In December 2011, the State Security apparatus cracked down on civil society institutions, mainly human rights organizations and international foundations, contending that they pose a national security threat to the Egyptian state. This onslaught and the discourse surrounding it had been a regular issue within the Egyptian government prior to the January 25th revolution. However, after the revolution, civil society actors expected more freedoms, supported by new laws that would advance their independence from the state. The timing of the crackdowns, almost one year after the revolution, is a clear indication that civil society actors’ optimism for a democratic transition is becoming no more than a mirage. The governing elite, especially the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) – which holds the highest executive powers in the interim – is not willing to advance a real democratization process, which expands the public sphere for more liberties, equality, free and fair elections, and the due process of law.
This analysis will shed light on the historical development of civil society organizations in Egypt, and more specifically, the role of the state both prior to and after the January 25th revolution in obstructing their independence and in impeding the road to democratization. The study will shed light on the similarities and differences between the current regime’s crackdown on civil society, and those that occurred during the regime of Hosni Mubarak.
A Historical Look at Civil Society in Egypt : A Tool for Embedding Authoritarianism
Civil society organizations, especially religious ones, have been prevalent in the Egyptian public sphere since the 19th century. Their role has always been to complement the Egyptian government in providing social services to the poor. In the early 1990s, the Mubarak regime embarked on an economic liberalization process, which was aided by the structural adjustment projects of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). In addition to the economic conditionalities imposed by these institutions, they have advocated for civil society organizations to assist the state in development. In 1994, the International Conference on Population and Development was held in Egypt, which was a milestone for the promotion of civil society organizations as partners in the new economic liberalization process. The number and scope of civil society organizations increased exponentially from almost 10,000 in 1998 to almost 30,000 by 2008.[i] Half of these constitute development and religious associations. The rest is composed of sports, youth, social clubs, trade and industry chambers, professional syndicates, and trade and workers unions.[ii] Different ministries have endorsed the development of civil society organizations as well. For instance, the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Youth have created channels for cooperation with NGOs on gender sensitive approaches, population growth, and the promotion of youth clubs across the country.[iii]
Historically, civil society organizations, especially professional unions and syndicates, were dominated by the state. Workers have 23 organized trade unions, which are part of the General Federation of Trade Unions of Egypt. Nevertheless, there is ample evidence that the federation did not enjoy credibility amongst its members, because of its close association with the state.[iv] There are 21 syndicates in Egypt. The most active and semi independent are the Bar Association, the journalists, the medical doctors, and engineers associations. Syndicates were mainly dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood throughout the 1980s and 90s; however, the state enacted Law 100/1993 to hamper the Islamsits’ hegemony in these syndicates,[v] which became dominated by members of the then ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) from the end of the 1990s until the ousting of Mubarak in 2011. Other associations, such as teachers and commerce groups, have historically supported government policies, and they have rarely undertaken independent actions.[vi] For the sake of enhancing state legitimacy, and not for supporting political opposition to the state, the government tolerated business associations and chambers of commerce. These bodies have mostly supported the economic liberalization policies, which the Mubarak regime forcefully enacted at the dawn of the new millennium. As a result, these associations and chambers have historically relied on the state to protect their economic interests, and consequently they did not challenge the regimes’ authority. Rather, they have flourished economically as a consequence of their positive relationship with the state.[vii] Hence the regime was able to develop these bodies as an extension of the state and not as an independent civil society that would enrich the public sphere.
