Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)

State-society relations in Egypt: restructuring the political

State-society relations in Egypt: restructuring the political

Salwa Ismail

Egypt has undergone a number of transitional periods in its modern history, experiencing many fundamental structural shifts and transformations. Leafing through the pages of its Twentieth Century history, the reader moves from a “liberal” age to a “socialist” phase then a “guided capitalist” mode which leads to the “state of institutions” and ends with a “reform” phase. The latest of the transitional periods is named after the policy which defines much of what is currently taking place on the economic scene and what is hoped for in the political sphere in contemporary Egypt.

“Reform” is the name the government of Husni Mubarak has given to changes it has been effecting in the economic field, although it is not a term that it is keen on using in reference to the political sphere. However, the Mubarak regime has, from its inception, shown a predilection to sponsoring the terms of democratization and liberalization in public discourse: Al-dimuqratiya wa alhuriyat al-`ama (democracy and public freedoms) have been the declared political objectives, course of action and character of the regime. The combination of necessary rhetoric, as well as internal and external expectations, have made political reform a term of public discourse.

In this essay, I will discuss the terms of the regime’s initiative in political reform in order to demonstrate the entrenchment of the politics of controlled liberalization. I will then show how, through the politicization of the professional syndicates, a new kind of restructuring is taking place in the polity. In a brief introductory section, I will outline the characteristics of the polity and discuss the general aspects of the crisis of the Egyptian state. In the second section, the analysis will zero in on the configuration of the political scene through a close look at the recently held national dialogue (al-Hiwar al-Watani). The Hiwar will serve to highlight the maneuvers and efforts carried out by the holders of power to maintain the existing structure. This will be juxtaposed to the analysis, in the third section, of the ongoing reconfiguration which newly emerging forces such as the professional syndicates are having in the political sphere. In the last section, the shape and nature of this restructuring will be assessed in light of the hoped-for democratization and in reference to the concept of civil society.


Egyptian politics is identified by a set of structural characteristics which shape and interact with a mode of functioning that has come to define the dynamics of interaction among the players on the political scene.(1) The structural features center around the extensive powers of the executive with the president at its summit, and a legal framework which provides the control keys of political action. Within this framework, laws governing the formation of political parties and associations, and setting restrictions on the exercise of political rights, are seen as indicators of the circumscribed nature of the democratization which the regime claims to be effecting. These limitations, which are inscribed in the legal order, have contributed to the rise of patterns of functioning which define the political in Egypt. Within the environment of controlled liberalization, and due to socio-historical factors, political parties have become increasingly ineffective. Part of this configuration is the low level of public participation, marked by low voter turn out at elections and low numbers of party adherents. Given this state of affairs – at a point of crisis, which, from the perspective of the participants, required a national engagement – the only available recourse was an ad hoc mechanism of democracy, which took the form of a national dialogue.

Regime politics operate in the context of the generalized crisis of the state. This crisis can be discerned as the inability of the state to enforce its own laws. A number of indicators support this contention. The extent of corruption has reached unprecedented levels and has become generalized to all social relations and transactions. The number of infractions within the bureaucracy brought before administrative courts reached 56,000 cases in 1993.(2)

Under emergency rule, the police’s powers of arrest, interrogation and detention have expanded. The wide range of police discretionary powers has been put to use in the service of what O’Donnell calls privatized domination.(3) Police services are subcontracted to individuals and organized networks seeking to subvert the law. Police officers have subleased the powers invested in their offices just as feudal lords once did in their fiefdoms.

The state contends with virtually independent spheres of power which have territorial control, examples of which exist not only outside the large urban centers such as in the villages and towns of upper Egypt, but also in the urban slums of Cairo. The independent spheres of power that Imbaba and Ain Shams represent, predate their being conquered by the Islamists. The Jihadists appropriated spaces which already existed outside government control. Informal communities emerged spontaneously and came to form whole villages and towns in the heart of greater Cairo and in all of the other governorates. These communities have come into existence in defiance of all state regulations on housing, urban planning and security. The appropriation of public spaces that has come about with the emergence of informal communities has, in fact, challenged the authority of the state. In many instances, the state has found itself contending with the new spheres of power; calling on the coercive apparatus of the police in an attempt to enforce its edicts.

The regime’s hold on power is concentrated in the political sphere through which the new “pluralism” of the organized networks of corruption and the independent spheres of power are managed. Political stabilization sums up the regime’s approach in dealing with the problems of government inefficiency and state disintegration.


