Egypt's Popular Committees

From Moments of Madness to NGO Dilemmas

by Asya El-Meehy
published in MER265

During the 18-day uprising of 2011, police disappeared from the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities at the same time that the state emptied the prisons of thousands of convicts. Neighborhood watch brigades, typically led by young men, sprang up to fill the security void as reports of criminal violence mounted. Face to face, or via Facebook, these “popular committees” quickly organized themselves and spread beyond urban centers, driven by the imperative of community defense. In the words of one committee founder: “Committees were everywhere in villages and cities. They became the heartbeat of Egyptian society—locally rooted and flexibly organized, informal and voluntary.” [1] Hundreds, if not thousands, of popular committee members were also participants in the struggle to topple Husni Mubarak.

Some of the popular committees disbanded after Mubarak fell and police slowly reappeared. The end of Mubarak’s rule ushered in tighter state controls over civil society organizations, as well as a near monopoly for Islamist parties over formal political institutions. Nonetheless, many popular committees remained independent and active, holding their first national conference in April 2011. [2] Activists refer to themselves as part of a social movement. The sample included in my research shows that members are normally aged 18–35, though older people are often honorary affiliates. The committees are roughly 30 percent Christian, outstripping the percentage of Christians in the overall population, but heavily male, with the proportion of women members ranging from 2 percent in rural areas to 20 percent in cities.

Today’s popular committees have a reputation for being advocates for community development and reform as well as neighborhood watches. In the informal settlements dotting Egyptian cities, popular committees have extracted the provision of essential state services -- gas lines, lighting and health clinics. This new brand of community activism has attracted much sympathetic media attention, with one article celebrating the popular committees as bringing “the true spirit of democracy to the streets.” [3] Some popular committees go beyond making claims on the state, operating under the banner of “defense of the revolution.” Assuming a confrontational stance, these committees seek to expose corrupt local officials and identify policemen with records of human rights violations. They strive to link community problems to national struggles, as well as to support political candidates with revolutionary agendas. The slum district of Ramlat Bulaq is one powerful example. Nestled on the Nile just north of downtown Cairo, Ramlat Bulaq saw a local son shot dead in August when he demanded back pay for work as a temporary security guard at the posh Nile City Towers on the corniche. Other residents clashed with police, and over the next few nights, several were arbitrarily arrested and maltreated in detention. In October, the popular committee of Ramlat Bulaq organized a march to demand punishment of the police responsible, as well as cancellation of a government order confiscating the shantytown’s land. The committee sought market-level prices from prospective investors. [4]

When studied as a whole and up close, however, the popular committees present something of a paradox. They are neither as universally democratic nor as novel in the Egyptian experience as they are thought to be. Their relationship to the state is also fraught. The committees were forged in January-February 2011, during what scholars of revolutions call “moments of madness” in which politics pervades all aspects of life. [5] It was the state’s very weakness -- its inability to guarantee public safety -- that created the committees. They have subsequently derived their legitimacy from the perception that they are in opposition to the state. Yet many committees have also entered into collaborative agreements to serve traditional state functions in domains where the authorities’ writ is weak or contested.

Basatin

The experience of one popular committee serves to illustrate how the committees evolved after the initial uprising.

Basatin is an informal settlement of roughly a million people in the hills southeast of central Cairo, bordering populous Dar al-Salam to the west and the upper middle-class suburb of Maadi to the south. Historically the site of Jewish cemeteries, Basatin began to attract rural migrants in the early 1970s, particularly from the Delta province of Minufiyya. Two major tribes, al-Jaza’ir and Kalsh, are indigenous to the area. As in other such parts of Cairo, Basatin’s residents hail from several walks of life, from day laborers to small workshop owners to the “middle-class poor,” people of high educational achievement who nevertheless survive on the margins of the neoliberal economy. [6] The settlement is also home to Shaqq al-Tha‘ban, one of Egypt’s largest marble and granite quarries, which has lured millions of dollars in Egyptian and foreign investment since 2000.

