Egypt’s social and political dichotomy between the Armed Forces and the Muslim Brotherhood has bred a historically languid civil society, a challenge among many others on the road to consolidated democracy.
In an interview with the BBC on August 16, Egyptian actor, activist, and revolutionary Khalid Abdalla stated both the Egyptian military and the Muslim Brotherhood are “fundamentally fascist organizations” and that he “rejected the binaries” they have presented to Egyptian society. Abdalla went on to state that the future had to be “inclusive with everyone represented.”
Abdalla was referring to the need for a pluralistic society. A basic tenet of consolidated democracy and a concept in the company of many others believed by powerless revolutionaries and liberals caught between the strength and organization of a Muslim Brotherhood and military with little interest in their existence. Since the time of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Muslim Brotherhood and the military have competed for power within Egyptian society; as the most organized actors in Egyptian society, these two organizations were most poised to take over after Egypt’s 2011 revolution. This dichotomy explains the reasons behind the success of the Brotherhood in 2012 and the widespread appeal of the military in 2013. However, with the Muslim Brotherhood calling the military murderers and the Armed Forces pointing the finger back and calling them terrorists the masses are forced to decide between two highly polarized organizations with a great deal of power. With the Brotherhood feigning to be in the interest of democracy and the military feigning to be in the interest of security and stability; revolutionaries and liberals face an uphill battle in advancing the goals which brought people to the streets on January 25.
The Absence of a Vibrant Civil Society
Precipitant from this power vacuum is the historic inability of civil society to rise and flourish in Egypt. This is particularly problematic considering that a vibrant civil society is perhaps the most significant characteristic of a consolidated democracy. According to Larry Diamond, civil society is the intermediary entity between the public and private sphere that is home to “organized social life that is voluntary, self-generating, (largely) self-supporting, autonomous from the state, and bound by a legal order or set of shared rules.” Civil society exists to achieve public ends, not so much by reaching formal power or office but rather seeking concessions from the state. Diamond writes that places where civil society is working towards democratic transition are not places where civil society does not exist. Rather, they are places where civil society is oppressed and is working in the interest of public good.
However, in Egypt, this civil society working in the interest of public good is marginalized and increasingly unable to function. This is a product of a political pedigree which has never allowed for the sincere formation of opposition parties. The Brotherhood’s power and influence stems from being a religious organization able to carry out its activities at the local mosque and create its own civil society organizations such as NGO’s which address the needs of Egypt’s masses. Leading up to the 2011 revolution nearly every other party was outlawed, leaving Egyptian society deeply polarized. A vibrant civil society means interest groups, NGOs, lobbying firms, and rights activists serving a wide array of interests. Such a society fills the gap between the only two organizations ever to possess any sort of political power in Egypt and forces the formation of a government meeting the competing demands of a pluralistic society.
Diamond writes that a consolidated democracy is “the process by which democracy becomes so broadly and profoundly legitimate among its citizens that it is very unlikely to break down.” This inability to break down stems from multiple stakeholders having a direct interest in the government’s functionality and ability to meet their needs. Ideally, civil society evolves into a fourth branch of government that checks the powers of the legislative, judicial, and executive branches by “balancing the tensions in its relations with the state” (between autonomy and cooperation, vigilance and loyalty, skepticism and trust, assertiveness and civility).
It is this balance that allows democracy to thrive and endure. However, until Egypt’s highly polarized political landscape is dismantled at its core and organically reconstructed to provide a space for an unadulterated civil society; the scales will remain tipped.