The Context

In October 1993, following his swearing in to a third term in office, President Mubarak called for a national dialogue.[4] In looking at the context of the call, at the events which unfolded in preparation for the dialogue and finally at the dialogue itself, this section will bring into focus the patterns of functioning of the existing political order as a prelude to the description and evaluation of the process of political restructuring.

Mubarak’s call came at a time that local observers and analysts viewed as a crisis situation for the regime and the country. The crisis came to the fore with increased militant activities on the part of Islamist groups. By the end of 1992 and throughout 1993, Islamists had escalated their attacks on the regime, carrying out violent acts claiming the lives of many senior police officers, targeting tourist sites and culminating in assassination attempts on high profile government figures. The tourist crimes (jara’im al-siyaha) were destabilizing economically and politically, bringing to a halt the flow of tourists to the country and with it an important source of revenue was lost. The environment of instability was also seen as detrimental to the economic reform policies of privatization. Not only did Egypt risk loosing foreign investment but it also risked a flight of local capital. No doubt, the attacks lessened the respectability of the regime internally and did nothing to boost its image externally. A national conference was to serve as a show of unity in the face of extremism, and it was designed to muster behind the regime the support of all legitimate forces.

Although when the call was made, the subject of the dialogue was not spelled out, a stated general objective spoke of the need to discuss the direction the country was taking. This vague and all-encompassing purpose undoubtedly included the economic reform policies of privatization and restructuring. In fact, the idea of national dialogue figures in a study undertaken on behalf of the US Agency for International Development, one of the main international backers of the economic reform agenda. The study dealing with the social impact of the policies argued for the need to reach a new social contract through which the burden of reform could be assigned democratically to the various social forces.(6)

From the regime’s perspective, the dialogue aimed at achieving stability, legitimizing its economic policy, but more importantly, regaining the political initiative. The Islamist threat had rendered the regime vulnerable to the opposition’s pressures for political reform. The failure of the politics of security (al-siyasa al-amniya) to adequately respond to the islamist challenge had opened the regime to a number of charges which centered on the inadequacy of the existing political structure.

Regaining the political initiative was also necessary in light of the challenges the regime was facing from legitimate institutions such as the syndicates and the civil courts. In 1992, the powers of the executive, as concentrated in the hands of the President, were found to be limited in scope. The judiciary’s assertion of its independence by acquitting most of the Islamist defendants in trials brought before the civil courts, left the government with limited means in dealing with its opponents.(7) In response, President Mubarak ordered the transfer of Islamist trials to military courts.

The executive control over the legislative assembly as a forum for debate and the devising of laws, along with the existing restraints imposed on political action, were revealed to be insufficient following certain developments within the professional syndicates which date back several years. From the mid-1980s on, an increasing number of professional syndicates have been claimed as political space for opposition activities. This new political space was a source of unease for the regime. The politicization of the syndicates has gone hand-in-hand with their “Islamization”. Elections to the executive boards of the syndicates have become political events in their own right and have gained considerable symbolic value. This apparent loss of government control was dealt with in 1993 through the adoption of Law 100 governing elections to the syndicate boards.(8) I will return later to state-syndicate relations and the restructuring process. At this juncture, I would like to discuss the national dialogue in an effort to-discern the terms of political reform and the functioning patterns of the regime.

The Actors: Legal And Recognized

As mentioned above, in calling for a dialogue, President Mubarak was seizing the initiative of political action. He did this as the embodiment of executive power which is closely tied to the governing party, the National Democratic Party (NDP). In the absence of any real mechanisms to alter government, the dominance of the ruling party is ensured. Over time, the latter becomes virtually synonymous with executive power.

From the start, the regime asserted its control over the process. Initially, the call was open, but it was decided soon afterward that a Preparatory Committee would be set up and the President would appoint its members. A look at the list of members of the Preparatory Committee reveals the identity of the “recognized players”. These were main personalities in government and the ruling party, heads of the opposition and public personalities. This last category was composed mainly of figures identified with the government and the NDP. Of the 40 Committee members, ten were leaders of opposition parties. It was inevitable that the opposition would react with dismay to the preponderance of the NDP on the Committee. Yet, given their limited electoral success, they could not claim proportional representation. Mubarak had, in a way, cut the opposition down to size. The composition of the Hiwar Conference itself duplicated that of the Preparatory Committee, but on a wider scale.

