Islamist and Non-Islamist Local Activism: Comparative Reflections from Egypt’s Popular Committees

Asya El-Meehy, University of California, Berkeley

The end of Hosni Mubarak’s rule in Egypt saw tightening government controls over national civil society organizations throughout the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood and the popular neo-authoritarian military regime that followed it after the 2013 coup. Nonetheless, the ongoing political transformations in Egypt also opened new spaces for civic activism at the local level. Grassroots popular committees, or lijan shaabya, emerged as a vital actor in the post-Mubarak Egyptian political landscape. Committees, which sprang up during the January 25th uprising as citizen watch brigades, were locally embedded structures loosely bound by, common ideological framing, shared symbols and overlapping social networks.

This phenomenon is the unique outcome of what sociologist Sydney Tarrow calls, “moments of madness” during which revolutionary politics invades all aspects of life (Tarrow 1993). Because the state’s very weakness created the committees’ sine qua non, and the latter derive their legitimacy from protest in opposition to the state, the movement has been linked in public imagination to grassroots contentious action. Many committees disbanded after public order was gradually restored, but a few reinvented themselves amid widespread criticisms of being baltageya, or armed troublemakers. To raise awareness and galvanize support, committees waged innovative campaigns like “know your rights,” and “the people own.” Access to services, particularly energy for households, waste collection, subsidized bread, and lighting of public spaces, emerged among the most prominent rallying cries for committee activists in poorer informal areas of greater Cairo. The movement has overall waned since 2013. As the state cracked down on popular mobilization, the space for activism narrowed sharply. With increased social polarization between Brotherhood and July 3rd supporters after Rab’aa, and media campaigns propagating the committees as illegal disruptive forces, activists disengaged from public life, seeking to disassociate themselves from the committees or re-branding their work in less politically controversial terms as “youth groups.”

Since their emergence, successive authorities attempted to capitalize on the committees as a revolutionary force, in order to bestow legitimacy on their policies at the local level. Under the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the state attempted to legally sanction their operation by formalizing the committees into a hierarchical structure. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Supply embarked on collaboration protocols with the committees to assist with the local implementation of social protection initiatives. Most recently, policymakers proposed the incorporation of popular committees into official local governance structures, in an attempt to revive the role of local councils, that have been disbanded since the January 25th uprising. Some committees, on the other hand, have spearheaded opposition to the state. For instance, against the backdrop of deadly clashes between residents of Ramlet Bulaq, who live in shacks and lack access to facilities, and management of neighbouring Nile City Towers home to wealthy companies, nightclubs and the Fairmont Hotel, committee activists not only pressed for upgrading of the slum area as well as securing market-level land prices from prospective investors, but also demanded justice for residents arbitrarily arrested by the police (al Jaberi 2012). In other cases, popular committees struck less confrontational tones with the authorities, opting either to collaborate, for instance in distributing subsidized butane cylinders, or to engage in claims-making in order to secure gains like access to essential public services.

Indeed, there is an emerging body of scholarship on the nature of activism and popular resistance in Egypt post-uprising. It offers contrasting interpretations of the degree of continuity and change in evolving forms of grassroots activism, such as popular committees (Bremer 2011; El-Meehy 2017, 2013; Harders 2013; Tohamy 2016). However, relatively little is known on the juxtaposition of these committees vis a vis Islamist local activism. This piece attempts to fill this gap by focusing on the experience of the committee in Kerdasa, which was formed by long established Islamist activists in the neighbourhood, and comparatively reflecting on its record relative to popular committees elsewhere in Greater Cairo.

The research presented here is part of a larger study exploring local governance in the post-Mubarak era. I investigated popular committees in six socio-economically comparable “ashwaeyyat” or informal areas: Ard El lewa, Basateen, Imbaba, Mit Okba, Kerdasa. I relied on semi-structured and in-depth interviews with committee members, as well as local level officials, in addition to focus groups with residents.[1] Data was collected in two waves June-September 2012 and April-September 2013, with subsequent field trips to update findings in 2014 and 2015. The following starts by setting the context for the study by discussing the origins of the committee movement before delving into links with Islamist politics through examining the case of Kerdasa.

