Egyptian Civil Society: “We Need a Secular State”


Human Wrongs Watch

By Foundation for the Future*

‘Egyptian civil society is in favor of a secular state in which religion has no direct influence on law and governance,” according to a survey of Civil Society Perception on the Transition, the Constitution and the New Democratic Institutions.

**Egypt's Renaissance by Egyptian sculptor Mahmoud Mokhtar | Wikimedia Commons

Civil Society in Egypt is cautiously positive about the transition that has been happening in Egypt since the January [2011] Revolution. After taking part in the demonstrations that eventually led to the first free vote taking place in Egypt for decades, positivity seems to be the only correct response,” adds the survey “Six Months Later: Civil Society Perceptions of Post-Revolutionary Egypt”. 

However, the signs of uncertainty are undeniable: demonstrators are still occupying Tahrir Square on a regular basis, the country is still under military law, and a reliable date for elections has yet to be agreed on,” according to the survey, which was conducted in August 2011 by the Amman-based Foundation for the Future (FFF) and published recently.

Beyond the very public signs of uncertainty, many members of civil society have their own personal reasons to display caution, it says. For some, the situation has not improved markedly. “They are still experiencing censorship, and fear public defamation and harassment at the hands of authorities.”

New Government to Be Secular in Nature”

The FFF survey adds that nearly 10% of the respondents have declared to have been unlawfully arrested or imprisoned since January 2011. “While the situation has improved, it is still not the point it must get to in order for civil society to take its rightful place in an open, stable democracy.”…

The survey also revealed that “most clear among civil society’s concerns is the need for a new government to be secular in nature.”

Survey results showed overwhelming support in favor of steps to be taken to mitigate the influence of political parties based on faith and religion on the drafting of the constitution and the formation of the new government.

Civil society is in favor of a secular state in which religion has no direct influence on law and governance. The majority believes that every religion should have equal rights, and citizens from all religious backgrounds should have the right to run for president.”

Need for Religious Freedom

However, the FFF survey says that CSOs (Civil Society Organizations) seem more willing to claim the need for religious freedom than they are to make a strong statement against the involvement of Islam in governance.

Given the civil society stance on democracy and religion, and the remarkable turnout of Egyptians for the national referendum vote, one can assume that civil society as a whole is more liberal and progressive-leaning than the Egyptian population at large.”

The survey revealed that 77% of voters in the referendum chose in favor of holding parliamentary elections before the drafting of the new constitution, while CSOs are overwhelmingly against this timeline.

They also responded consistently with a liberal leaning, showing openness the idea of a female president and political parties of mixed-religions.”

The Process of Democratic Transition Will Continue”

Most heartening perhaps of the findings is that civil society still feels more capable than ever to enact change for the betterment of Egypt. This is the most important point,” says the survey.

The details of transition may still be uncertain in Egypt, but as long as the people of Egypt continue to push for their rights and freedoms, the process of democratic transition will continue. As this happens, civil society will continue to step in its important role towards the establishment of a new democratic state of Egypt.”

Civil Society and the New Egypt

When asked very general questions about their perceptions of the new Egypt, CSOs seemed basically optimistic, yet cautiously so: their answers seemed to remain more or less split between “somewhat agreeing” and “somewhat disagreeing”.

However, considering the frequently changing state of Egyptian politics and society currently, such cautiousness is prudent and to be expected.

Indeed, while 73.6% of respondents either strongly or somewhat agree to say that they feel optimistic about the future of Egypt, 65.3% consider that progress has been made for Egypt to be a true democracy.

Cautious Optimism

This compares with the general perception by public opinion: according to various surveys, between 6 and 9 in 10 Egyptians are optimistic about the future.

The rather cautious optimism expressed by civil society probably takes roots in several setbacks of the recent months,” says the survey.

Indeed, when follow-up questions were asked to select respondents concerning why or why not progress had been made for Egypt to become a true democracy, one respondent cited the continued trying of civilians in military courts (up to 10,000 since the end of January [2011] according to local and international media sources), and the fact that elections have yet to be held for the return of legitimately elected authority to civilian hands as to why he strongly disagreed with the statement.”

Setbacks and Gains

These setbacks seem to overshadow the initial democratic gains achieved in the weeks following the fall of the Mubarak regime, such as the dissolution of institutions such as the Assembly, the National Democratic Party and the local councils, who have proved not to be representative, according to the survey.