The opposition parties had earlier voiced their preference for a dialogue between political parties and a focus on political issues. This would have allowed them greater representation in the process and a strong voice in the discussions. In stacking the Committee and the Conference with “public personalities” and “experts,” however, the NDP managed to neutralize its official opposition. It did this in response to the reality of the political scene, a reality in which political parties were ineffective. At the same time, the ruling party was selective in its recognition of who the actual political forces were. The choice of partners in the Hiwar was based on legitimacy understood in legal terms. Hence, despite the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood has a considerable political following, its illegal status denied it a presence in the process. With a lesser following, but with a significant historical record of activism, the Communists could also claim legitimacy. Yet, from the standpoint of legality, they had no place in the Hiwar.

The balancing maneuvers had to take into account the rise of new players on the political scene and the appropriation of certain institutions as a new political space and forum of opposition. Since representation was institutionally based, the professional syndicates, which represent the newly politicized organizations, were, included. Syndicate presidents were participants in the Hiwar, although this in itself did not constitute a recognition by the regime of their political role. In addition, most syndicate presidents have close ties to the ruling party, either as members or as cabinet ministers.

The Terms Of Political Reform

The Hiwar confirms and conforms to a pattern of functioning pursued by the Mubarak regime which has been described as “taking one step forward and two steps back”. Since coming to power, Mubarak, at various intervals, gave signals of a political opening, but stopped short of effecting real changes in the political structure (1987 and 1990 elections). In 1987, he dissolved the national assembly following a Supreme Court ruling that the 1984 general elections were unconstitutional. This move was preemptive, made on the eve of a scheduled all-parties meeting to discuss strategies for political change.(9) Similarly, the dissolution of the 1987 parliament in 1990 after another ruling of unconstitutionality left the impression that there was a political will to renew the rules of the game and rejuvenate the political class.(10) Again, government control of the democratization initiative was affirmed in its refusal to incorporate the opposition parties, demands for guarantees of the integrity of the elections.(11) On each occasion, the regime carried out a balancing act aimed at maintaining the status quo.

The Hiwar might be seen as a step forward, yet, it was followed by many leaps backward. For instance, approximately two months prior to the end of the state of emergency under which the country was ruled, Mubarak extended it for another three years. The lifting of emergency rule had been one of the main political demands made by the opposition and was seen as essential for effective liberalization. During the period leading up to the Hiwar, a number of laws designed to strengthen executive powers were put before the national assembly. These included the law governing the position of mayors and village heads, making them appointed positions rather than elected ones. There were also proposals to amend the law to make positions of university and faculty club presidents subject to appointment only.

The mechanisms and the composition of the Hiwar reflect the political map of Egypt as drawn by the leadership and those in power and expresses their desire to avert change. As an ad hoc means of participation, the Hiwar contributed little. Since participants were nominated by the President rather than elected by their constituencies, the configuration which emerged was a replica of the existing structures and their dominant forces. The large number of academics and experts served to give a technocratic and elitist character to the Hiwar, instead of a national identity. It is interesting that social forces and classes, as bases of participation and action, were not mentioned, and that institutional reference was used to designate the pool from which participants were drawn: political parties, syndicates, universities, the media, and research centers. Only the youth and women fell outside of this institutional framework.

In setting the agenda for discussion, the government assured its control over the process. Political reform, understood as constitutional reform, was ruled out as a subject of discussion. Proposals for changing the constitution in order to bring about greater political freedoms were also rejected. The main issues on the government’s agenda were of an executive and administrative nature. For instance, the question of informal communities and how to deal with them was set high on the agenda. Problems of unemployment, education, housing, etc., were also open for discussion. The Political Committee of the Conference outlined the subjects of discussion around four axes: 1- reform of the electoral system, 2- review of the law of the Public Socialist Prosecutor, 3- confronting extremism; 4- expansion of the Shura Council’s powers.

