Egypt has been undergoing a complex transformation process exacerbated by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s ever-growing authoritarian tendencies culminating in his control over local media outlets, his prosecution of journalists and activists, and his crackdown on civil society. Against the backdrop of al-Sisi having recently secured both: a second presidential term and constitutional amendments that would allow him to rule until 2030, I argue for the need to rethink resistance under authoritarian contexts.
In the first of two blog posts, I outline my findings on how Egyptian civil society organisations (CSOs) have been adapting to the current political context by seeking alternative avenues of contestation to challenge the Egyptian state’s legal, bureaucratic and security structures. I maintain that al-Sisi’s authoritarianism, despite its brutal repressive capabilities, must not be viewed as being absolute, but one that is contested across multiple fronts. In a paper recently published in Social Movement Studies, I analyse a variety of Egyptian CSOs that range from political organisations and movements (established political parties, informal social movements and parties awaiting legalisation), rights-based organisations (NGOs, non-profit organisations, legal-support organisations and advocacy groups) to educational organisations, to examine the interplay between modes of authoritarianism and resistance through covert and alternative forms.
I utilised a framework drawn from Antonio Gramsci that views civil society as a terrain of hegemonic contestation whereby hegemony comprises both coercion and consent that functions across political and civil society. Under this interpretation, both state and civil society organisations are able to exercise, resist and transform hegemony where the state’s prevalence is maintained through coercion, and preserved through consent. Viewing force (political society) and consent (civil society) as analytically separable, but organically united implies that they inevitably interact with one another in multifarious ways (Gramsci, 1971: 160). On one hand, hegemony established within civil society supports the dominant group’s authority over political society. On the other hand, the juridical apparatuses located within political society help protect the dominant group’s hegemony through relying on coercive measures such as law courts and the security apparatus. Accordingly, this relation between political and civil society leads to the proliferation of various fronts of politics through which social antagonisms could manifest, and where the state crucially becomes something that is not solely seized through violent upheavals, but through a diverse set of strategies aiming to challenge it (Hall, 1986).
Given that al-Sisi’s regime is characterised by repression that exceeds that experienced under Mubarak (Salama, 2018) and is argued to be edging closer towards totalitarianism (Hawthorne and Miller, 2019; Hellyer, 2018), it has unsurprisingly become challenging to maintain the same revolutionary rhetoric and contentious activities employed between 2011 and 2013. Nonetheless, my paper argues that, despite such repression, al-Sisi’s regime, for the meantime, still allows limited space for CSOs to function, albeit on a much narrower scale than previously tolerated. I maintain that such space comprises covert resistance methods which offer CSOs opportunities to challenge the state’s legal and extra-legal restrictions.
To comprehend how CSOs are being constrained under al-Sisi, I argue that a combination of repressive methods ranging from soft (e.g. legal and bureaucratic restrictions) to hard (e.g. arrests and violent crackdowns) are utilised. This distinction is heuristic and does not suggest that these repressive methods are mutually exclusive, instead, they should be viewed as lying on a continuum influenced by the extent of the state security’s direct involvement in the CSOs’ activities. I define soft repression as non-violent methods used to control CSOs through legal, bureaucratic, and funding restrictions which rely on a legal façade often vaguely worded and highly constraining. I particularly focus on Law 70/2017, recently approved by al-Sisi, to highlight the harsh restrictions being imposed on CSOs. The key clauses found under Law 70/2017 inhibit CSOs’ abilities to get established, limits the type of activities they undertake, curtails ‘work of political nature’ (as very broadly defined), and hinders their abilities to obtain resources. Under hard repression, the degree of the security apparatus’s involvement in civil society is more apparent and involves arresting members and activists, shutting down CSOs, forcing them to relocate and/or cease operating altogether. I provide numerous illustrations drawing on both my research and the existing literature to highlight the extent of such challenges.
Taking into account the Egyptian state’s various methods of repression as well as the Gramscian framework utilised, I argue that we should view such hindrances as constituting opportunities for CSOs to challenge the state across a number of fronts. By focusing on the covert and hidden aspects of resistance, we can better understand how CSOs are adapting to the repressive context through three methods. The first, legal resistance through formation, involves CSOs registering as non-profit organisations, legal firms, or functioning as unregistered initiatives to avoid restrictions imposed by Law 70/2017. The second, financial resistance, entails CSOs utilising crowdfunding (through online and offline platforms) as a method of obtaining the required financial resources without attracting the state’s attention. Third, building alliances, where CSOs aim to make their presence stronger, more sustainable and overcome their financial and organisational limitations through establishing alliances and networks with other organisations and movements across civil society. These methods are elaborated upon via illustrative examples obtained from my research.
I conclude by arguing that we need to conceptually view al-Sisi’s regime as representing an authoritarian system that is not yet fully closed, but one that still offers limited space for CSOs to function. This space encompasses covert aspects of resistance capable of challenging the state’s legal and extra-legal restrictions. Moreover, through utilising a Gramscian framework, we are able to better analyse the dynamic interplay between the Egyptian state and civil society through considering them as engaging in hegemonic contestation. This infers that hegemony is never complete and is always challenged. Practices such as resistance through formation, crowdfunding, and building alliances must therefore be understood as part of a wider movement of resistance capable of challenging the status quo, albeit in ways that do not always adhere to conventional and contentious methods of resistance. Accordingly, the arguments I develop in the paper are increasingly becoming pertinent given al-Sisi’s re-election, his recent constitutional amendments, and his sustained crackdown on civil society.