2011: Youth, not Religion / Spontaneity, not Aid

The great changes in the Middle East didn’t come from the usual sources. Religion was not nearly as important as many expected.  Class was far from the center of the action, as youth stole the show.  And internationally backed civil society was not nearly as important as Western donors would hope. In fact, Western aid may have been more of the problem than the solution.


The Islamic movement, in particular in Egypt, is in a state of relative weakness, very much connected to economic change. When Egypt embarked on structural adjustment programs and started privatizing its state-owned enterprises in the late 1970s, the economic reform was a façade, masking the enrichment of a handful of high-ranking officials who were the only ones who could do business. In the process, state and welfare services were dismantled, and the regime encouraged non-governmental charities. In this context, the Ikhwan (the Arabic name for Muslim Brotherhood) was able to build many private mosques and new charitable organizations, leading to significant social support. Yet, in the 1990s, when the Ikhwan started running for elections (culminating with the 20% of the seats in 2005), it paid the price of this political engagement by having no choice but to let people close to the government gradually take control over their charities. The movement became complexly connected to the regime and began to lose its credibility, increasingly so when it refused to boycott the 2005 elections and, more recently, because it took on positions that were viewed negatively by the viewpoints of the lower classes. One example is the Ikhwan’s condemnation of the strikes of Muhalla al-Kubra in the textile sector in 6 April 2008. Similar anti-union positions from Islamists are documented in Gaza and Yemen, creating a rift between the working class and the Islamists. Interestingly, in his 2005 book the sociologist Patrick Haenni, calls this new strand of Muslim businessmen ‘the promoters of Islam of the Market.’

As a result, the Muslim Brotherhood has become both politically and socially a much more fragile actor than it was in the past. Only the lack of alternative opposition and the regime’s stigmatization of the Ikhwan as a Taliban-like movement kept an otherwise fragmenting organization united. Daniela Pioppi has explained this with great detail and accuracy in her article, Is There an Islamist Alternative in Egypt?.


The traditional sociological force of class was present but not at the center of the recent struggles. Although the main trade union in Tunisia played the role of an important triggering agent of the revolt, it was a loose combination of educated people and liberal professionals, such as lawyers and doctors, who gave the decisive boost to the popular protests. The same can be said of Yemen. To be sure, the class dimension should not be written off completely, as the daily strikes and newly formed trade unions in Egypt after the fall of Mubarak show. But another factor, the use of Internet and other media technology is overshadowing the old-fashioned influences.


A girl in Benghazi holding a paper, it reads:"Tribes of Libya are one group" © Maher 2777 | Wikimedia Commons

Especially significant is the young age of the new media-savvy protesters. More than half of the population in the Middle East is below the age of 25. And many of these young people are disgruntled for several reasons. One cause is their struggle to land a real job after earning their degrees. Mohamed Bouazizi epitomized the ordeal of this generation. He was the Tunisian street vendor in the small town of Sidi Bouzid who set himself on fire last December,

Another reason of the youth’s unhappiness is their disillusionment with Islamist ideology.  An insightful article appeared in the New York Times (NYT on Imbaba) on a slum in Cairo where the Ikhwan gradually lost control over the local youth.  In Egypt, the old Ikhwan leadership procrastinated its decision to join the first main protests on Tahrir square on 25 January. Its youth wing eventually participated, but the organization was in the hands of the trade unions and the youth. Also, in the Palestinian territories we see how the younger generation is growing resentful of the political games played by both Hamas and the nationalist party Fatah.  The young have also been fed up with the opportunistic behavior of the left and their NGO partners. And this brings us to the third factor that has made the outbursts in the Middle East unique.

N.G.O.s and International Aid

I believe Western aid has had a negative impact on the development of democracy in the region, even when it apparently is meant to support this development.  It negatively affects the formal civil society as aid both promotes and excludes.

It promotes a professionalized form of activism, which has been lost when it comes to the extraordinary and spontaneity of the demonstrations. Aid also contributes to exclude those resisting both the institutional and discursive isomorphic pressure, by encouraging a managerial version of civil society. You want to receive money as a civil society organization? Then you have to speak the same language and buzzwords as donors and also be a fully institutionalized organization, matching donor standards. But once you have done that, you are more like a business, than an organization able to respond to the autonomous and fluid claims of your constituency.

To be sure, aid for democratization and civil society is only one tiny portion of the overall envelope of aid disbursed to the region – for Egypt, Yemen or Palestine. Here are some data to illustrate my point: between 1971 and 2001, the US has given about $145 billion of aid to the Near East, the vast majority to Israel (79 billion) and Egypt (52 billion) (see February 2009 and June 2010 reports for the Congress). Aid becomes a tool to support strategic interests (stability for and around Israel being in this case is the top priority). The ideals of democracy, empowerment, human rights, etc. are only nice words wrapped around the Realpolitik nature of US aid.

Menachem Begin, Jimmy Carter and Anwar Sadat in Camp David © Bill Fitz-Patrick | Wikimedia Commons

After signing a peace treaty with Israel at the Camp David agreement in 1978, Egypt has received large annual envelops of aid from the USA. In the last ten years, Egypt has cashed in an average of $1.3 billion per year, 85% of which is military aid. The same is true for the Palestinian territories, where the US with the EU support increasingly subsidize the West Bank Palestinian National Authority (PNA). Budgetary support means that (western) governments are paying the PNA employees, about half of whom are police and security forces.  Rather than supporting autonomy, this type of aid increases Palestinian dependency.