  1. What are the popular committees?

In the wake of Egypt’s uprising in 2011, police withdrawal from urban areas triggered unprecedented growth of civic activism in the form of neighborhood-based citizen watch brigades, called popular committees. Young men typically led the formation of popular committees by first organizing at street-level, and then capitalizing on new media (particularly Facebook) to coordinate new social networks at the neighborhood level with the aim of protecting property and maintaining order. By April 2011, popular committees held their first general national-level conference (Gaber, 2011). The de facto freezing of local government institutions, worsening economic conditions, dissolution the former ruling National Democratic Party, and widespread inertia among public officials, created a governance vacuum on the ground that was particularly salient in poorer informal areas. A fluid urban landscape in state of flux has emerged “as individuals and communities challenged authorities and reclaimed their right to the city and public space” (Nagati and Elgendy 2012, 2). Patterns of informal encroachment ranged from claiming sidewalks and streets, extensions to existing structures, building on state land or privately owned agricultural plots to full-scale infrastructural projects, such as the construction of highway exits by communities (Ibid). Along parallel lines, successive public crises over the provision of water, petrol, and electricity as well as garbage collection accentuated already widespread grievances over inequitable and inefficient access of basic services. This is particularly the case as Morsi’s government resorted to encouraging communities to autonomously self-provide, for example garbage collection, while continuing to charge the citizenry for public services (Interview with Marwan Youssef, Cairo, April 20 2013). In response, community activists adopted a range of contestation strategies ranging from protests and sit-ins, to non-payment campaigns, and litigation. Youth coalitions and citizens’ committees emerged as autonomous forums for debating and negotiating collective solutions.

  1. Features of the committees movement

What were the broad contours of the popular committees movement? More specifically, how did the committees represent themselves? How inclusive were its membership bases? And what were their claims to legitimacy?

Despite variations in emphasis, popular committee activists I interviewed by and large ideologically framed their work in terms of participatory citizenship. As one Al-Umraneya activist argued: “We are after empowerment and not pacification (tamkeen wa lays taskyn).This involves teaching people how to claim access to public services, and building youth cadres from various ideological backgrounds,” (Interview, Cairo, July 29, 2013). Imbaba’s committee activists similarly viewed their role as a “watch-dog” of the state, ensuring it delivers on social rights and provides access to services, while Ard El Lewa’s more mildly emphasized their function as to serve as “moral opposition to the state.”

Membership in the committees was, in principle, open to everyone and not even restricted to local residents. My data reveals that, in reality, young citizens, in the 18 to 35 age group represented 80 percent of its base, although older individuals were also included and sometimes even assumed de-facto leading roles. With an estimated 30 percent Christian membership, the movement over-represented Egypt’s religious minority, which accounts for 12 percent of its population. Yet women’s participation was significantly low, ranging from 2 percent in rural areas to 20 percent in cities. Participants in my research recognized that low women representation undermined their representativeness but blamed cultural values for their absence. Few committees, such as Mit Okba’s, attempted to compensate for such exclusion by including a child on their board of directors.

Given their participatory nature, committees face dilemmas both when it comes to how to reach decisions as well as how to reconcile leadership roles. In fact, the process of decision-making as described by activists was often ambiguous. While activists stressed that they collectively deliberated and decided among themselves, they insisted that majority voting was inadequate. Similarly, these activists also rejected designation of a leader and hierarchy as matters of principle. 

  1. Reinventing Al Gammeyya Al Shareyya in Kerdasa

How did the newly formed popular committees relate to local Islamist activism? With the exception of Umranya activists, popular committees did not include among their core members Islamists, or members of the Muslim Brothers, or the Salafist Nour parties. In five out of the six committees I studied, core members were careful to set themselves apart from pre-existing Islamist social activism in their neighborhoods. Activists stressed that they did not perceive their role in terms of charity and criticized the Islamists’ approach. Rather than casting their role in terms of service provision, committee activists repeatedly emphasized their ideological mission to empower members of their community, to implant the revolution in the grassroots, or to encourage citizenship.

The exception to this pattern was the popular committee in Kerdasa, where founders of the local popular committee were themselves members of al-gammeyya al sharaaia, which is a leading Islamic NGO established in 1912. The committee was involved in high-profile initiatives, most notably rebuilding sections of the ring road to enable residents access to major forms of transportation. Activists did not just raise major funds, but also designed in collaboration with activist engineers the remaking of the ring road project, and implemented it without assistance from the authorities. The committee was the first also to be formalized as an NGO named Al Matemdya Baladna. Its experiment, however, proved short-lived. In fact, Kerdasa is a stronghold of the Muslim Brotherhood. It is estimated that more than 80 percent of voters in the area chose Mohamed Morsi as president of the Republic in the final round of Egypt’s presidential elections (Mohy El Deen 2014). Following Morsi’s ouster from power, the area witnessed a series of violent clashes between residents and police forces, which culminated in the burning of a police station and the murder of eleven policemen. A high-profile crackdown by the Ministry of Interior ensued. According to eye-witness accounts reported by Mohy El Deen, “the forces of the Interior are careful to target mediation networks and anybody with links to the popular committees. In this way, they take action against all persons of influence and distinction in the traditional society of Kerdasa,” (7). Recently, as part of the “Kerdasa events” trials, the criminal courts issued death sentences for twenty residents and fifteen to twenty-five years of imprisonment for 114 others.