According to the founders of Basatin’s popular committee, the majority of the volunteers for the neighborhood watch brigade were second-generation residents whose families owned local businesses. They tended to be professionals themselves -- lawyers, engineers, real estate brokers and doctors -- but their initial concern was clearly the safety of the family business and its customer base. One of the committee’s first activities was a demonstration demanding security-sector reforms following an escalation of neighborhood violence. Shortly after Mubarak stepped down, residents burned down the local council building and rallied to support a microbus driver who was shot dead by a police officer in a street fight in adjacent Maadi. The incident attracted media attention because residents retaliated by fatally beating the policeman and torching his vehicle. The Basatin committee was quite concerned with improving the community’s image in the wake of such incidents.

Early on, the popular committee established a Facebook group called the Enlightened Youth of Basatin: “The youth of Basatin can change what they do not like in this historic place. Will we work together to make Basatin the most beautiful and successful part of Cairo?” Under the banner “Toward a Better Basatin,” the group organized a series of brainstorming sessions in the months after Mubarak’s ouster. These events drew middle-class residents who wanted to “beautify” Basatin -- cleaning streets, fixing water fountains and painting buildings. Proponents of these projects spoke of “showcasing Basatin as a ‘civilized’ area” and “reforming individual behavior in order to improve living conditions in the area.” Notably absent from the group’s agenda were the concerns of the poor, though the committee did organize free directed study groups for students. The committee sponsored no initiative aimed at upgrading informal housing, creating jobs for those idled after workshops suspended operations or extending basic services to neighbors without them.

The Basatin group gradually turned its attention to politics. It organized symposia to raise youth awareness of the constitutional amendments in the March 2011 referendum, the evolving role of the popular committees and the importance of “active” citizenship. The mission statement was revised to describe the committee as “a forum for exploring how youths can have a say in the election of local officials and members of Parliament.” More than one founder ran in the winter 2011 parliamentary elections as an independent. Although none of them won, a new generation of activists was politically engaged. A committee founder was eventually selected as a “youth” representative in the Constituent Assembly charged with drafting Egypt’s new constitution.

The Committees Meet the State

As the Basatin example shows, the popular committees are local, but they are not always inclusive. My study revealed, in fact, that the diffusion of committees throughout the Egyptian countryside was a top-down process designed to “maintain social peace.” [7] In villages, committee members were often not volunteers, or even youth, but men selected by major families for their “good character” and social status. As a result, rural committees excluded the poor, reinforced tribal hierarchies and, in many instances, welcomed members of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party. As in Basatin, most popular committees galvanized volunteers to address the concerns of the middle class. In these respects, the committees have exhibited important continuities with Islamist activism, which has mushroomed in Egypt since the 1970s. Islamist NGOs are comprised mostly of “upwardly mobile, educated, middle-class professionals,” and their services predominantly benefit the non-poor because they charge fees. [8]

Unlike grassroots initiatives elsewhere in the world, moreover, Egypt’s popular committees tended not to develop participatory decision making or to establish mechanisms for accountability to the communities they were created to serve. Founders repeatedly dismissed such internal structures as of “lesser priority than meeting local needs.” They assessed no dues, but relied on sporadic donations. With unelected boards of directors and no accountability, the popular committees mirrored long-standing shortcomings of development-focused NGOs in Egypt. In the end, three of the four committees in my study became dominated by one or two activists.

The absence of internal democracy has undermined the committees in more ways than one. Research on community-based initiatives shows that “informal methods of control and management reduce the credibility of leaders as representatives” of the poor. [9] And the committees’ scant institutional development has hindered their sustainability amidst the recurrent violence of post-revolution Egypt. Several popular committee founders were among the 12,000 detainees facing military tribunals in the aftermath of the uprising. There was not always anyone to replace them back home. In Heliopolis, a popular committee withered away after the core activist lost his life in the Muhammad Mahmoud Street clashes on the eve of the 2011 parliamentary elections.

Knowing that many Egyptians viewed the popular committees as symbols of the uprising, and desirous of the legitimacy the committees could confer, the state made two abortive attempts to coopt those that survived. First, the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) made plans to issue licenses for popular committee operations, as well as identification cards for individual activists, and appointed a national council to “represent” the committees. The majority of committees, however, declined to cooperate with these SCAF measures. Later, the Ministry of Local Development advanced the idea of naming popular committee activists to a third of the seats in its local councils (now disbanded). This proposal, too, failed when it was deemed unconstitutional by legal experts.

