The Arab Spring has brought into question long-held assumptions about the nature of state-society relations in the Arab world. During the protests and uprisings of 2011, regimes that were once thought to be invincible were taken down by the very societies to which they had become impenetrable.  Sparked by the courageous act of one man, as in Tunisia, vocally supported by a united international community, as in Libya, or inspired by the successes of the revolutions of its neighbors, as in Egypt, the Arab Spring represented a shift in the relationship between citizens and their governments. There is no doubt that the success of the revolutions that toppled Ben Ali, Qaddafi and Mubarak is due in large part to the ability and willingness of Arab societies to defy traditional roles, crossing redlines and violating taboos along the way.

Approximately a year after the revolutions, has the relationship between state and society in the Arab world improved? Are the citizens of the Arab world on a more equal footing with their governments? Or do the governments that replaced the long-standing Arab autocrats continue to use civil society as a tool for regime stability, without relinquishing any real control to their citizens? This analysis will examine the nature of state-society relations pre and post-Arab Spring in one country: Egypt. Nowhere has the shift in state-society relations been more pronounced than in Egypt during the past 12 months. Based partly on interviews with civil society actors both shortly before and after the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, this article will argue that while civil society has become more emboldened, and many boundaries have disappeared since Mubarak was ousted, Egypt has not experienced a drastic and permanent shift in popular sovereignty, or in the ability of civil society actors to make demands upon the State. Rather, Egyptian civil society is experiencing the latest cycle of liberalization-deliberalization, a tool often used by hybrid regimes in the past to maintain control over their citizens.

Examining State-Society Relations Through the Prism of Mubarak’s Egypt

The literature on the persistence of authoritarianism in the Arab world has helped us understand the specific mechanisms and strategies that Arab leaders used to bat down both formal and informal opposition to their rule. The realities of the 2011 revolts and revolutions have confirmed some of the main theses of this literature, particularly the idea that Arab autocrats are smart, strategic and flexible rulers who continuously adjust their behavior to changing conditions on the ground,i as well as the idea put forward most convincingly by Eva Bellin, that the explanation for the lack of democratic reform in the Arab world lies not in a litany of missing prerequisites, but rather in the “will and capacity” of the coercive apparatus of each Arab State.ii

Through this body of literature we are familiarized with some of the top-down strategies used by Arab autocrats to manage civil society. These include divide-and-rule strategies, random and discretionary application of  civil society or associations laws (cracking down on both legal and illegal organizations), limiting or refusing funding of civil society organizations (CSOs), and, less frequently, harsher acts of repression (such as arresting civil society actors).  Thus, there are two primary ways authoritarian regimes interact with civil society: the first is as a pressure-release valve, in which opposition groups (including CSOs) represent a way for individuals to “blow off steam [without] undermining the regime’s ultimate control”;iii the second is as a form of social control. Due to the harsh legal environment in which CSOs operate, as well as the arbitrary application of rules and laws, the regime is able to “monitor and regulate” the activities of civil society actors and groups.iv By maintaining strict surveillance over civil society activity, Arab autocrats can ensure that, despite the appearance of a free and open society, the regime is never truly threatened.

Egypt provides a compelling arena in which to examine the relationship of civil society with the state both before and after the Arab Spring. Egypt has a long and vibrant history of civil society activity, with the largest civil society sector of any Arab State, and one of the largest sectors in the developing world.v Prior to the 2011 revolution, the Mubarak regime deployed a strategy of selective repression, common to the hybrid regimes of the Middle East, in which the government simultaneously allowed for the proliferation of CSOs on one hand and maintained tight control over the behavior of those organizations on the other. However, despite the success of the Egyptian revolution at removing  Mubarak from power, the three main tools used by the Mubarak regime to manipulate civil society—namely official laws and regulations, unofficial security oversight and control of CSO funding— are still in use by the transitioning Egyptian government today.