How did Kerdasa’s Islamist activism under the umbrella of the popular committee movement compare to the records of other committees? More specifically, how did Islamist activists frame their initiatives? To what extent were they inclusionary in their membership and internally democratic in their decision-making?

Members of the popular committee I interviewed framed their initiatives in terms of “doing good” and pursuit of the “public interest.” “In light of pressing social problems that emerged after the uprising, like shortage of bread, and escalating market prices, founders met in the Azahar institute to deliberate possible initiatives and solutions” (Interview with Ahmed Selim, Cairo, March 25 2013). Unlike the case of other committees I studied, here the emphasis was on adequate service provision that meets local needs as opposed to empowering residents. As stated by a founding member of the committee, “I believe in an idea that may seem undemocratic although it is practical…the whole issue is to provide services to the people and to reach people who are in need of material or non-material support, what matters is that they need some sort of support, and this is the logic that guides our work,” (Interview with Mohamed Al Sayyid, Cairo, March 30, 2013). Participants often emphasized continuity between the role of the committee and earlier Islamist activism in the neighbourhood. In the words of one core member of the committee: “We decided to establish a rabta [association] based on our popular committee because companies normally produce several items… and launch the same product under another name but it is still by the same company. Therefore people get attached to the product, and there is competition among products that belong to the same company,” (interview with Atef Mohamed, Cairo, April 2 2013).

Unlike other popular committees, Kerdasa’s committee membership was not open to all residents. Founding members nominated individuals with experience in public service, specifically from the ranks of local Islamist NGO workers, with the understanding that nominations were subject to a veto. The rationale offered was that civil society work is very challenging, likened by one study participant to “chewing stones,” and too often people lose interest. Hence, it is best to screen and appropriately select members. As one explained: “Being democratic and inclusionary actually comes at the cost of long-term sustainability of public service and activism. And in Islamic law terms, “the better deeds are the sustainable ones even if they are less,” (Interview with Ahmed Selim, Cairo, March 25 2013). Another member stressed that harmony and loyalty are the bases of successful public services. “We select people who share our values and with an eye at harmony in the group based on self-denial and not seeking positions, dreams or fame… Those with similar thinking can identify working mechanisms, and select those who can perform this work based on al-Ikhlas, or loyalty, for we know from religion that salvation is from loyalty (al khalas men al -Ikhlas)…We also know from the Prophet’s teaching that good intentions are mathematically the equivalent of success” (Interview with Saleh Khaled, Cairo April 12 2013).

Participants from Kerdasa’s committee rejected the idea of democratic internal decision-making along the lines of other committees included in my study. They argued that when decision-making is based on broad consultation, there is likely to be a lot of disagreements. Further, deliberation among all committee members can be time-consuming and can slow down implementation. As one activist argued, “It is possible to be more successful when you have a group with a shared vision, rather than the ballot box and democracy,” (Interview with Saleh Khaled). Another founding member similarly argued that the fewer the number of people involved in decision-making the better. “As the director of local NGO, the first thing I opted to do is to lower the number of board of director members from nine to five, in order to ensure efficiency of our work,” (Interview with Atef Mohamed, Cairo, April 2 2013).


Findings from my comparative study of popular committees in Egypt indicate that those with predominantly Islamist activists seem to diverge from non-Islamist ones in important ways, including their ideological framings and degree of inclusion. Kerdasa’s committee activists did not perceive their role in terms of citizenship or resident’s empowerment, but rather viewed their function in terms of service provision for the needy and the marginalized. Compared to other popular committees, their membership practices were more exclusionary, emphasizing screening based on ideological harmony and loyalty. Nonetheless, Kerdasa’s activists shared with other committees their rejection of democratic decision-making, placing more emphasis on creating a consensus, and minimizing broad consultations. These patterns show historical continuity between Islamist local activism pre and post-January 25th uprising.

[1] All names of participants in the study were changed.


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