Whatever Happened to Egypt’s “Popular Committees”?
Remember the popular committees? Those ad-hoc groups of citizens that started as neighborhood watch teams and maintained security and organized neighborhood life when the state stopped services?
In “Egypt’s Popular Committees: From Moments of Madness to NGO Dilemmas,” Asya El-Mahy describes how some of them have evolved into social service providers with complex ties to the state.
According to El-Mahy:
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.
In popular discourse,
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.” 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.
When studied 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. 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.
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.
El-Mahy, Asya. 2012. Egypt’s Popular Committees: From Moments of Madness to NGO Dilemmas. Middle East Report 42(625). http://www.merip.org/mer/mer265/egypts-popular-committees