Civil Society

A few months ago I was able to interview a professor at Cairo University who is the head of the program for civilizational studies and dialogue. She has been a friend of our center for many years, and in our introduction we were able to discuss a favorite topic of hers – the role of Islam in civil society. In particular we discussed dialogue between Muslims and Christians concerning citizenship, tolerance, peace, and acceptance of the other. I hope to post this interview next, perhaps in a few days. I have held off on doing so for a little while, however, wanting first to write about the concept of civil society. This is a term I had not encountered until I came to Egypt, so I am presuming a similar ignorance on the part of many readers. Your forgiveness is asked upon my faulty underestimation.

One of the reasons, I believe, that the term civil society is not part of common parlance in America is that it is part of common life. Civil society represents the interactions of ordinary citizens which serve to strengthen the democratic character of the nation’s fabric. Democracy is not primarily the process of elections in which voters select their representatives. While this is true, this definition is built upon the foundation of a populace which joins freely into public associations which support the common good. As this is a regular feature of much American life, there is no need to speak of civil society; it is already there.

Many observers lament that this is not true of Egypt. More than lamenting, however, they have made civil society the goal for which they strive. Not neglecting the importance of crafting democratic governmental structures, they posit that the implementation of democratic measures is mostly fruitless unless the people already think and act democratically. What is a participatory government if the people are non-participatory in society? One indication of a strong civil society is found in the number of active non-governmental organizations. These can be charity groups, scrapbooking clubs, unions, or voluntary associations of any nature. One expert in the field told me that among an Egyptian population of 80 million there are only 500 of these groups active in the whole country.

I cannot say how many groups are active in the United States, but such volunteerism has been present from the founding of the nation. Having the advantage of a country built by population transfer, involving initiative and personal sacrifice simply to arrive, the United States crafted civil society far more rapidly than the nations of Europe which needed first to overcome the cultures of aristocracy and serfdom. Religious observance also played a leading role. Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in 1835 in ‘Democracy in America’ about the associational nature of the country centering in near universal church attendance. Though the power of belief has waxed and waned in national history Americans have always been people to bond together, join a cause, and support the common welfare.

Welfare is an apt word for civil society, for the question centers in who is responsible for it. The modern welfare state is a noble invention, striving to share the nation’s resources with those less fortunate. Yet at the same time it necessarily introduces the thought that it is the government’s responsibility to tend to the welfare of its citizens. I wish to make no absolute statements about the rightness or wrongness of this policy; certainly there are examples of both good and poor administration. The point is that the assumption of welfare locates the power base of a people; to the degree that in the modern state welfare is entrusted to / controlled by / abandoned to the government, civil society suffers accordingly.

At the dawn of the last century Egypt was awash in nationalist fervor as both Muslims and Christians actively participated, together, in the cause of complete independence from the British and Turkish powers. Budding enterprises of political parties, unions, newspapers, and broadcasting were built by the elite and began to filter down into popular consciousness. This process, if not arrested, was thereafter controlled by the state after the free officers’ revolution on 1952. Enacted to rid the country of corruption and lingering dependence on foreign powers, like all modern nation-states the ruling system assumed to itself the care of the people. Altruism, expediency, or Machiavellian power machinations can all be argued about the origin of state motivation; the result is that many Egyptians fault the state, perhaps rightly, for failing to deliver on its promises of care. Welfare, however, is still left to centralization.

The civil society movement is an attempt to change this attitude. Of course there are many charitable organizations and religiously motivated groups throughout the country. Yet whereas America was founded on initiative and participation, Egypt has a six thousand year history of peasantry governed by a ruling elite. The elite have experienced cycles of ascendancy and decline; the population cycles of prosperity and hardship. Civil society existed during these millennia; especially during the Mamluke and Ottoman periods the mercantile guilds wielded influence which eventually led to the modernization project of Mohamed Ali. Sufi orders also gave religious structure to society. The abortive participatory experiment of the early 19th Century, however, did not produce roots deep enough to maintain a lasting civil spirit.

