The State and Human Rights Organizations in Egypt: A Problem of Political Culture or a Structural Crisis?

The Egyptian state seeks to control civil society through laws and puts in place security measures to restrict its action, while civil society organizations, especially rights groups, deploy various strategies to ensure a minimal space for action. In this struggle, a solution lies not only in legislation enabling the participation of independent civil society but more in the opening of the political domain itself. In a context where the real danger lies in the continuation of a status quo that prevents the construction of a modern democratic state, civil society must build wider social and political network to enable it to influence state decisions and represent rights holders.

Arab Reform Initiative - The State and Human Rights Organizations in Egypt: A Problem of Political Culture or a Structural Crisis?
Human rights defenders accused of working for unlicensed NGOs and receiving foreign funds, stand in a cage during the opening of their trial in Cairo, Egypt, February 2012 © Khaled Elfiqi/EPA


The Egyptian state has usually looked upon civil society organizations as an appendage to the state, meant to fulfil developmental or even political functions as determined by the state. Whether providing social services, working on development programmes or advocating human rights, independent civil society organizations can present a danger to the order that successive political regimes seek to maintain. The Egyptian state worked to control organizations and their impact on society through laws and put security measures to restrict their action, while organizations deployed strategies to ensure a minimal space for action.

A solution does not lie only in enabling legal regulations but more in the political domain itself. Without opening spaces for action and organization to the various societal forces, we shall not have the necessary momentum and energy to reformulate the structure of the state to be more representative of its various societal elements from the bottom up.

Against this background, this paper addresses the relationship between human rights organizations and the state in Egypt. It concludes that the danger to Egypt and other similar states lies not in what existing regimes claim about foreign conspiracies and external military threats, but rather in the continuation of the status quo, in which a modern democratic state cannot be built. Human rights organizations, for their part, may have to build a wider network on a large scale with other civil society organizations and work to confront political repression and to build alliances with social and political forces that enable them to influence decision-making within state institutions. These alliances could also enable rights NGOs to have more influence on the ground by representing certain social groups and adopting their causes.

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The views represented in this paper are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Arab Reform Initiative, its staff, or its board.