This source of aid is focused on security matters out of fear that the State itself could become the object of predation by non-state actors. The threat of Islamic fundamentalism or Al-Qaeda, as in Yemen and now in Libya, is usually invoked to justify such a high level of aid for security purpose only.  Perhaps now that Qaddafi has also accused al-Qaeda of orchestrating the revolts in Libya, we will realize the vacuous nature of such arguments.

The result of this aid pattern leads to a form of Bonapartism, a regime with a very strong executive largely ignoring the legislature and based on very strong police.  The aid actively contributed to this kind of regime in and around Egypt as Juan Cole, in a blog last month, explained in detail:

“The US-backed military dictatorship in Egypt … exercises power on behalf of both a state elite and a new wealthy business class, some members of which gained their wealth from government connections and corruption. The Egypt of the Separate Peace, the Egypt of tourism and joint military exercises with the United States, is also an Egypt ruled by the few for the benefit of the few.”

Unless we see another revolution (in the approach of the main donors to the region), western aid is likely to thwart the self-organization of these extraordinary popular movements and kill the spontaneity of the counter-power of civil society.

  • elena bottici

    Dear Benoite,

    I totally share your view. i live in London, in an area vastly populate by people of Islamic and Arabic connection, here people have mixed feeling. The desire of starting a new more democratic, Middle East and North Africa, with or without the aid of Western military action, and the feeling that a wester military action may be motivated by the exploitation of the countries oil reserves.

    However you underlined how important it is that to let the spontaneity of this revolution grow without the aid of the western society, but there is growing concern that without such aid the revolution would be crashed by their government , just like what we’re seeing in Libya .

    So how can we support the revolution, knowing that without the aid of the western world they will be overpowered by those governments that are using such military force?

    How do you see a practical solution?

    Elena Bottici

  • Jess Northey

    Benoit, your work remains an inspiration to me.. I really like your last two posts. I do however disagree on a couple of points. Firstly, that professional activism is lost when it comes to spontaneity of demonstrations. Why? Is this not two different things?
    There is organized and programmed development work, which may be instigated at local, intermediary, government or donor level. Then there is a very different form of political action which is demonstration. I do not see how being involved in the former (donor funded NG0s for example) in an organized, professional structure (if it is a serious and committed organization) would diminish the potential for the latter? Or have I misunderstood? Indeed, the former (if donors manage it well) may permit people to grow, reflect, critique certain particular grievances, or sectors which they join together to work on. This may enable to them to participate in demonstrations with a more informed and publically debated opinion.
    That you want to gain donor money, you have to speak the language? There are of course standard grant documents to gain funds in any system, in any country. Otherwise, it would be handing out money haphazardly with no control. This would most probably lead to some sort of nepotistic buying off of organizations. If it is seen as ‘buzzwords’ and jargon – that implies, to me, that the donor organization financing has failed. It has failed to understand, communicate with, capacitate and support its target group.
    That there be some sort of formatting and processes to go through, in order to ensure the transparency of financial management, is not inherently a bad thing. If organizations are asked to supply minutes of a general assembly, statutes stating their goals, a budget with what they would seek to spend the money on (with unit prices, and estimates for the needs of project) then this – in the logic of things – is not to create bureaucracy, but to prevent corruption, improve accountability, help train for better financial management and for charities to be able to successfully manage small development actions and frame their eventual lobbying activities.
    In the case I am looking at in Algeria, NGOs which have received external donor support from the EU and Algerian government did not become ‘businesses’. Nor do they support external priorities nor the state’s agenda. What they do is contribute to development at the regional level, they protect the local heritage (as interpreted by the individual association, not the state or donor), they work for a better dialogue between the state and society on questions of public health, vulnerable populations amongst many other honorable objectives. They are also forum in which people dialogue, discuss politics, and criticize and propose. The members may participate in public demonstrations or they may not.
    I agree with you that western interference, critiques, and poor donor policies are negative for the region and democracy in general. The underlying hypocrisy in our policies, in that we support stability, not democracy undermines the objectives of civil society support programmes. But this does not always mean they fail. Nor does it mean that civil society organizations are corrupted or rendered artifical by working with foreign donors.
    Does it kill spontaneity? Who knows, but all the regimes are going to have change in light of the current revolutions, and as you suggest this change should also be seen in western ones..

  • Benoit Challand

    As the two useful comments touch on similar questions, here is a joint reply. To Jessica, first the conclusion that I reach on how “professional activism is lost when it comes to spontaneity”, stems from sheer empirical observations, i.e. I could not see a significant impact of professionalized organization on these initial demonstrations in the whole region. Nor can I see in the last two or three weeks new types of claims made by such professional organizations in Algeria or in the Palestinian territories (the two scenes we seem to be familiar with). In other words, aid given by donors (large ones in particular) has not (in your words) “permitted people to grow, reflect, or critique certain grievances”. Laypeople have done so, but without any external intervention (and large bombing campaigns won’t probably help it either).
    Granted, professionalized organizations and spontaneous demonstrations are different things and I don’t exclude that on some very specific points (advice on constitutional reforms, watchdog role of human rights associations, capacity building for trade unions, etc), the professional institutions can make a positive and significant contribution to the ongoing revolts. Donors can and should make a difference by insisting on a true dialogue with local partners who should have a say in the ways in which the aided program is tailored, organized and evaluated. But the point is that reporting mechanisms, budget requirements, or the donor’s priorities (all legitimate questions) should not pre-empt and destroy the capacity for local actors to choose their priorities and modalities of interventions in an autonomous manner.
    So how can aid earmarked for “civil society” practically preserve spontaneity? Maybe by having international donors with a real anchorage on the ground, sensing what the communities can already offer (rather than starting from scratch and creating new potentially artificial institutions), offering more smaller grants and favoring a greater sense of rotation amongst the beneficiaries (rather than keeping funding the same happy few).