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Civil Society, NGOs, and Egypt’s 2011 Popular Uprising

Screen shot of the South Atlantic Quarterly website
South Atlantic Quarterly
May 2014

Western policymakers, scholars, and foundations share a broad consensus that a dynamic civil society, often reduced to the presence of NGOs, is the essential ingredient of democracy. Although the concept of civil society is imprecisely and ubiquitously deployed, rendering it of dubious analytical utility, it has been widely applied to the Arab region. Despite the proliferation of Arab NGOs and other forms of association, authoritarian Arab regimes were fairly effective in blocking the emergence of truly independent associations of any sort. In fact, “civil society organizations” played only a small role in mobilizing the demonstrations and occupations of public space that were the emblematic expressions of the 2011 Arab uprisings. The Egyptian and other Arab popular uprisings were not the result of proliferating NGOs or “building civil society.” Rather, they were the consequence of converging vectors of diverse social protest movements over the previous decades involving urban intelligentsias, disaffected educated youth, blue- and white-collar workers and professionals, and marginalized religious communities and regions.