Saturday, February 5, 2011

Common Interests and Natural Divisions within Civil Society

Civil society groups familiar to international donors are a small percentage of those fighting for political reform and a post-revolutionary Egypt.  Egypt has a tremendous diversity of non-governmental actors, including service-oriented community groups, non-governmental organizations, private sector associations, religious organizations, labor movements, media and political parties.  While the vast majority of these organizations never took a position regarding political reform, all of them were forced to deal with State Security and other governmental bodies to assure their survival. They therefore had a certain degree of political awareness and an understanding of the efforts of the Mubarak regime to control all aspects of society.  Some analysts have called this phenomenon "black hole government," in which governments let no aspect of social or political life escape their control.

In reality, the Mubarak regime only exercised control over civil society groups sporadically, when it wished to make a political statement. Most of the time, it chose not to use constitutional and legal tools of repression. Consequently, many groups took advantage of the periods when the government was not paying attention to them. For example, the anti-Mubarak group Kifaya (Enough), or the Egyptian Movement for Change, formed in 2004 during a period when the Mubarak regime was using "window-dressing" to make the Bush Administration believe it was truly committed to political reform. Under the banner of opposition to Mubarak, Kifaya brought together groups with conflicting ideologies and visions, such as secularists and Islamists.  Kifaya organized many demonstrations calling for lifting the emergency laws in place since 1981, removing restrictions on forming political parties and newspapers, and  releasing thousands of political prisoners. From 2004-2007, other professional and demographic groups organized resistance against Mubarak, including teachers, students, women, lawyers, journalists and even judges. They were joined in the last three years by wildcat strikers, who refused to abide by government control of their labor unions and syndicates.  Journalists and editors were arrested or fined for writing articles that were judged too critical of Mubarak.

These broad coalitions were able to identify the lowest common denominator among the interests of their members, such as moving toward free elections, reforming the constitution, lifting emergency laws and freeing political prisoners. They recognized that these objectives were more urgent than advancing such goals as strengthening a secular form of governance, moving the legal system toward Sharia or extending civil liberties to Coptic Christians.  Secular groups and the Muslim Brotherhood found common cause in opposing Mubarak, similar to the center, left and communist parties who formed popular fronts in Europe and the US in the 1930's.

Such alliances will be hard to maintain after the fall of Mubarak.  With effort, their constituent groups will maintain enough cohesion to push through the Constitutional and legal changes required to create the democratic institutions needed to mediate their conflicting interests. Unless the Presidential elections scheduled for September 2011 are postponed, however, these alliances have a strong chance of being short-lived.

Rick Gold

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