The legal environment under which CSOs operate in Egypt is highly restrictive and complex. The CSO sector is regulated primarily by the Associations Law (Law 84 of 2002), but it is also influenced by the Political Parties Law, the Penal Code and the Emergency The Associations Law, which is still in operation today, gives the Ministry of Social Solidarity (MOSS) the power to dissolve CSOs, to restrict CSO activities and funding and to regulate the establishment of CSOs through an arduous permit process. vii The specific language of the law is intentionally ambiguous, which restricts CSOs from engaging in any activity “threatening national unity, violating public order or morals, or calling for discrimination between citizens of race, origin, color, language, religion or creed” as well as all political or unionist activity.viii

The legal regime under which CSOs operate in Egypt is further complicated by the fact that while Egyptian CSO activities are officially overseen by MOSS, the State security services (SSI),  although not legally in charge of CSO activity, play an informal role by interfering in day-to-day CSO operations through harassment, questioning, and threats.ix The Mubarak regime regularly used intimidation tactics employed by the SSI to prevent CSOs from becoming too political (and thus threatening).x Additionally, State security spies regularly infiltrated CSOs under Mubarak, signing up as members and attending meetings to gather information on the organizations from within. This is still the case today, although to a lesser extent and in a far more contained way – the SSI technically does not exist any more, so the spying is done completely under the radar.

Controlling CSO funding is another powerful tool in the regime’s toolbox. By controlling the source and amount of funding available to CSOs, the Egyptian government can thwart unwanted projects, bribe CSOs to alter their work, shame CSOs by branding them puppets of the West, or shut down a CSO altogether by cutting off its lifeline. The Egyptian bureaucracy is famous for its bloated, dysfunctional nature. Thus, even CSOs that pose no threat to the government have had granted funds withheld for one to three months (and up to one year in some cases) under Mubarak. While grants from domestic funders usually made it into the hands of the CSOs much more quickly, there are reported cases of MOSS refusing to disburse money from well-known Egyptian foundations with high-level regime allies on the board.xi

The State-Civil Society Relationship in the Wake of the Arab Spring

The Egyptian Revolution of 2011, which resulted in President Hosni Mubarak resigning after 30 years of rule, ushered in a period of euphoria for civil society actors who previously suffered under the constraints described above. Organizations which earlier only addressed charity and development issues began creating programs to take advantage of the post-Mubarak environment and the prospects for democratic reform, including undertaking voter registration drives, parliamentary training programs, and campaigning manuals. Youth-led CSOs took particular advantage of the lax legal environment in the months following Mubarak’s ouster, explicitly working on democracy and political issues that were considered redlines in the previous regime. In the midst of the post-revolutionary chaos, the Egyptian government, run by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), largely ignored civil society to deal with the larger issues of the political transition and basic security. This allowed CSOs to function with little supervision for a while, and it erased virtually all of the redlines that existed under Mubarak.xii

A second outcome of the revolution was the creation of numerous CSO networks. Under Mubarak, these official and unofficial organizations of CSOs were seen as a particular threat and thus heavily discouraged by the regime. Post-Mubarak, CSOs that had previously isolated themselves and refused to share resources and best practices for fear of regime reprisal, joined not one but multiple networks to connect with others as widely as possible across the civil society spectrum.xiii This newly emboldened civil society was willing both to question the government in new and louder ways than ever before and to work together to present a stronger and more united front to the Egyptian regime. As a result, the SCAF began to adopt several of Mubarak’s strategies to reign in civil society, including unofficial security oversight and strict controls over CSO funding.

A few months after the revolution, in the summer of 2011, a second shift occurred in the relationship of civil society and the Egyptian state. The protesters in Tahrir Square began to turn their attention toward the SCAF, recognizing that while the rules governing civil society were not being enforced, they still remained on the books. Civil society actors reported that the State Security apparatus, which had officially been dissolved as part of the revolution, was still operating behind the scenes, with security officers quietly making it known to civil society actors that they were still watching the behavior of CSOs.xiv

At the same time, the Egyptian government, in an attempt to gain domestic legitimacy and distract focus from these criticisms, turned its attention toward what it has called foreign interference in Egyptian civil society, opening a far-reaching investigation into civil society groups receiving foreign aid. The investigation resulted in the trial of 40 Egyptian and foreign CSO workers (including 16 Americans).xv Egyptian government officials, particularly Fayza Abul Naga, the Minister of Planning and International Cooperation, have gone so far as to call for the end of foreign funding for CSOs altogether. This represents an attempt by the post-revolutionary Egyptian government to impose controls over CSOs that are even more strict than those of the Mubarak era.