This agenda put the opposition parties in a dilemma. Omitting the issue of political reform or pushing it down the list of priorities put the opposition parties to the test, for this was the one issue they agreed upon. The possibility of a united front against the regime on other issues such as economic liberalization or housing was unlikely given the divergence in their political ideologies and constituencies. The government strategy thus proved effective in breaking the ranks of the official opposition. Only the Wafd Party seemed to stake its participation in the Hiwar on the prioritization of political and constitutional reform.(12)

In the final recommendations of the Committee, submitted in July 1994, much emphasis was put on reforming the electoral system, and agreement seemed to be reached on the NDP’s proposals for elections based on party lists and proportional representation. These recommendations integrated some of the opposition parties, suggestions for reform. On the whole, the outcome stayed within the boundaries of the official discourse (both ruling and opposition) concerning the political. The views put forth for democratization were focused on the means and mechanisms for opening up channels of access to power. Democratizing the regime and the legal framework of political action have been the staple of opposition demands over the last decade.

The focus of the Hiwar on traditional structures of the polity circumscribes the workings of democracy to its formal aspects of political pluralism, that is, elections, multipartism and public freedoms. It leaves out the larger legal order which is constitutive of the state and which, as pointed out by O’Donnell, should enter into the determination of its identity either as democratic or authoritarian.(13) Given the crisis of the state which Egypt experiences today, the failure to articulate reform policies designed to deal with the many facets of the crisis is grave negligence.

Implications Of The Hiwar For The Political Community

A number of issues concerning the political process and the nature of the political community crystallized around the Hiwar. With regard to the search for a viable framework for democracy, the question was posed as to the adequacy of the traditional structures of participation. A restructuring of the political community or a redefinition of politics was at stake. Political parties are no longer the main actors, rather new players have come onto the political scene; including the professional syndicates and expert organizations. The composition of the Hiwar Committee might not be reflective of the political scene, however, it, along with the dynamics of the Hiwar as they unfolded, confirm the ineffectiveness of political parties.

The politicization of civil organizations such as the syndicates raises questions as to the nature of the political community. Is it possible now to speak of a restructuring of the political and of the emergence of a new kind of democratic participation? The idea of a national dialogue and the need for it indicate that conventional structures and forms of political activities, such as consultation, are inadequate, and according to some observers, non-representative. It has been suggested that popular representation is not ensured through the traditional liberal channels of elections and parliament. For this reason, `Abd al-`Azim Ramadan, an historian and a political commentator, proposed that parliament be composed of representatives of social institutions, economic organizations, professional syndicates, labor unions and NGOs.(14)

This view stands in contradiction to the position held by the opposition parties and particularly the Wafd. The latter’s articulation of the issue of political reform emphasizes the institutional character of liberal democracy (elections, freedoms, etc.).(15) This character is built on constitutional guarantees and thus has found juridical enshrinement within this frame. The debate which the Wafd’s position solicits has to do with the possibility of effecting fundamental transformations under the current constitutional arrangement. More importantly, however, it advances the primacy of a certain form of the political, one that is institutional and procedural and which defines democracy accordingly.

These two positions propose changes to the existing political structure. The Wafd’s proposals come out of established practice and ideas in existing liberal democracies. `Abd al-`Azim Ramadan’s proposals are developed out of his analysis of the political situation in Egypt and his reading of the Hiwar, and, to a certain extent, they seem to cohere with the emerging realities (i.e. the increasing politicization of the syndicates and faculty clubs). Observers of the Egyptian scene have regarded syndicate political activities as part of an emerging civil society; a development which is generally viewed in positive terms. Advocacy of civil society has been translated, in most cases, into the promotion of some notion of associational democracy.(16) In the next section, I will examine the implications of restructuring the political in light of this notion, taking the professional syndicates as a test case.




Since the mid-1980s, relations between the state and the syndicates have been significantly transformed. This is particularly true in the case of the engineering, medical, and more recently, the lawyers, syndicates. The latter, however, has had a distinct historical evolution. The professional syndicates were until recently under state control. They were incorporated into the state, organizationally and institutionally. Their presidents were drawn from the ranks of government officials and most of their members were government employees, engineers working for public firms, doctors for government hospitals and lawyers for government institutions. Members of the boards were required to be Arab Socialist Union (ASU) members and their presidents were often nominated by the ASU. This incorporation was depoliticized in the sense that the syndicates were not given a voice in the formulation of policies, and the extent of their political presence was limited to affirming their support for the regime. However, there were instances of confrontation which were usually resolved in favor of the government and which resulted in the further weakening of the syndicates.(18)

The lawyers, syndicate had had a history of independence which came to an end with the corporatizing tendencies of the Nasser regime. During that period, they adopted a Nasserist stand. Under Sadat, the lawyers’ divergence with government policies brought them into repeated confrontations with the regime. It should be noted that the lawyers claim a special political role by virtue of the nature of their work; for example, involvement in constitution drafting and human rights advocacy. In this, they make a distinction between the political in the general sense and the political in the limited sense.(19) This will be discussed in more detail below.

