Egypt’s social activism – ‘resilient and evolving’


Democracy and human rights advocates expressed disappointment by the warm embrace offered to Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi in Washington this week, despite his crackdown on civil society, but many were reassured by the criticism expressed by U.S. lawmakers.

“It is important for Congress to reassert its role, especially in Foreign Policy and realizing that if they don’t speak out and raise these issues (Egyptian human rights) that they may not be a part of the conversation,” said Cole Bockenfeld, Deputy Director for Policy at the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED). 

Bockenfeld spoke with Mohammad Soltan, the influential Egyptian-American human rights activist who noted that it “often feels like the US, as a whole has abandoned you.” But, each time a Senator speaks out publicly in support of Egyptian human rights, these efforts provide “new hope and encouragement to the reformers,” he emphasized.

There is a pattern of American leaders looking to Egypt—which accounts for a quarter of the Arab world’s four hundred million people—as the linchpin of Middle East policy. But results have been mixed, The New Yorker notes.

“Both Obama and George W. Bush came into office saying Egypt is important,” said Michele Dunne, an Egypt expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Both soon figured out that Egypt’s internal problems and mismanagement hindered its effectiveness as a regional ally, and was even becoming a problem for the United States and its interests.”

With the decline of party politics in Egypt, social activism is becoming increasingly relevant in the fight against the government’s new authoritarian policies and tactics, argues analyst Amr Hamzawy (right). While Egypt’s ruling generals have developed a tight grip on power in virtually every sector of society, various activist groups have had at least some success in holding the government accountable for human rights abuses. It will take many more victories to counteract the entrenched repression, but these groups offer the best hope for changing Egypt’s current reality, he argues in a new paper for the Carnegie Endowment.

Key Points

  • Since 2013, four anti-authoritarian platforms—led by young activists, professional associations, student groups, and workers and civil servants—have shaped social activism in Egypt.
  • Spontaneous eruptions of popular anger have also become politically significant.
  • In contrast, opposition parties have become less significant. Unable to carve out a stable, independent role in Egyptian politics, they are gradually turning to activist initiatives to exert some influence.
  • Young activists remain committed to single human rights causes, primarily focused on extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances, or torture in places of custody.
  • Certain professional associations—particularly the Syndicate of Doctors and Syndicate of Journalists—have ramped up their demands for autonomy and freedoms of expression and association.
  • Students are challenging the security services’ interference in their affairs and the presence of government and private security forces on campuses.
  • Workers and civil servants remain highly engaged, continuing to voice the economic and social demands of organized labor.
  • Citizens have frequently taken to the streets to protest specific government policies and practices, as well as accumulating human rights abuses.

With human rights abuses at a very high level, much higher than under Mubarak, political repression and a really disastrous economic situation, all of these are really going to affect what kind of an ally Egypt can be to the United States and what kind of things we can do together against these regional problems such as terrorism, says Dunne, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.

The government is using repression, undemocratic legal frameworks, and aggressive judicial tools to try to extinguish social activism. Yet, the activism has restored pluralist politics to professional associations and increased popular awareness of the daily instances of repression, Hamzawy adds:

  • Labor activism has not been quashed, despite the banning of independent unions and the frequent referral of protesters to military courts; nor has the government’s renewed co-optation of the General Union of Egyptian Workers silenced the protesting of deteriorating economic and social conditions.
  • The government’s tactics have also failed to vanquish student activism. Students continue to hold protests and have successfully mobilized against pro-government candidates in student union elections.
  • The frequency of popular protests has resulted in a relatively effective push back against the impunity of police personnel implicated in human rights abuses.


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