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Abstract

Did the January 25th revolution emanate from civil society? Not if the conventional Western understanding of the term is used, and certainly not if its programmatic association with established organisations is assumed. This article explores the highly complex relationship between the arena we call civil society and the forms of activism we witnessed prior to, during and after the uprisings of January 25th. The article first argues that traditional civic associations did not catalyse the kind of agency that manifested itself in the January 25th uprisings. It suggests that pre-revolutionary associational life in Egypt reflects the presence of a civic rather than a civil society, which manifests itself in the values that the organisations and their leaders uphold. The second argument is that when state restrictions on political space were temporarily relaxed in 2005, those that assumed a civil role were groups and movements that did not organise through the conventional mainstream civic associations that we have come to identify as ‘civil society’. Finally, the article argues that the core group to have instigated the uprisings – the youth – had turned to a virtual participatory arena, precisely because their opportunities for exercising their agency fully were blocked in mainstream civil or civic associations.