Promoting Democracy in the
4 For more on “liberalized a utocracy, see : BRUMBERG Daniel, The Trap of Liberalized Autocracy, Journal of Democracy, Vol 13, n4, October 2002, pp57-67.
5 DENEGEUX Guilain, Promouvoir la démocratie et la gouvernance dans les pays arabes : Les options stratégiques des bailleurs de fond (Democracy and Governance Promotion in the Arab World : Strategic Options for Donors), dans BEN NAFISSA Sara, ONG et Gouvernance dans le Monde Arabe (NGOs and Governance in the Arab World), Karthala and CEDEJ, Paris- Cairo, 2004, p87.
6 YOM Seon L, Civil Society and Democratization in the Arab World, Middle East Review of International Affairs, Vol 9, n4, December 2005.
7 HAWTHORNE Amy, Middle East Democracy: Is Civil Society The Answer?, Carnegie Papers 44 (March 2004), p11.
8 On cooptation, see Policy Failure et Political Survival : The Contribution of Political Institutions, The Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol 43, n2, April 1999.
9 YOM Seon L, Civil Society and Democratization in the Arab World, op.cit.
10 HAWTHORNE Amy, Middle East Democracy, op.cit, p11.
11 YOM Seon L, Civil Society and Democratization, op.cit.
12 Interview with Ms Nihad Rageh, director of the USAID project for strengthing NGOs’ capacities at the
13 AL AGATI Mohamed, Challenges that Face Civil Society in
14 Field observation.
15 Interview with Mr. Ayman Abd AL Wehab, Head of the Civil Society Unit at AL Ahram Center for Political and Strategics Studies (ACPSS),
18 HAWTHORNE Amy, Middle East Democracy, op.cit, p12.
19 Interview with Nihad Rageh, op. cit.
20 AL Sayed Kamal Mustapha, Helping Out is Hard to Do, Foreign Policy, n117, Winter 1999- 2000, p25. See also AL Sayed Kamal Mustapha, in NORTON Augustus Richard, Civil Society in the Middle East, EJ Brill Leiden, New York Koln, 1995, pp282-290.
21 DENEGEUX Guilain, op. cit, p87. See also CAROTHERS Thomas and BRANDT William, Think Again: Civil Society, Foreign Policy, n117, Winter 1999-2000, p 21.