Al-Ahram Weekly Online   26 May - 1 June 2011
Issue No. 1049
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Whither civil society?

By Ayman Abdel-Wahab

As this country strives to establish the ground rules for citizenry, questions are being asked about civil society and its current role. Some say that Egypt's civil society is too weak and corrupt to lead us forward. Others say that its performance is flawed and its ability to mobilise the public is too limited.

This is all partly true, but we have to keep in mind that most of the non-governmental work done in this country so far had more to do with charity than with civic values such as justice, freedom, democracy and tolerance. It is only since 2005 that civil society began to take interest in rights issues and embrace political reform agendas.

As political protests became more common in the country, civil society became more involved in public life. And the foreign aid programmes and empowerment projects, of which we've had plenty, led to the emergence of a new generation of rights activists, some of whom played a key role in the revolution.

To sum up, Egyptian civil society may date back to the late 19th century, but it is a newcomer to politics and reform. Most of the experience civil society in this country had so far focussed on welfare efforts, not participation, citizenry or assertive action. Consequently, our civil society is still unprepared to the immense tasks of the future, and it will need a lot of help before it can assume a leading role.

This week's Soapbox speaker is head of the Civil Society Programme at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

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