The Civil State (dawla madanīya) – A New Political Term?

The Civil State (dawla madanīya) – A New Political Term?

In the aftermath of the Egyptian uprising in 2011, observers of Egyptian politics will notice immediately the remarkable use of the term ‘dawla madanīya’ (Civil State) by both ordinary citizens and politicians, by the so-called secular parties as well as by some political parties with Islamic reference. But what do they mean by ‘dawla madanīya’ (Civil State)? Is the ‘dawla madanīya’ a new political term? What is the difference between the civil and the secular state? Why and how is this term used?

1. Vague and Ambiguous Term

By examining the ‘Civil State’ term as a model of state, one can notice that the term has not been picked up by mainstream academia yet, with the exception of recent political and social Arabic literature, which indicates the vagueness surrounding this term.

From the intellectual point of view, the research Muhammad Kamāl Muhammad elucidates that in the Western political thought, there are terms such as modern state or secular state, but there is no reference to the term ‘Civil State’. He adds that in Arabic language, the term ‘Civil State’ was developed first by the Islamic reformer Mohammad ʻAbdū (1849 – 1905) who insisted that there is no religious authority in Islam, stressing the civility of the Islamic state as opposed to a theocratic state (Kamāl Muhammad 2011).

Accordingly, the Syrian researcher ʻAbd al-Karīm al-Jibāʿī argues that the term ‘Civil State’ is a local and not a political or a juristic one; it does not belong to the sphere of political science or of political philosophy. Therefore, he refuses to consider the Civil State’ as a term. Al-Jibāʿī elucidates that the term was invented by the Muslim Brotherhood in 1950s after the 1952 revolution in Egypt in order to oppose the military government as well as to promote the civil nature of the Islamic state. He adds, however, that nowadays the term’s meaning is different and controversial. Everyone understands it in his/her way. On the one hand, Islamists use the term to refer to the non-military state and to promote the civil nature of the Islamic state. On the other hand, some secularists use it to refer to the national modern state in which the political sphere is separated from the religious one (al-Jibāʿī 2011).

While al-Jibāʿī argues that the term was used first by the Muslim Brotherhood to resist the military state, several Egyptian academic researchers agree that the political term ‘Civil State’ has the same meaning as the concept of a secular state and that it was used by secularists in order to substitute the term secular state that is not widely accepted in the Egyptian society (Author’s Interview) [1]. Mariz Tadros supports this view by emphasizing that “the political debate in Egypt continued to be around an Islamic state versus a secular state up to the early 1990s, when the concept of the ‘civil’ began to enter Egyptian political discourse” (Tadros 2012: 50).

2. Toward ‘Civil State’ as a Substitute of the Secular State

Due to the negative connotation of secularism in Egypt, many secularists started to use the term ‘Civil State’ instead of the secular state in order to get more support in a society with a religious (Islamic) majority. Anwar Mughīth explains that there is no difference between the two terms. He clarifies how politicians in Egypt use the term for two reasons: first, because of the distortion campaign against the concept of secularism by the Islamists, and second, because the term, in the Egyptian context, is too broad to be manipulable (Mughīth 2011).

Indeed, by looking at the definition of the civil state that the liberal and secular parties and actors are trying to promote, one can confirm the argumentation according to which the civil state has the same meaning as the secular state and there is no difference between them. For example, as al-Saīd Yāsīn elucidates,

“the Civil Modern State is the state of law. It is the democratic pluralistic state (…) The civil state is a secular state that separates between religion and politics but not between religion and society” (al-Saīd Yāsīn 2010).

Al-Saīd Yāsīn adds that the civil state should be based on legislation and the constitution, not on fatwa [2] of religious people. It is the state of citizenship in which all people are equal before the law without discrimination (al-Saīd Yāsīn 2010). In addition, although the term ‘Secular State’ was not explicitly mentioned in the platforms of the secular-leaning parties, interviews with members of the party demonstrate that civil state is understood in the same way as the secular state. For instance, Hiba ‘isām al-Karār, founding member of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, clarifies their understanding of the ‘Civil State’ and the reasons behind avoiding the using of the term ‘secular’ as follows: “the civil state is the same as the secular state but one should take into consideration the nature of the society (the religious nature of the society) and how the society understands the term”. She elucidates that the party faces a big problem, as there are many people who are educated poorly and therefore understand the term secular state as anti-religious or they see the secularists as apostates. For that reason, the party has substituted the term ‘Secular State’ with the ‘Civil State’. She explains that by substituting the term, one can decrease the repugnance that might come from the society or the opponents. Furthermore, one can address and simplify the term to the people without facing the problem of being rejected just because one is a secularist. [3]

3. Toward ‘Civil State with Islamic Reference’

What makes the term currently even more unclear and adds different controversial meanings to it is that the usage of the term is not confined to the secular-leaning parties or figures, but the term is also used by some Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood that calls for a “Civil State with Islamic Reference”. In the last few years, the observer of the rhetoric of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt could notice the remarkable use of the term ‘Civil State’ instead of the old long standing slogan ‘Islam is the solution’. Most remarkable, in the recent aftermath of the Arab Spring, the Muslim Brotherhood announced its abandonment of the old slogan, shifting to focus on its vision of ‘Civil State with Islamic Reference” (Ikhwan Web 2011).

Indeed, for a long time the Brotherhood remained a religious movement and it had no political interest, focused mainly on the religious and social aspects. They believed that politics is the art of lying and hypocrisy. Therefore, the Muslim Brotherhood eschewed any move in the direction of forming a political party. Nonetheless, following the broad involvement of the Brotherhood in Egyptians’ politics that has led to an evolution in its political positions, the brotherhood stressed a political reform by developing the conception of a “civil state with an Islamic frame of reference” (Hamzawy and Brown 2010: 6-7).

