February 4, 2011
The civil society question

First, a statement of my bias: I hope the protests in Egypt end up with Egyptian citizens enjoying the benefits of living in a free, open society—or at least as free and open as possible, since no one lives in a perfectly free and perfectly open society.

I feel I need to start with that statement because I have a question about the ongoing protests/uprising/revolution there that I don’t think has been answered anywhere, one that might be taken as opposing the uprising: what comes next?

As it happens,I’m not even vaguely capable of answering this question for myself. All I can do is ask it.

I know this question is getting a fair amount of play from the scaremongers who see the Muslim Brotherhood imposing radical political Islam on Egypt in a post-Mubarak Egypt, but that’s not what I am wondering about—or, it’s not all that I’m wondering about.

Instead, I’m thinking about the kinds of social and political structures that need to exist to support functioning democracies. You simply can’t hand a society democratic procedures—elections, a constitution, a set of articulated rights and liberties—and say ta da! You have a democracy! We proved that in post-Soviet Russia, which we offered a whole set of democratic procedural advice to in the aftermath of 1991, but which has devolved today into little more than an authoritarian kleptocracy. 

What I’m talking about is civil society. Functioning democracies provide space for their citizens to come together, join associations, interact, build social trust through repeated interactions, and learn the skills they need to emerge as local and community leaders. Barack Obama offers an extreme example of the importance of civil society: he started his political career outside electoral politics, as a community organizer, and then parlayed those skills—after losing his first election—into becoming president. 

But civil society more often works at local levels. All of us—at least those of us living in functioning democratic societies—know of, or are ourselves, people who get things done. Such people know how to put organizations together. They know how to motivate action. They know how to address dissension within the group, and in so doing they model effective, moral civic action to others who can learn by their example. Civil society both builds leaders and provides space for tensions and frustrations to be mediated well before the intervention of the state is required. Or at least it can, and there’s really nothing else that will serve this function.

Civil society was utterly lacking in both Iraq and Afghanistan before the US invasion. Those nations’ vicious leaders had brutalized pretty much every last vestige of whatever civil society might once have existed out of those societies across decades of abuse. As a consequence, whatever institutions the United States bestowed upon those countries after deposing their existing governments, neither of those nations was going to turn into a democratic nirvana overnight. Both Iraq and Afghanistan lacked civil societies, and given that the United States tried to win those wars on the cheap, the US wasn’t going to help either country create civil societies—an activity US political leaders mocked as “state-building.” The lack of civil society, of course, is not the whole reason the wars there went wrong, but it’s a big part of the reason.

This informs my concern about the Muslim Brotherhood. At least part of the power of the Muslim Brotherhood lies in the fact that it has offered young men (men only, of course) a chance to grow and develop and build their skills for social leadership. The Muslim Brotherhood has thus served as a kind of civil society organization, albeit one whose ends are not those of creating a functioning democracy. 

I wonder if, after fully 60 years of authoritarian rule, Egypt has sufficient institutions of civil society to make a real transition to a functioning democracy. I am fortunate in that I have a colleague who was born and raised in Cairo, and she, along with another colleague raised in Istanbul, are going to talk about these issues on Monday. But is seems to me that the question of “whither Egypt” will hinge not just on the demonstrators in the streets or the thugs with their batons. It will hinge on whether an order will be constructed that reinforces the oppressions of the old, or whether a new order can emerge from the shared desires of a people capable to bringing them into fruition.

It’s a hard thing to do. But it’s the only way it ever works.