At this juncture, I will note the indices of the politicization of the syndicates and then proceed to an evaluation of this phenomenon in relation to the ideas of democratic participation, the nature of the political community and civil society.

The Syndicates As A New Political Space

Beginning in the mid-1980s, syndicate elections ushered in a new era of syndicate politics. Candidates to the executive boards of the medical and engineering syndicates ran on an Islamic program, postulating the slogans of al-Islam Huwa al-Hal and Na’m Nuriduha Islamiya (“Islam is the solution” and “Yes, we want it to be Islamic”). The elections featured candidates with strong ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, most notably Dr. `Isam al-`Iryan and engineer Abu al-`Ila Madi, both of whom were identified with radical Islamist politics in the 1970s, having been members of the Jama`at al-Islamiya on university campuses.

The elections of the mid-1980s in the medical (1984) and engineering syndicates (1987) brought the first victories of the Islamist camp. The gradual takeover of the syndicates was accompanied by a mobilization of members in favor of Islamist politics. These two syndicates constituted fertile ground for such activities, given the preponderance of engineering and medical students in the membership of the Jama `at in the 1970s. Another factor which might have influenced the course of elections in the engineering syndicate was the old leadership’s loss of legitimacy amidst allegations of corruption.(20) This has definitely been the case with the lawyers, syndicate. The 1991 election successes of the Islamist lawyers owed much to the lack of confidence in the group which had long dominated the syndicate. In 1989, the lawyers had been caught up in a power struggle within the executive board and there were numerous allegations of corruption. The Islamists in their 1990-91 campaign encouraged fellow lawyers to vote for al-aydi al-mutawadi’a (the cleansed hands in preparation for prayer).

The different elements of the initial success of the Islamists within the syndicates are yet to be ascertained through an analysis of the early elections. Nonetheless, it is possible to argue that in a context in which political parties have been virtually ineffective, the syndicates were appropriated as political space by those denied admission through regular channels. Subsequent electoral successes have been explained in terms of the victor’s ability to respond to the needs of their members: the provision of social services such as housing, medical insurance, transportation, and the promotion of the members, functional interests in the areas of accreditation, pensions, and codes of ethics.(21) These are often advanced as factors contributing to the appeal of the Islamists.

The scope of interests pursued by the syndicates is not limited to the functional interests cited above. Under Islamist leadership, the syndicates ventured into national and international politics.(22) The medical syndicate formed a humanitarian committee for the support of the Mujahidin in Afghanistan and later became involved in support activities for Bosnian Muslims. The syndicates are also engaged in domestic political activity; openly supporting the opposition’s boycott of the 1990 general elections. The implication of their leadership in partisan activities is also an issue here. High-profile board members campaigned for the Tahaluf (Alliance) candidates in the 1987 general elections. The syndicates took public positions in support of demands for constitutional reform by the opposition and for the lifting of emergency rule.

In sum, the syndicates have stepped into areas formerly occupied by the state, such as the provision of social services. They are also gradually filling a vacuum left by the ineffectiveness of the political parties. What are the implications of this move?

There are indications that this process of politicization has had disintegrative effects on the syndicates, actions and internal cohesion. This is evidenced by recent developments in the lawyers, syndicate where elections to its various boards are now run on a partisan basis. Thus, each political party fields its own candidates, with alliances and blocks also being formed. As well, the Muslim Brotherhood coordinates the candidacy of its members.(23) The two main blocks consist of Islamists on one side, nationalists and secularists on the other. The radical Islamist faction has gained a presence in the lawyers’ syndicate and ran a separate campaign in the 1993-94 governorate elections. The elections have thus become the arena of political contest among both the ruling and opposition political parties. During the lawyers, local election in December 1993, an alliance of nationalists made up of Nasserists, leftists, communists and other secular candidates ran against the Islamists. These elections were run in the manner of political parties, each side amassing its supporters. The Islamists, who enjoy better organizational skills, used buses to bring their supporters to the polls. One side espoused the transformation of the syndicate into an islamic organization, the other fought for the preservation of the secular national identity.