There have been some positive signs on the legal front. The Egyptian government has hinted at a new Associations Law to replace Law 84 of 2002 with even stricter controls over civil society and a particular focus on restricting foreign funding, but after much outcry, the law was eventually withdrawn. This signals that Egyptian society today may have more power to protest against the state than it had under Mubarak, considering  previous efforts by civil society to alter the Associations Law have largely failed.  Nevertheless, the support by both the SCAF and the newly-elected Parliament for the severe crackdown on CSOs receiving foreign funding and the ratcheting up of rhetoric against these organizations have clear echoes of Mubarak-era repression, or worse.

Conclusion: Prospects for the Future

As it has been just one year since the start of the Arab Spring, it is still far too early to tell definitively whether the revolts of 2011 will result in a permanent shift in state-society relationships in the Arab world. As the case of Egypt shows, what is clear is that civil society has become more emboldened, refusing to acknowledge or accept the redlines of the old regimes. This has given civil society actors a voice that was previously silenced, as well as the confidence to use that voice. However, these actors are still severely restricted in their ability to challenge the State in any meaningful way. The old legal restrictions on civil society are still in place and they are still arbitrarily applied. The security apparatus is still ever-present, albeit in a less official capacity. And the post-Mubarak regime has restricted foreign funding to an even greater extent than the Mubarak regime. Thus, the dynamic relationship between state and society in the Arab world has not drastically improved as a result of the Arab Spring.  Rather, while the rulers who oversee civil society may have changed, the rules under which they operate remain by and large the same.


i Robert Bianchi, Unruly Corporatism: Associational Life in Twentieth-Century Egypt (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989).

ii Eva Bellin, “The Robustness of Authoritarianism in the Middle East: Exceptionalism in Comparative Perspective,” Comparative Politics 36, no. 2 (2004): 143.

iii Daniel Brumberg, “Liberalization versus Democracy: Understanding Arab Political Reform,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Working Papers 37 (2003): 6.

iv Quintan Wiktorowicz, “Civil Society as Social Control: State Power in Jordan,” Comparative Politics 33, no. 1 (2000): 43-61.

v While the exact number of CSOs in Egypt is impossible to determine, estimates for the number of registered civil society organizations in Egypt in 2010 ranged from 20,000-30,000.

vi Kristina Kausch, Defenders in Retreat: Freedom of Association and Civil Society in Egypt (Madrid: FRIDE, 2009).

vii The permit process is long and arduous, requiring numerous documents such as a list of the names, ages, nationalities, professions, and addresses of all of the founders of the association, an occupancy deed for the physical presence of the association and a mandatory deposit into the Fund for Support of Non-Governmental Societies and Associations. Nada Mobarak Ibrahim, Aurelie Lachant, and Lara Nahas, NGOs as Civil Society Actors on Media Policy Change in Egypt: Capacity Building within a Contextual Framework (London: London School of Economics Development Studies Institute, 2003); Non-Governmental Organizations Sector Study in Egypt, (Cairo, Egypt: Japan Bank for International Cooperation and Egyptian NGO Support Center, 2006).

viii “Law No. 84 of the Year 2002 on Non-Governmental Organizations (Associations and Non-Governmental Institutions),  ed. Government of Egypt (Cairo, Egypt: 2002).

ix Kausch, Defenders in Retreat: Freedom of Association and Civil Society in Egypt.

x Ibid. This was confirmed by civil society activists whom I interviewed in October 2010.

xi Interview with CSO actor. Cairo, Egypt. June 2011. This is due to the low level of bureaucrats who are responsible for making funding decisions within MOSS. These bureaucrats frequently are not acting out of malice, but out of ignorance combined with the fear of making a decision that could upset higher ups. Several CSO actors whom I interviewed noted that MOSS officials would much rather sit on money and never disburse than make any sort of decision, regardless of the level of threat of the CSO or its officials.

xii According to conversations with civil society actors, the only redline that remained after Mubarak’s fall was the military. Civil society groups were now able to question and insult the Egyptian regime, bring to light issues of sectarianism and police brutality, but could not address the military in any negative light. Interviews with civil society actors. Cairo, Egypt. June 2011.

xiii Interviews with civil society actors. Cairo, Egypt. June 2011.

xiv Interviews with civil society actors. Cairo, Egypt. June 2011.

xv The Western NGO workers were allowed to post bail and the travel ban was lifted, but the trial is still ongoing. As of today (3/30/12), the workers are expected to return to Cairo in late April for the remainder of the trail. That will likely change given that the US has agreed to certify the $1.3 billion in aid to Egypt, but no official announcement has been made ending the trial or dropping the charges.


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