According to Mariz Tadros the concept of ‘Civil State with an Islamic Reference’ emerged in the Muslim Brotherhood’s literature recently and did not appear in the official statement until the late 1990s (Tadros 2012: 47). It started to be manifest in the political position of the Muslim Brotherhood first in its draft platform in 2007 and then more recently in the program of its political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party. Reconfirming the argumentation of Hamzawy and Brown, Tadros argues that the brotherhood developed the concept as they were becoming increasingly active in formal politics and sought political legitimacy (Tadros 2012: 50).

Tariq Ramadan also points to this shift which he notices not only in the Muslim Brotherhood’s discourse, but also in the most Islamic ‘middle way (wasatīya)’ movements in the Arab World. He explains that due to globalization, the absence of a genuine pan-Islamic movement, the emergence of new forces, and most importantly the failing Iranian experience in fulfilling the idealistic aspiration of many Islamists, several Islamic moderate movements revised their terminology and redefined their concepts, preferring the ‘Civil State’ term. A noteworthy point to be mentioned is that by using the term, they attempt to distance themselves from the notion of ‘secularism’ which is seen in the Arab world as related to Westernization. Interestingly, however, they also try to dissociate themselves from the idea of the ‘Islamic State’ as it was embodied in the Iranian experience that has created the widespread impression that an ‘Islamic state’ would be a kind of theocracy (Ramadan 2012: 114-116).

4. Conclusion

In short, the term’s meaning is too broad, complex and controversial. By examining the origin and meaning of the term, one can conclude that the term has not yet passed into mainstream academia. As al-Jibāʿī argues, the term is not a kind of intellectual development in the political theories of statehood. Rather, it is a kind of intellectual fabrication and political deception (al-Jibāʿī 2011). Nonetheless, Peter Hill argues that “‘civil and ‘civil state’ are not simply ‘blank’ terms, but rather, are fields of tension and struggle that have limits and exclude certain options” (Hill 2013). In fact, the term is used in different and contradictory ways by the secularists and the Islamists alike. While some Islamists use the term in order to refer to the non-military state and to promote the civil nature of the Islamic state (non-theocratic), some secularists use it to refer to the national modern state in which the political sphere is separated from the religious one (the secular state).

Indeed, this debate over the meaning and usage of the term reflects the different and contradictory visions on the state model in Egypt, in particular in light of the relationship between state and religion. It reflects also how the issue of the relationship between state and religion will play a major role in the state model of the New Egypt. For that reason, instead of using confusing and vague terms like ‘Civil State’ that deceive the ordinary citizens, political actors, Islamists and secularists should enter into a real dialogue about the relationship between state and religion. Reaching a collective agreement on this issue is essential to political stability and thus to economic development.


 al-Jibāʿī, ʻAbd al-Karīm 2011: Al-dawla al-madanīya talfīq fikrī wa talbīs sīāsī (The ‘Civil State’ as an Intellectual Fabrication and a Political Deception), in: The Kurdish Contemporary Studies Center,  available online at: (06.12.2013)

al-Saīd Yāsīn 2010: Misr dawla madanīya ḥadītha (Egypt Is a Civil Modern State). An Interview with al-Saīd Yāsīn,  available online at: (06.12.2013)

Hamzawy, Amr / Brown, Nathan J. 2010: The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Islamist Participation in a Closing Political Environment, Washington: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Hill, Peter 2013: “The Civil” and “the Secular” in Contemporary Arab Politics, in: Muftah, available online at: (06.12.2013)

Ikhwan Web 2011: FJP Abandons the Motto ‘Islam Is the Solution’,  available online at: (06.12.2013)

Kamāl Muhammad, Muhammad 2011: Naqd al-jadl wa mafāhīm al-mustakhdamh fīh (Criticism of the Debate and the Concepts of the ‘Civil State’), in : Al-dawla  al-madanīya: min rū’a mutanūʿah ila itār mushtarak (The Civil State: From Various Perspectives to a Mutual Framework), Cairo: Civilization Center for Political Studies.

Mughīth, Anwar 2011: Al-dawla al-madanīya wa al-dawla al-ʿilmānīya. Hal hunāk farq? (The Civil State and the Secualr State. Is There a Difference?), in: Youm 7 Newspaper, available online at: (06.12.2013)

Ramadan, Tariq 2012: The Arab Awakening- Islam and the New Middle East, London: Penguin Group.

Tadros, Mariz 2012: The Muslim Brotherhood in Cotemporary Egypt. Democracy Redefined or Confined?, Oxon: Routledge.

[1] Author’s interview with Prof. Dr. ʻAbd al-ʻAlīm Muhammad, Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies (ACPSS), on 18.02.2013 and with Prof. Dr. Kamāl al-Minūfī, the director of Democracy and Human Rights Center at Cairo University, on 16.02.2013.

[2] Fatwa is a ruling on a point of Islamic law given by a recognized religious authority.

[3] Author’s interview with Hiba ‘isām al-Karār, founding member of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, on 25.02.2013.

Amer Katbeh has a M.A. in Peace and Conflict Studies from the Otto Von Guericke University Magdeburg. In February and March 2013, he conducted his field research in Cairo in preparation for his Master Thesis “The Relationship between State and Religion in Egypt: A Discourse Analysis about the State Model in the New Egypt” this article is based on.