The Mubarak regime envisioned an increase in the number and scope of CSOs to promote economic and social development under the state’s auspices, without any adherence to their role in promoting democratization. Accordingly, civil society law number 32/1964, which was highly restrictive to the freedom of civil society, was effective until 2000. It was replaced briefly by a more liberal law, number 153/1999; however, this was deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Constitutional Court, on the grounds that it had not been submitted to the Shura Council (Upper House) for deliberations before being enacted as a law. Three years later the government enacted law 84/2002, a highly restrictive piece of legislation on civil society’s freedoms. It stipulates that all non-profit organizations should be registered with the Ministry of Social Solidarity or face criminal penalties. In addition, this Ministry must approve the different activities of civil society organizations, and the Ministry has the right to intervene in the internal affairs of any organization and dissolve it if it receives foreign funds or if it is affiliated with international groups without official permission.[viii]
While the Mubarak regime tolerated syndicates, unions, business associations and service-based organizations, it continued to harass pro-democracy actors like human rights organizations and non-religious social movements, regularly accusing them of being agents of foreign regimes or “spies” seeking to destroy the Egyptian state. Two of the most famous defaming and arbitrary arrests and detention cases were against directors of human rights organizations in 1998 and 2000. The first case was against Hafez Abou Seada, the Director of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, who was detained as a consequence of a human rights report that blamed the security apparatus for torturing and unlawfully detaining 100 Egyptian Copts in al-Koshh village in Upper Egypt. The second was against Saad Eddin Ibrahim, Professor at the American University in Cairo (AUC) and Director of Ibn Khaldun Center for Human Rights, whose organization monitored the 2000 Parliamentary elections. He was detained for allegedly receiving “unlawful” funds from foreign foundations, publishing misinformation and corruption.[ix]
State security harassment against pro-democracy organizations and activists did not stop after the enactment of the civil society law in 2002. In 2004, activists from new protest movements like Kifaya, Youth for Change and April 6th were regularly harassed, arbitrarily abducted, detained, and arrested.[x] The Egyptian regime, along with the public media, referred to these as “minority spies”[xi] in order to legitimate harassment against them. In 2007, the state dissolved the Human Rights Association for Legal Aid, allegedly for receiving aid from foreign associations without the consent of the Ministry of Social Solidarity. In 2008, central security forces physically attacked the medical team of the al-Nadeem Center for Prisoners’ Rights due to their prison inspections. In 2009, officials from the Ministry threatened to dissolve the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights for receiving “unlawful funds.”[xii] As a consequence of these defamatory campaigns in the state media, Egyptian public opinion has by and large been skeptical of human rights organizations. For instance, in 2008, Ahmad Abdel Hady, the president of the Egyptian Youth Party, accused members of the April 6 movement of being agents of foreign donors who had strategic interests in Egypt.[xiii]
Civil Society in the Post-January 25th Egypt: A Chance for Democracy?
The roles pro-democracy organizations played, especially protest movements like Kifaya, Youth for Change and the April 6th movement, were central to the January 25th revolution. With the onset of the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia, these movements were able to mobilize Egyptians through new framing techniques, which combined both economic rights with political rights such as “food, freedom, human dignity.” There were also various street campaigns calling for the end of corruption. After the dynamics of the 18-day uprising that escalated with the ouster of Mubarak from power, the role of pro-democracy actors was highly appreciated both on the Egyptian street and within the SCAF. Nevertheless, the honeymoon between the pro-democracy movements and organizations and the SCAF did not last long. State security personnel detained many activists only two weeks after Mubarak’s ouster. More problematic was the raiding of five human rights organizations, the shutting down of one, and the arrest of several Egyptian and foreign workers allegedly for distributing and receiving illegal foreign funds—an act that posed a national security threat to Egypt.[xiv] The accusations against these activists and organizations, and the public media coverage of them, were virtually the same as they were during the Mubarak regime. In particular, the public media discourse failed to transcend the Mubarak era, continuing to portray pro-democracy organizations and activists as “spies” against the Egyptian State.[xv]
More constraints against civil society organizations are contained in the new civil society draft law, which was released in January 2012. The draft law poses more restrictions on associational freedoms than law 84/2002. For instance, according to this draft law, associations will only be allowed to work on issues of social justice and development; severe criminal penalties may be imposed on unregistered organizations; and organizations are required to receive prior approval from the Ministry of Social Solidarity before accepting foreign funds and affiliating with other foreign organizations.[xvi]
It is clear that the ruling elite in post-January 25th Egypt does not want civil society organizations to become independent from the state. On the contrary, the state wants to continue dominating these organizations to ensure its hegemony over society. However, new trends in civil society activities have emerged since the January 25th revolution. Civil society actors – not only pro democracy activists and organizations, but also members of different syndicates and associations – have advocated for “independence” from the state. Since the ousting of Mubarak, almost 300 independent unions have been established, the most important of which are independent labor unions that have sporadically developed in different governorates to protect the interests and the rights of workers.[xvii] These unions have taken to the streets as their main “space” of contention. Labor activists mobilize workers to demonstrate, conduct sit-ins against their business managers or against the government, until their legal rights are met. These include their right to bonuses, minimum wage and better working conditions. The state still meddles with the institutionalization and legalization of these unions, but nevertheless union activists are not giving up on their right to independence, and they continue to organize demonstrations on a regular basis.
