Weakening Egypt’s civil society strengthens political Islamists
Citizens who have valuable ideas and a genuine desire to serve their country should have a legal and productive space in which to work. Smart governments should enable citizens to benefit their country by channelling their ideas and energy constructively. Preventing people from doing so runs the risk that they will release their thinking and energy destructively.
Political Islamists are Egypt’s clear and present enemy. By default, their strength lies in the underground work they have been doing for almost a century. After the Jan. 25, 2011 revolution, we were all shocked when these secret organizations managed to win both the presidential election and the majority of seats in Parliament.
These entities are not concerned with civil society laws; they know how to reach out to their target groups in gloomy settings, injecting their audiences with false beliefs and mobilizing them whenever the need arises, often in harmful ways.
Egypt’s true challenge is about mobilizing its masses. Millions of citizens with substantial spare time could easily be either constructively occupied or destructively engaged. Bringing citizens’ beliefs and activities to the surface is the only way to enable us to identify and fight the false beliefs of political Islamists.
The government has neither the capacity nor the means to argue with millions of misguided citizens; our best option is to rely on civil society to undertake this task and manage civil society activities.
President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, a strong believer in the role of the state at the expense of its citizens, is confident that he can use the state apparatus to exert full control over civil society. But regardless of the strength of its apparatus, the stability of the Egyptian state can never be realized exclusively by statesmen.
Confronting political Islamists with an iron fist might intimidate people for a while, but it does not constitute a permanent and valid remedy for Egypt’s chronic disease.
It needs the endorsement of its citizens, accompanied by a functional rule of law that everyone complies with. Threatening members of civil society organizations with imprisonment is undermining state stability.
Political Islam is still the largest political force in Egypt. While barring political Islamists from politics may temporarily weaken their influence in that sphere, it does not eliminate their entities or change the beliefs of their members. Confronting political Islamists with an iron fist might intimidate people for a while, but it does not constitute a permanent and valid remedy for Egypt’s chronic disease.
The country has a very large population. Fragmenting and polarizing civil society may enable the state to better manipulate Egyptians, but if a crisis occurs, the state will need entities to talk to and rely upon to mobilize the people. Weakening civil society and reducing its activities strengthens political Islamists at the expense of the state. Egypt’s strength lies in its civil society, which carries out a large portion of development and charity work.
Our country needs a new civil society law that is formulated by people who have been voluntarily working in this field for many years, and that advises us on the best methods to engage their peers in civil society activities. The more we encourage Egyptians to work via proper, transparent channels, the better our country will be secured.
Restricting civil society by promulgating a law that threatens its members with imprisonment will discourage many sincere citizens from taking part in the country’s development, opening the way for Egyptians working underground to expand their secret activities.
• Mohammed Nosseir, a liberal politician from Egypt, is a strong advocate of political participation and economic freedom. He can be reached on Twitter @MohammedNosseir.