Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
23 - 29 December 1999
Issue No. 461
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

 
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Caught in the crossfire

By Omayma Abdel-Latif

If past experience is anything to go by, then chances of the Ministry of Social Affairs granting a license to the Society for Dialogue and Culture (SDC), a new NGO, are almost nil. The reason? Perhaps the fact that the founders of the association are the very same Islamists who have been attempting to establish the Wasat Party -- twice denied a licence by the Committee on Political Parties -- has something to do with it.

"This is a tough test for Law 153, and a test for the state itself, which should be impartial in dealing with NGOs," said one political observer.

The SDC's application came shortly after the Muslim Brotherhood withdrew a request to contest the military trial of some of its members, who belong to various professional syndicates. The move, according to a source close to the group, indicated that the Brotherhood was bowing to governmental pressure.

But will these moves bring the state and the Islamists working in civil society institutions a step closer to reconciliation? Some observers of state-civil society relations during the '90s believe that the state's erroneous reading of Islamist influence in these institutions has resulted in the dissolution of two important groups of organisations: the Charitable Religious Associations (Al-Gam'iyyat Al-Khayriya Al-Diniya) and the professional syndicates whose boards were dominated by Islamists. One view suggested that the state's clampdown on the syndicates and the charitable associations reflects both its desire to regain control of the public spaces it had left to various social forces, and its exaggerated fears that these institutions would become instruments in the hands of Islamists and constitute a threat to state hegemony.

But why has the state-Islamist conflict moved into the sphere of civil society? Samy Zubaida, a professor of state-society relations at the University College of London (UCL), explains that because these groups were totally excluded from political participation, they attempted to create a social base in the hope that it would eventually foster social acceptance of their ideas. In other words, only through the creation of a society outside the state that could fulfill the function of social control and, under certain circumstances be mobilised against the state, could the existing order be seriously challenged. "Controlling these civil society spaces was the only way in which those outside the state apparatus, or rather outside political legitimacy, attempted to secure a share of influence," Zubaida said.

This argument, however, makes little sense to some analysts, who argue that politics was never part of the work of the religious/charitable NGOs, and that their main concern was rather with civil life.

"The kinds of services these associations undertook to provide are not inherently political. They became so only when they were transformed into a political symbol over which both the state and the Islamists try to claim hegemony," says Mirna Hammoud of the American University in Cairo's department of political science.

Islamists in civil society associations acted on three separate levels. While the Muslim Brothers confined their services to orphanages and clinics offering low-cost medical services mostly in slum areas, the Salafis -- a more traditional group -- paid more attention to Qur'anic schools. Al-Gama'a Al-Islamiya and Al-Jihad were more concerned with controlling signs of authority. They attempted to replace the state in many of the spheres from which it was totally absent.

According to this view, it was the state's social disengagement -- particularly in the domain of social services -- that severed communication with society and led to the creation of another patronage network in the form of groups of individuals preaching and providing services.

According to Hammoud, however, this process has taken place under the state's tutelage. In her study of religious NGOs, Hammoud found that the mosque/association units that became increasingly efficient in completing visible tasks, were in fact supported by the government. "The state was instrumental in helping the expansion of such structures, allowing them to operate freely and even replace it in many social fields," Hammoud said.

It was feared, however, that these institutions would come to constitute the embryo of an authority capable of countering that of the state, and that the Islamists' efforts were bound to generate feelings of gratitude. The government therefore acted to curb their influence, clamping down on almost all the country's private mosques and charitable activities related to them. In Alexandria governorate, over a hundred charitable associations have been placed under state control and their boards dissolved. The professional syndicates whose boards were dominated by Islamists suffered the same fate.

A new law -- Law 100 -- was issued to regulate the electoral process in the syndicates under government supervision. These moves may be seen as reflecting the state's desire to give Islamists all credit for the "Islamisation" of society. "The state at one point saw an Islamist under every bed. This was an exaggeration of their real power," says Amani Qandil, who has conducted extensive research on Islamists in professional syndicates.

Qandil argues that society must develop the ability to communicate with the state, an ability that has been lacking due to the interventionist nature of the state: "As this century draws to a close, the Egyptian state faces a potential challenge from civil society, which requires that the government either adapt its policies to reach a broader segment of society or risk further alienating its own population."

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