Egypt’s hollowed-out civil society


Authoritarian regimes are, in general, averse to a strong civil society. Egypt is no exception, notes Gamal Eid (left), an Egyptian lawyer and the director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information. Yet under President Hosni Mubarak, and despite routine government harassment, we did build a critical, independent civil society. During that era, the police could shut groups down, but it was rare for organizations to be closed for long and almost unheard-of for staff members to be jailed, he writes for The New York Times:

If Mr. Mubarak was confident enough to tolerate independent groups operating outside state control, Mr. Sisi lacks such self-assurance.

Civil society matters in a country like Egypt because these groups can play an important role as mediators in situations of tension and conflict. In 2011, when millions took to the streets to protest the Mubarak regime, it was groups like ours, along with labor unions, professional associations and charities, that made a crucial difference to the outcome — giving structure to the demonstrations that kept them nonviolent and constructive. Our counterparts in Syria and Libya were not so fortunate, and the protests there quickly dissolved into armed conflict.

How Egypt, the most populous nation in the region with 92 million citizens, emerges from its Arab Spring will in large measure determine if the changes that have roiled the Middle East turn out to be positive or negative for the region, says veteran RAND analyst Shelly Culbertson. Egyptians have learned the hard way that simply deposing a dictator does not guarantee a bright and shinning future, her new book contends:

The author makes clear that for all that, Egypt’s biggest problems are economic. One in five Egyptians live in slums; nearly a million people have taken up residence in a sprawling Cairo cemetery. Poverty has increased since 2011, and tourism is way down, by as much as 95 percent, according to one report.

But unlike many of its neighbors, such as Iraq and Syria, it can’t blame western colonials for creating its polity out of whole cloth following World War I. Egypt has been Egypt for millennia. Culbertson sums up its decline succinctly in describing Cairo, once considered the Paris of the Nile: “Cairo was once a city of grandeur and color…. [it is] now a city the color of dirt.” She adds, “Egypt is a country of squandered wealth, sophistication, and heritage. Arab Spring was about seeking something different.” RTWT

On Wednesday, the Cairo Criminal court will review the case relating to the asset freeze of human rights lawyer Gamal Eid and investigative journalist Hossam Bahgat as part of the NGO trial in Egypt’s ongoing crackdown against civil society, adds the Project for Middle East Democracy, a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy. The review was originally scheduled for March 24 but was adjourned and postponed until April 20.

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