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Egypt’s Civil Society–and Democratic Transition–on Trial

by Terra Lawson-Remer
June 12, 2013

Friends of Egyptian suspects react as they listen to the judge's verdict at a court room during a case against foreign non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Cairo, June 4, 2013 (Asmaa Waguih/Courtesy Reuters). Friends of Egyptian suspects react as they listen to the judge's verdict at a court room during a case against foreign non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Cairo, June 4, 2013 (Asmaa Waguih/Courtesy Reuters).

Last week an Egyptian court sentenced over three dozen people working for foreign NGOs to prison terms for “receiving illegal funds from abroad and operating unlicensed organizations.” These convictions are not just a sign of a weak and faltering democratic transition. By discouraging the formation of a vigorous civil society, they also strike a fundamental blow to the sustainability of freedom and democracy in Egypt over the long term.

A range of historical examples demonstrate that broad-based, peaceful, and sustained civil society movements are a crucial factor in helping young democracies consolidate and endure. In our new book Pathways to Freedom, my colleague Isobel Coleman and I consider eight countries that have recently navigated economic and political transitions with varying degrees of success. In many cases, civil society groups—and popular engagement more broadly—played a critical role in bringing autocracy to an end and establishing robust and lasting democracy in its place.

In Poland, for example, the Solidarity movement included a quarter of the population at its peak. In addition to putting sustained pressure on the Communist regime in the 1980s, Solidarity nurtured a generation of citizens and leaders who could participate in and oversee the new democratic government once it emerged. After its transition, Poland made it easier for NGOs to register and guaranteed free speech and other essential rights, allowing civil society and citizen participation to flourish. Indeed, on average some 5,000 NGOs and 500 foundations have been launched each year in Poland since 1989. Volunteerism is now widespread.

South Africa’s long history of broad-based antiapartheid movements also succeeded in building the foundation for strong civil society organizations committed to democratic governance and accountability. Civil society groups were indispensable to the anti-apartheid movement. They shined a light on abuses, combated policies through the judiciary, and advanced the idea that apartheid was morally wrong. Since South Africa’s transition in 1994, civic organizations have worked to bolster accountability and address the formidable challenges of poverty, inequality, and unemployment. Townships, where many blacks still live, have seen particular growth in civic activity over the past decade. Even as economic advancement remains out of reach for too many South Africans, a robust civil society has helped keep the country’s democracy in place and maintain pressure for more widely shared opportunity.

In Indonesia, popular participation likewise helped keep the country’s turbulent transition on track. Huge protests in 1997 and 1998 that dislodged the long-ruling Suharto government, followed by overwhelming participation in the 1999 election, gave Indonesians a sense of ownership over the transition. This made them willing to tolerate the uncertainty that ensued before Indonesia achieved sustained growth and increased stability in the 2000s. Contrast this outcome with that in Thailand, where citizens saw the transition to civilian rule as an elite bargain, not the result of a popular movement. And although many feared the rise of conservative Islamic organizations, moderate religious groups actually proved indispensable to Indonesia’s evolution as a secular democracy.  Religiously oriented groups should not be feared per se. They can in fact provide important vehicles for citizens to participate in public life, though adherence to civil law is a prerequisite in any democratic setting.

In short, civil society groups play a crucial role in building and sustaining democracy following messy and complex transitions toward more open societies. In Pathways to Freedom, we find that one of the most effective steps that policymakers can take in the early stages of transitions is to strengthen the rule of law in ways that allow civil society to flourish. It is ironic that the government of President Mohamed Morsi, having come to power through a citizen uprising and popular vote, now seeks to shut down citizen engagement through arrests, trials, and new and more draconian legal restrictions on civil society organizations. History suggests that this crackdown threatens not only current critics of the regime, but, more fundamentally, the flourishing of freedom and opportunity in Egypt for the young people whose courage in Tahrir Square finally toppled the old guard just two springs ago.

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