The committees did walk through the third door opened by the state. The security vacuum after Mubarak’s fall was hurting the state’s already inadequate program to distribute cylinders of liquified petroleum gas (LPG) for cooking. Cylinders were being stolen in bulk, particularly in governorates, such as Giza, that have few official distribution outlets and instead rely on individuals to deliver cylinders to homes. The average Egyptian household without piped gas consumes 25 cylinders per year, at the heavily subsidized price of 2.5 Egyptian pounds (about 40 cents) per unit. (The actual cost per tank is 70 pounds. It is estimated that this subsidy will total 21 billion pounds, or $3.4 billion, representing 4 percent of state spending, in 2012–2013.) In December 2011, Gouda ‘Abd al-Khaliq, a progressive with a long career in the leftist Tagammu‘ party, took the helm of the Ministry of Supply, which oversees the LPG distribution. “The movement is the natural outgrowth of the January 25 revolution,” he explained, “and I seized the opportunity to cooperate with it.” [10] A loose coalition of popular committees signed a three-year protocol with the Ministry by which local activists would be recruited to deliver butane cylinders to households. But the protocol also gave the committees a broader mandate to cooperate with the authorities in providing literacy classes, vocational and leadership skills training, encouraging religious tolerance, cleaning up squares and supporting the families of the imprisoned.

Scaling Up

State officials required the network of popular committees that signed the protocol to transform itself into a registered non-governmental organization. “We needed to form a legitimate entity,” said activist Hamdi al-Fiqi, so they established an NGO called the Egypt Life for Development Foundation. [11] As part of the protocol, the participating popular committees were housed in buildings affiliated with the Ministry of Insurance and Social Affairs and reorganized into subcommittees focusing on four areas: human, social and economic development, as well as security. The popular committees now lost their horizontal characteristics, as they were reconfigured into a vertical structure. They also lost their autonomy and de facto became part of the state, like other government-controlled NGOs or GONGOs. Regulated by Law 88 of 2002, these associations are dependent on modest government grants and their activities heavily regimented by the state.

Following the establishment of the Egypt Life for Development Foundation, membership in the popular committees affiliated with the network jumped from 21,000 to 30,000 in the three governorates included in my study. The leap likely reflected a genuine increase in volunteer spirit, in light of the broader social development mandate, but also the chance to exploit the protocol to sell subsidized LPG cylinders on the black market. There are no reliable estimates of the extent of smuggling, but the daily newspaper al-Misri al-Yawm reported that roughly 3,700 butane tanks were seized in a single police raid before being sold on the black market. [12] Studies of Egypt’s subsidy system indicate as well that cylinders are often under-filled.

The formation of the Foundation led to a significant shift in the popular committees’ stated reasons for being. At first, the committees spoke about youth empowerment and active citizenship. As one activist put it: “The old notion of citizenship was to be ‘good’ to others and loyal to elders. The younger generation was seen as incapable of leading Egypt. After the uprising, we felt such love of country, such a great sense of responsibility and such confidence in ourselves as youth, that we had high volunteer energy as citizens.” [13] In keeping with the Foundation’s emphasis on “development,” activists now frame their goals in terms of “meeting people’s needs” -- defined, in technocratic terms, as minimizing the leakage of subsidized goods to the non-poor. It is not a project of empowerment, but one of charity. When asked if their initiatives reinforce new understandings of citizenship among the populace, activists unanimously reply that the people express “gratitude for our awareness of their problems.”

