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A Burgeoning Civil Society

In contrast to other Arab countries, Egyptian civil society has a long history of social engagement. It is composed primarily of nongovernment professional associations, charities, universities, and community betterment groups.52 Hence, the bulk of its organizations have not been concerned with politics. Instead, they focused on filling the gaps left by the state’s inadequate provision of social ser?vices by providing (among other services) free health clinics, orphanages, education services, and food for the poor. The high need for social services caused the government to tolerate ngos, including those operated by the Muslim Brotherhood. Only a handful of organizations historically focused on human rights, political freedoms, or economic justice—all issues that could land a person in jail.

Starting in the 1990s, more overtly political advocacy groups began to champion human rights and women’s rights and even call for the democratization of Egyptian politics. Although their reach was limited to the Egyptian intelligentsia and international ngos, advocacy groups such as the Hisham Mubarak Legal Center, the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, the Arab Network for Human Rights Initiative, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, and Al Nadeem set the foundation for the proliferation of civil rights groups in the 2000s.53 Organizations such as the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, and the New Woman’s Foundation took on more politically sensitive issues such as rural and urban poverty, deteriorating environmental conditions, the harassment of women, restrictions on the press, policy coercion, and fraudulent elections.54 By 2007, over twenty-four thousand civil society organizations operated in Egypt, dozens of which advocated openly for political and economic rights.55

Despite the regime’s efforts to enforce draconian laws aimed at reining in civil society, the new youth-based groups proved difficult to control. No longer relying on street protests or organizing secret meetings, youth groups openly organized and mobilized support through new media channels.56 Youth activists also engaged in boycotts, protest art, and cyber-activism to elude security forces’ attempts to silence them.57 For example, the April 6 Movement mobilized over seventy thousand mostly educated youth using Facebook. They demanded free speech, economic welfare, and an end to corruption.58 Their efforts culminated in a wildly successful general strike on April 6, 2008, of over 1.7 million demonstrators in support of striking textile workers.59

The internet also provided new channels for established political advocacy organizations to directly communicate their findings on civil rights suppression and worker abuses to the general public, bypassing traditional media channels that were either controlled by the government or susceptible to censorship and harassment by it.60 As a result, the decade leading up to the January 25 uprising included political dissent and advocacy on an unprecedented scale. But the expression of dissent was not limited to social media. From the protest movements against the wars on Iraq in 2003 and Gaza in 2008 to the labor protests spreading throughout the country, Egyptians were also increasingly turning to the streets to express their grievances.61 The latter was particularly consequential: had it not been for the rise of the labor movement, it is unlikely that Mubarak could have been deposed in as little as eighteen days.

 
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