H.A. Hellyer looks at the role of civil-society groups in Egypt's political transformation, and their often painful adjustment to less-than-satisfactory outcomes. He details the role of the media, youth groups, labour unions and non-governmental organisations, as they have struggled to overcome yet another wave of marginalisation.

Prior to the 2011 uprising, there was considerable scepticism about the state of Egypt’s civil society and therefore the wisdom of any disruption of its political system. Civil society was viewed as lethargic at best, or even nearly extinct, following its repression under the regime of Hosni Mubarak. Consequently, a revolution was seen as potentially exposing this gaping hole, causing instability and costing Egyptian society dearly.

Despite tremendous restrictions, a semblance of civil society persisted. The Mubarak regime occasionally allowed certain openings: some Islamist movements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi groups, found room to operate – but mostly in domains that were not directly or overtly political. This partially explains the social capital that such groups had after 2011, which they translated into political capital. In general, though, it was believed that civil society could not countenance, let alone manage, the political and social aftershocks of radical change.

What followed the events of January 2011 both contradicted and validated such scepticism. Wholly unexpectedly, civil society rose to the challenge during the 18 days of the uprising. Groups and networks of activists had survived, despite having been pushed to the margins, and they managed to organise, showing skill and commitment. Others arose, instinctively and intuitively, as organic groupings such as neighbourhood-watch committees, which emerged to fill security gaps that were created when the police withdrew from the streets. Together, they managed to sustain the country until Mubarak was removed from power, and the uprising ‘ended’.

Dr H.A. Hellyer is a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, and an Associate Fellow in International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London.

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