The reinvention of the popular committees as an NGO, lastly, has limited their effectiveness. In the post-Mubarak era, under a weak authoritarian state, many provincial governors resisted the Ministry of Supply’s protocol with the committees, which they saw as encroaching on their turf. Only three governorates -- Cairo, Giza and Suhag -- have allowed the Egypt Life for Development Foundation to operate on the ground. As the 2011 parliamentary elections approached, the Foundation also faced competition from the better-financed Islamist NGOs, as well as wealthy candidates affiliated with the Muslim Brothers’ Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). Ansar al-Sunna, the second-largest salafi NGO in Egypt, flush with an estimated 296 million pounds from Gulf state donors, was active in distribution of subsidized LPG cylinders, which in many cases had been illegally purchased from official outlets. In some cases, they were bought in bulk for cash; in others, outlet managers were given incentives to allow Ansar al-Sunna access, like MPs “permitting” the managers to sell 100 cylinders on the black market at higher prices for their own personal profit. The salafi group also gathered data on the poor, circulating forms bearing the Ministry logo where cylinder recipients could record their household size, annual income and national identification numbers. (The forms were fake and the Ministry filed a police report; where the salafis got the logo is a mystery.) This operation was a clear trespass on traditional state functions. Over the chilly winter of 2011, amidst a severe gas shortage, FJP candidates also arranged and funded distribution of LPG cylinders (obtained via the same illicit methods) via neighborhood mosques, mobilizing far more volunteers than the popular committees and taking advantage of pre-existing patronage networks among the poor. Following the electoral successes of the FJP and the salafi Nour Party, the role of the popular committees was further reduced. According to ‘Abd al-Khaliq, then still supply minister, MPs often instructed local distribution outlets not to work with the popular committees, their Ministry mandate notwithstanding. [14]

Set of Effects

The evolution of popular committees in Egypt to date highlights not just their varied trajectories but also the blurring of boundaries between state and civil society in moments of political transformation. Perhaps most significantly, it teaches the importance of viewing the state as a set of practices or effects, rather than a static entity.

After Mubarak, the Egyptian state could not always control its borders or exert a monopoly on force. Its sovereignty thus challenged, the state was keen to find sources of legitimacy, one being the popular committees that evoked the solidarity and active citizenship of the 18-day uprising. At the same time that the SCAF was cracking down on strikes, it pursued a partnership with the popular committees to create an “isolation effect,” whereby socio-economic conflicts are sidelined and “individual citizens appear equal in an undifferentiated public sphere.” [15] The state eventually succeeded in enlisting some popular committees, but not without contestation from Islamist politicians and NGOs. As the Brother-ization of official institutions took root, Islamist NGOs came to hold sway over even the “legibility effect,” or attempts to streamline the classic state functions of taxation, conscription and preventing rebellion. [16] It may be, as Egypt’s political transition proceeds, that popular committees and other non-state actors will play the role they are supposed to play: resisting rollbacks of reform or a general drift back to authoritarianism. But understanding the state as a set of practices or effects, rather than fixed institutions, also illuminates the role of non-state actors in the ongoing struggles for consolidated power in the post-Mubarak era.

Endnotes

[1] Interview, Cairo, June 20, 2012.
[2] Al-Ahram, April 22, 2011.
[3] Rana Khazbak, “Popular Committees Bring True Spirit of Democracy to the Streets,” Egypt Independent, August 23, 2011.
[4] Abulkasim al-Jaberi, “Ramlet Bulaq Slum Dwellers ‘Break Out,’” Egypt Independent, October 22, 2012.
[5] Sidney Tarrow, “Cycles of Collective Action: Between Moments of Madness and the Repertoire of Contention,” Social Science History 17/2 (Summer 1993).
[6] Asef Bayat, “A New Arab Street in Post-Islamist Times,” Foreign Policy, January 26, 2011.
[7] Interview, Qina, June 29, 2012.
[8] Janine Clark, “Social Movement Theory and Patron-Clientelism: Islamic Social Institutions and the Middle Class in Egypt, Jordan and Yemen,” Comparative Political Studies 37 (October 2004), p. 947.
[9] Martha Chen et al, “Membership-Based Organizations of the Poor: Concepts, Experience and Policy,” in Martha Chen, Renana Jhabvala, Ravi Kanbur and Carol Richards, eds., Membership-Based Organizations of the Poor (London: Routledge, 2007), p. 15.
[10] Interview with Gouda ‘Abd al-Khaliq, Cairo, July 30, 2012.
[11] Interview, Cairo, June 24, 2012.
[12] Al-Misri al-Yawm, February 7, 2012.
[13] Interview, Cairo, June 21, 2012.
[14] Interview with ‘Abd al-Khaliq, Cairo, July 30, 2012.
[15] Michel-Rolph Trouillot, “The Anthropology of the State in the Age of Globalization,” Current Anthropology 42/1 (February 2001), p. 131.
[16] James Scott, Seeing Like a State (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998).

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