The internal struggles carried with them charges of corruption and have resulted in the postponement of the 1993 Cairo and Giza local elections. In response, the predominantly Islamist board threatened to exclude their opponents from the syndicate on charges of defaming the organization. In a later development, dissident lawyers prepared proposals for the dissolution of their syndicate and for new rules of organization.(24)

In May 1994, the lawyers’ syndicate came into conflict with the government, following the death of an Islamist lawyer while in police custody. The incident sparked angry reactions by lawyers who at first sought to present a united front, staging a strike and a demonstration. The government, using the emergency law, stepped in to stop these activities. The demonstrators were teargazed and a number of them were arrested. In the negotiations which ensued to end the standoff between the government and the lawyers, the front was broken. In a deal between the government and the Islamist camp within the syndicate, sympathizers of the Brotherhood were released, while all others remained in jail. In consternation, the Cairo Naqib (President) went on a hunger strike which helped secure the release of the other lawyers. The clashes with the government were over issues of national interest (human rights), but again, partisan politics motivated the actions of the players. Politics in its wider sense was sacrificed for the narrow definition.

This example of syndicate politics brings into focus questions regarding the political activities of civil associations. It underlines the need to distinguish between civic interests and functional interests and the arenas which are appropriate for the representation of each. This said, it should be acknowledged that at times both sets of interests might overlap, clash, or coincide. Of interest here is the distinction which some lawyers make in their understanding of the political, differentiating between a general sense (meaning non-partisan) and a narrow sense (meaning partisan).



The form proposed for political restructuring and the actual reconfigurations which are taking place on the political scene in Egypt elicit some theoretical and practical considerations. The enthusiasm with which this restructuring has been met among intellectuals and observers has its foundations in the belief that associational democracy is a better form of representation. According to this view, reform is to be initiated in society rather than in traditional politics, i.e. the electoral system, parliament, and political parties. Now, if we assume that the active reformers or militants had in mind some notion of associational democracy, it is possible to argue that they strayed from their objective. Furthermore, the contention can be made that this was almost inevitable. In my attempt to support this argument, I would first state some of the presuppositions of associational democracy to see where the divergence from the ideal took place. Second, I will assess the practicality and plausibility of these presuppositions for the actualization and functioning of democracy.

There are a number of conditions or bases for associational activity and claims of representativeness. Associations have defining characteristics which serve as indicators for devising rules regulating their relationship with the state as well as their role in society. An association’s scope of interests is conventionally identified with its membership base. In the case where group organization is based on an individual’s position in society (his/her profession for example), the association’s realm of representation is defined in terms of the functional interests associated with its members, activities or position. The encompassingness of the association is determined by its reach and inclusion of individuals occupying a certain position or engaged in a particular activity. Hence, membership has boundaries which are more restrictive than the “extended territorial organizations” which political parties and social movements represent. Pursuing the functional interest of the members is the main purpose and objective of the association. It is in terms of its encompassingness and scope of interests that associations find their distinguishing characteristics. Based on these criteria, the nature and activities of the organizations are regulated.

A related factor here is the public nature of the organization. Publicness is an essential feature of political action and engagement. Semi-public associations or associations where membership has restrictions do not meet the conditions of publicness required for deliberative politics and equal representation and participation. The restrictions which are set by a professional organization are necessary for its proper functioning. However, these same restrictions render the association inaccessible to the citizenry at-large. This negates one of the conditions of fair citizen participation in the making of decisions affecting the collectivity.

Associational activity in the polity confronts us with the need to review the principles of democratic participation, particularly the interrelation of scope of interests, inclusiveness and publicness as factors which determine claims of representativeness and the appropriation of spaces for political action. Further questions arise out of the politicization of the social. Much of the current theorization in this respect has been developed in reference to Eastern Europe. The enthusiasm for civil institutions and their role in bringing about the collapse of the communist system has been given expression in a rethinking of the political, drawing on the East European experience.(25) A renewed faith in civism, social solidarity, everyday politics, and the democracy of everyday has been reaffirmed. It is not my purpose here to reproduce the “argument of civil society” or “the idea of civil society,” rather I will only outline three of its characteristics as seen in the East European model. These proved implausible when circumstances there changed. The characteristics are the formation of broad alliances, “non-political politics” and the adoption of an opposition stance to government. As Kiss points out, broad alliances were broken with the rise of the dissidents/leaders to power. “Non-political politics” prevented the formulation of policies, and when the opposition forces found themselves in power, opposition to government became obsolete.(26)

If civil society as an alternative to politics is not feasible, its proper functioning is contingent on a number of things. The appropriation of public spaces as realms of freedom and buffers against government depends on a concept of politics in the general sense as used by some of the lawyers in Egypt, that is non-partisan politics or “non-political politics”. Yet what has taken place in Egypt is the ideologizing of spaces of the public sphere beyond functionality. As such, broad alliances and consensual politics are ruled out.

