In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Reviving Civil Society in Egypt
  • Aymen M. Khalifa (bio)

Although the Arab world is lagging behind in the current global trend toward democratization, many Arab countries have joined the process, even if sluggishly and halfheartedly. In this class, one may include Jordan, Yemen, Morocco, Kuwait, Mauritania, Tunisia, and Egypt. Others that have resisted the global trend, such as Iraq, Syria, Libya, and the Sudan, at least possess a modest if erratic heritage of political pluralism. It is likely that in the future they too will witness growing pressures for wider political participation.

A major reason for the slow and uneven pace of democratization in the region is the relative weakness of civil society. In the Arab world, less-than-vibrant civil societies have often proven incapable of consolidating democratic gains, finding themselves easily outmaneuvered and rendered ineffectual by resurgent despotisms. Algeria and the Sudan offer dramatic illustrations.

Egypt, the most populous country in the Arab world, has felt growing global pressure for democratic transformation and has seen the state conduct a gradual retreat from public life. Although this juncture in its history remains a time of turbulence—rife with persistent poverty, a lack of societal vision, and political sclerosis—a budding civil society has recently begun to manifest heretofore-latent energy, and is now [End Page 155] competing with other social forces (most notably a rising wave of Islamic activism) for a share of the public space that the state used to occupy.

Autonomous research organizations and think tanks—a relatively new phenomenon in the Arab world—are an integral part of this growing civil society. At the time of its founding in 1988, the Ibn Khaldoun Center for Development Studies (ICDS) was the first private, professional research organization in the history of Egypt. For its founder Saad Eddin Ibrahim, professor of political sociology at the American University in Cairo, it represented the realization of a lifelong dream: an independent institution for applied social-science research and sophisticated policy advocacy in the service of positive social change. The opportunity to make his vision a reality came to Professor Ibrahim in 1985, when the emirate of Kuwait gave him an award for achievement in the social sciences that totalled almost $100,000. Using these funds as seed money, Ibrahim and a tiny staff of three embarked on small-scale research and consulting projects. Three years later, ICDS was incorporated as a nonprofit, limited-liability firm under the Companies Law of Egypt, with initial assets worth $300,000. This makes ICDS a nongovernmental organization (NGO), and formally differentiates it from nonprofit charitable associations and private voluntary organizations (PVOs), which according to Egyptian law come under the often-stifling authority of the Ministry of Social Affairs.

The Ibn Khaldoun Center devotes most of its attention to the relationship between civil society and democratization. To clarify and supplement this primary focus, the Center also examines socioeconomic shifts, the external situation, and the Egyptian state itself. ICDS seeks to effect positive social and political change both through its work and through the example that it furnishes of an independent approach to societal development. The research and ideas that the Center produces are targeted at key decision-making sectors in Egypt, the Arab lands more generally, and the developing world at large. Nor should the importance of the Center’s example be underestimated, for private research and advocacy organizations are still comparatively rare in the Arab world. The first professional research organizations to appear did so under government sponsorship, sharing in both the strengths and the weaknesses of the postcolonial Arab state. Lacking the massive resources of the state to draw on, organizations like ICDS are by the same token blessedly free of the bureaucratic impediments under which state-sponsored institutions often labor.

The Center takes its name from the great fourteenth-century thinker Abdel Rahman Ibn Khaldoun, the founder of Arab social science. Its charter is similar to that of the French newspaper Le Monde. It is privately owned, with overall direction provided by a core staff and Board of Trustees. Dedicated to promoting democracy in the larger [End Page 156] society, ICDS employs democratic methods in its own internal governance. From its inception, it...

Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 155-163
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.