If America looks askance, it should be careful; civil spirit is not a right of inheritance. Robert Putnam has remarked in his book ‘Bowling Alone’ that civil society in the United States is declining. Conservative commentators may immediately place the blame on the growing welfare state of America; the message of this essay may provide them fuel. Yet simply identifying the problem puts them only in the position of the Egyptian critics who decry their government yet neglect civil participation. A more likely American culprit is the spirit of independence and self-reliance, foreign to Egypt, which while rightly encouraging the individual to ‘pull himself up by his bootstraps’ wrongly chastises the lesser for failure to do so, leaving him to his own devices. Egyptian society is remarkable for the preservation of the lower classes amidst poverty and population explosion, all because at the most basic level everyone knows that welfare is the responsibility of family and community. None are left to fend for themselves, no matter the alleged scandal of government neglect.

Civil society, then, is a middle class phenomenon, as well as a middle class necessity. It is uncharitable to condemn the American welfare state critic as was done a paragraph earlier, for in all likelihood such a one gives to charity, goes to church, and votes in elections. What is uncertain is the degree to which his or her participation extends to the larger society. The question is not of direct visits to an orphanage or soup kitchen; it is about coaching soccer, mothers’ associations, and general neighborliness. Yet the rebuttal is heard and understood: Who has time for more than job and family basics? Perhaps the more accurate critique is of a spirit of materialism that demands maintenance of a certain social or financial level that renders free time a scarcity. It is a fair question to ask the extent to which ‘community’ even exists in American neighborhoods, at least in suburbia. Economic factors are certainly real; but they are equally complained in both the United States and Egypt.

One final comment about Egyptian civil society is necessary before yielding the floor to the professor from Cairo University about the place of Islam. Much of the civil society initiative in Egypt, either in dialogue between Muslims and Christians or more generally, between Islam and the West, has been espoused by Coptic Christians. Their efforts point in two directions. The first is toward their own people. I wrote in a recent essay about the failure of Copts to participate in Egyptian elections. This is but one symptom of a growing tendency to retreat into the church and their own community. The Coptic Orthodox church offers a wealth of meetings, services, and social activities for Christians, but the revival this has accentuated generally requires participation within the walls of the church. Historic American church attendance strengthened the bonds of community, but America was a largely mono-religious society. Catholic numerical expansion later in history had its own church centered activities, but these differently religious citizens were able to fit into an already existing non-religious civil society network, built upon a common Christian heritage. In Egypt the situation is different for the time and relational investment given to the church and to fellow Christians is accompanied by a parallel reduction in social bonds created with Muslim neighbors. These exist, of course, and are good, but simple neighborliness is not social integration. Christian advocates of civil society recognize this, and are doing their best to change this emerging pattern. Strengthening civil society strengthens citizenship, and this is a key Christian concern, leading to their second directional effort.

Among the interpretations of Islam is a civil system which calls for the protection, yet subjugation, of religious minorities. Christians and Jews should have full right of worship in an Islamic order, with freedom to structure and conduct their own affairs, yet they should not share fully as equal participants in the running of government and society. Actual practice of this system has varied widely in Islamic, and specifically Egyptian, history. Christians have been both a repressed and humiliated minority and possessors of important ministerial posts, especially in finance. It is only in the modern age, however, that they have been citizens, equal under the law. Viewing a resurgence of Islam in recent decades many Copts view civil society, built upon a secular foundation, as the best safeguard against the return of dhimmitude. The idea is not anti-Islamic per se, but it is motivated by a fear of Islamic encroachment into the public square.

Yet why should not Muslims, as religious citizens, also share in the crafting of civil society? As they represent over 90% of the population, is it not appropriate that their moral values shape the nation in which they live? Dr. Nadia Mostafa of Cairo University summarizes Muslim frustration with secular and Christian dominance of civil society discourse, though she herself is an active participant. Her testimony will follow in the next post.

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