The democracy of everyday is only possible if the scope of interests being contested is circumscribed in line with a group’s membership. In the same vein, with a widening of the scope of interests, publicness and deliberative politics involving the collectivity at issue become necessary conditions of participatory democracy. In other words, the key to everyday politics is the scope of the decisions made.


The official conception of reform which is discerned in the dynamics of the Hiwar crystallizes around changes in the traditional structures of politics. In this respect, the regime pursues a policy of management and containment; holding the reigns of political initiative and upholding the rules of the game in the name of legality to the detriment of legitimacy. This form of the political is now challenged through a restructuring which falls outside government reach. The politicization of the syndicates represents the appropriation of an alternative arena for political action and brings in new players seemingly more competent than the party politicians. This situation has been viewed as a triumph of associational democracy. This, however, poses numerous questions as to the nature of democratic participation and the political community. In this regard, I have attempted to raise the overall issues, reviewing the presuppositions which govern associational activities, the workings of civil society in the East European model and the limitations which beset the Egyptian case.


(1.) For discussions of these characteristics see Ali E. Hillal Dessouki, “L`evolution politique de l’Egypte: pluralisme democratique ou neo-autoritarism?” Maghreb-Machrek 127 (January-March 1990): 7-16 and Ahmad `Abdallah, “Le cadre de la participation en Egypte,” in Democratie et democratisation dans le Monde arabe. Dossiers du CEDEJ. (CEDEJ: Cairo, 1992), 277-83. On patterns of regime functioning see Iman Farag, “Le politique a l’egyptienne: lecture des elections legislatives,” Maghreb-Machrek 133 (July-September 1991): 19-33, and Mona Makram Ebeid, “Le role de l’opposition officielle en Egypte,” Maghreb-Machrek 119 (January-February 1988): 5-24. (2.) See al-Ahram, 14 February 1994. (3.) Guillermo O’Donnell, “On the State, Democratization and Some Conceptual Problems: A Latin American View with Glances at Some Postcommunist Countries,” World Development 21, no. 6 (1992): 1355-69 (4.) The Dialogue Conference was held on 26 June and lasted until 10 July 1994. The discussion of the preparatory phase of the Conference and of its unfolding draws on coverage in the following newspapers: al-Ahali, al-Ahram, al-Sha’b and al-Wafd from October 1993 to July 1994. (5.) See al-Wafd and al-Ahali between December 1993 and June 1994. In fact the suggestion of a national dialogue was made by intellectuals earlier in 1993. See Muhammad al-Sayyid al-Sa’id, “al-Taghyir wa al-Wifaq al-Watani” [Change and the National Consensus], al-Ahram, 30 July 1993. (6.) See “The Democracy Agenda in the Arab World,” Middle East Report, no. 174 (January-February 1992): 3-5, and Middle East Report, no. 179 (November-December 1992). (7.) In August 1993, the civil court acquitted 24 alleged assassins of former Parliamentary Speaker Rif`at al-Mahgub. (8.) The law stipulates that a quorum of 50% of the syndicate’s general assembly is required for the certification of election results. In the event of a second round of elections, a 30% quorum is required. (9.) Ebeid, “Le role de l’opposition officielle en Egypte”. (10.) Farag, “Le politique a l’egyptienne”. (11.) Ibid. (12.) The Wafd and the Nasserists withdrew following the first session of the Preparatory Committee held on 1 June 1994. (13.) O’Donnell, “On the State, Democratization and Some Conceptual Problems”. (14.) `Abd al-‘Azim Ramadan, “Lughz al-Hiwar al-Watani” [The Puzzle of the National Dialogue], al-Ahram, 25 June 1994. (15.) See al Wafd from December 1993 to July 1994, particularly Sa’id `Abd al-Khaliq’s columns. (16.) There is a growing body of literature using the civil society concept as an analytical tool to study Arab countries. Civil organizations and their activities are central to these studies, for examples see Mustapha K. al-Sayyid, “A Civil Society in Egypt?” Middle East Journal 47, no. 2 (Spring 