With different civil society actors insisting on gaining independence from state hegemony, these new and emerging dynamics are important steps in developing a strong, vibrant and independent civil society that can pave the way for democracy. However, despite these positive developments, the defaming campaigns, the crackdown against different pro-democracy activists and the new Draft Law on civil society are clear indicators that the SCAF regime is unwilling to move Egypt toward a real democratization process, which expands the public sphere for more freedoms, civic and political participation, and free, fair and periodic elections.
*Nadine Sika is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the American University in Cairo.
[i] UNDP, Egypt’s Social Contract: The Role of Civil Society (Cairo: UNDP, 2008).
[ii] Hamdy Hassan, “Civil Society in Egypt under the Mubarak Regime,” Afro-Asian Journal of Social Sciences 2, no. 2.2 (Quarter II, 2011), 1-18.
[iii] Center for Development Services, An Overview of Civil Society in Egypt: Civil Society Index Report for the Arab Republic of Egypt ( Cairo: Center for Development Services, 2005)
[iv] Mustapha K. Al-Sayyid, “A Civil Society in Egypt?” The Middle East Journal 47, no. 2 (Spring, 1993): 228-242.
[v] Hassan, “Civil Society in Egypt under the Mubarak Regime.”
[vii] Amy Hawthorne, “Middle Eastern Democracy: Is Civil Society the Answer,” Carnegie Papers, Middle East Series 44 (March, 2004).
[viii] Transparency International, National Integrity System Study: Egypt 2009, (Cairo: Transparency International, 2010).
[ix] Mohamed Mukhtar Kandil, Al-hiwar 3431(2011), available at http://www.ahewar.org/debat/show.art.asp?aid=267883 (accessed on March 27, 2012).
[xi] 6th April Movement. “For the third year in a row April 6 youth challenge Egypt’s ruling Democratic Party,” available at http://6april.org/english/modules/news/article.php?storyid=16 (accessed on March 27, 2012).
[xii] Transparency International, National Integrity System Study: Egypt 2009 (Washington: Transparency International, 2009)
[xiii] Mohamed Gharib, “Political parties against April 6 Movement,” Al Masry al-Youm, May 4, 2008.
[xiv] May Shams El-Din, “Security forces prosecutors raid five NGOs, shut,” The Daily News Egypt.com, available at http://www.thedailynewsegypt.com/human-a-civil-rights/security-forces-prosecutors-raid-five-ngos-shut-down-one-dp2.html (accessed March 28th, 2012)
[xv] See for instance al-Ahram coverage of the NGOs’ prosecutions from December 30, 2011 until February 2012.
[xvi] The International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, “Restrictive Draft CSO Law Announced by Egyptian Ministry of Social Justice and Solidarity,” available at http://www.icnl.org/news/2012/26-Jan.html (accessed March 28th, 2012).
[xvii] Omayma Kamal and Mohamed Gad, “Indpendent Unions: Stories of A Nation that Rises Up,” (Arabic) Al-Shorouk News, March 27, 2011.