The only statement to which CSOs reacted in an almost exclusively positive way in fact was concerning their own ability to be an actor of change in Egypt: an overwhelming 95.9% of respondents declare to “feel much more powerful to be a catalyst of change” – a heartening response given the dire need for a strong civil society at this point in Egypt’s history.”

Fear, Mistrust

This is however to be balanced out against a persistent mistrust between civil society and governing bodies:

41.7% of respondents still express a certain fear of government oppression,

52.8% of respondents still consider that authorities are not yet open to interact with civil society on issues affecting the transition to democracy

It is an unfortunate paradox that at the precise moment when civil society feels most capable of effecting positive change, it feels as though authorities are continuing to block or be unreceptive to their efforts.”

It must also be noted that perhaps the most balanced split between positive and negative responses occurred with the statement concerning fear of government oppression, according to the survey. This statement perhaps more than any of the others speaks to the previous regime’s legacy in the government today, and the remnants of the iron-fist style of control.

Until civil society feels free to operate without fear of its government, democracy will be unable to truly flourish.”

Interestingly enough, there seemed to be a slightly liberal leaning for CSOs that were based in Cairo or Greater Cairo, versus those outside the capital, the survey revealed. Those in the area of Cairo were 9% less optimistic about the future of Egypt, and in 10% more instances they felt that authorities were open to consult with CSOs about issues in transition.

More Active Role Needed

A true democratic transition in Egypt will require that civil society can take a more active role than what has been previously possible. However, such a partnership between government and CSOs simply cannot exist if leadership still feels threatened by democratic growth,” the survey stresses.

Thus, in order to gauge the progress of transition, it is helpful to better understand how civil society perceives its own freedom to act, and the treatment they have received from the government since the revolution.”

The Restrictions

According to FFF survey, the general picture is one that clearly depicts major improvements in the possibility for CSOs to act and think freely: on all 4 major types of restrictions that can affect civil society (censorship, unlawful arrest and imprisonment, defamation and harassment, obstacles in daily operations), significant improvements are perceived by respondents.

However, the persistence of certain restrictions is preoccupying and shed lights on numerous possible areas for improvement.”

The main perceived “gain” since February seems to be a significant improvement in the possibility for civil society groups to freely express their views and opinions: while 90.3% of respondents declare to have been affected by censorship and obstructions to freedom of speech before February, this proportion is down to 34.7% in the new Egypt.

Even though 34.7% is not a negligible figure, the drop is significant, and illustrates an important development towards the democratization of the regime.”

More Hurdles

A second hurdle facing CSOs is the refusal of access to funding or refusal to register new projects or conduct activities, still imposed by authorities in certain cases, and still permitted by the current regulations and laws ruling the third sector, and in particular the law 84/20025, according to the survey.

Almost 1 in 3 respondents (29.1%) declared to still be facing such difficulties in their daily operations.

Another 1 in 5 respondents (20.8%) still declare to be affected by public defamation and harassment by authorities.

When asked about the nature of censorship and harassment by the government before and after the revolution, two different respondents said that it was usually due to their acceptance of aid and funding from foreign institutions.

39 CSOs and political groups have recently joined forced to denounce what they call “a fierce and systematized crackdown by the country’s military junta” and submitted official complaints to several special UN rapporteurs regarding frequent incidents of defamation against groups receiving funds from foreign countries, which CSOs consider as an attempt to discredit civil society as a whole.

Challenging Situation

The fact that almost 1 in 10 respondents (9.7%) declare to face, even today, unlawful arrest and imprisonment is a preoccupying finding.

The FFF survey also concluded that the situation in Egypt is particularly challenging.

The energy and passion of the Egyptian people that culminated in the Revolution has not yet waned. What is unclear is whether or not that power will be able to be effectively directed to result in a viable democratic state, representative of the various parties and aspirations, currently vying for attention on the national stage.”

*The Foundation for the Future is an independent, multi-lateral and not for profit organization, created in 2005 and fully committed to promoting democracy, Human Rights, the Rule of Law and reforms through supporting Civil Society Organizations’ (CSOs) relevant initiatives in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region at large. Read full version of the Survey

**Egypt’s Renaissance by Egyptian sculptor Mahmoud Mokhtar (1891-1934) | Wikimedia Commons

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2012 Human Wrongs Watch


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