1993): 228-42; Hasanayn Tawfiq Ibrahim, “Bina’ al-Mujtama` al-Madani: al-Mu`ashirat al-Kamiya wa al-Kayfiya” [The Construction of Civil Society: Quantitative and Qualitative Indicators], in al-Mujtama’ al-Madani fi al-Watan al-‘Arabi wa Dawrah fi Tahqiq al-Dimuqratiya [Civil Society in the Arab Nation and its Role in the Realization of Democracy] (Beirut: Markaz Dirasat al-Wihda al-`Arabiya, 1992); and Saad Eddin Ibrahim, “al-Muqadima” [Introduction], in al-Mujtama` al-Madani wa Mustaqbal al-Dimuqratiya fi al-Watan al-Arabi [Civil Society and the Future of Democratic Transformation in the Arab Nation] (Cairo: Markaz Ibn Khaldun, 1993), 11-45. I have reviewed the usage of the concept in Salwa Ismail, “The Civil Society Concept and the Middle East: Questions of Meaning and Relevance,” (paper presented at the Annual General Meeting of the Canadian Political Science Association, Calgary, Alberta, June 1994). (17.) The term associational democracy has been given varying and somewhat contradictory definitions. In one perspective, it embodies a notion of societal activism separate from the state, this sense is articulated within the framework of the civil society approach. Another distinct usage of the term is found within the corporatist approach, where associational democracy is heavily dependent on state power. Variants of associational corporatism are stated in Joshua Cohen and Joel Rogers, “Secondary Associations and Democratic Governance,” Politics and Society 20, no. 4 (1992): 391-472, and in Phillipe C. Schmitter, “The Irony of Modern Democracy and Efforts to Improve its Practice,” Politics and Society 20, no. 4 (1992): 50-12. The propositions of corporatist democracy have been adopted in reference to the Middle East in Robert Bianchi, “The Strengthening of Associational Life and its Potential Contribution to Political Reform in Egypt, Turkey, and Lebanon,” (paper presented at the conference Political Liberalization and Democratization in the Arab World,” Montreal, Quebec, May 1993). The critique developed in the next section applies more to the first usage of the term, since the second stresses the regulatory role of the state. It should be noted that the civil society concept lacks definitional precision and the question of state-society relations has also found varying articulations, see Ismail, “The Civil Society Concept and the Middle East”. (18.) For an account of such incidents of confrontation see Clement Henry Moore, “Les syndicats professionnels dans l’Egypte contemporaine: l’encadrement de la nouvelle classe moyenne,” Maghreb-Machrek 64 (July-August 1974): 24-34 see also Robert Springborg, “Professional Syndicates in Egyptian Politics, 1952-1978,” International Journal of Middle East Studies, 9 (1978): 275-95. (19.) This distinction was articulated in the course of personal interviews with Mr. Muhammad `Abd al-‘Aziz, the Naqib of the Cairo branch (24 August 1994), and with other lawyers who represent different political tendencies in the syndicate, namely Nabil al-Hilaly and Sayyid Abu Zeid (25 August 1994). (20.) Amani Qandil, “Al-Tayar al-Islami fi al-Niqabat al-Mihaniya al-Misriya” [The Islamic Current in the Egyptian Professional Syndicates], in al-Islam wa al-Hadatha: Ru’y Islamiya wa Gharbiya `an Misr wa Turkiya [Islam and Modernity: Islamic and Western Views on Egypt and Turkey] (Cairo: Yafa Center for Studies and Research, 1993), 157-83. (21.) The engineering and medical syndicates have undertaken housing projects and have become the suppliers of highly prized consumer goods such as household appliances and automobiles (Ibid.); see also Majallat al-Muhandisin, for example, the issues of January to March of 1989 and 1991. (22.) Advocates of syndicate political activism refer to the Constitution as guarantor of such a right and to the laws governing the different syndicates. They find support in provisions affirming the national role the syndicates assume in the affairs of the nation. (23.) Ruz al-Yusuf, 11 April 1994. (24.) Ruz al-Yusuf, 6 June 1994. (25.) See Michael Walzer, “A Better Vision: The Idea of Civil Society,” Dissent(Spring 1991): 293-304. (26.) Elizabeth Kiss, “Democracy Without Parties?” Dissent (Spring 1992): 226-31.

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