Catherine E. Herrold, "Delta Democracy: Pathways to Incremental Civic Revolution in Egypt and Beyond" (Oxford UP, 2020)


Ten years from the uprising in Egypt, Dr. Catherine E. Herrold, an associate professor at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy and a Faculty Affiliate of the Indiana University Paul H. O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs joins the New Books Network to discuss how local foundations navigate, in real time, a major social movement – and contribute to democratic reform.

The 2011 Arab Spring protests seemed to be a promising moment of democratization and liberalization but the aftermath proved to be quite different with the outbreak of civil wars and the reemergence of authoritarian leaders. Delta Democracy argues that the public, those who make policy, and everyone in-between must look beyond the political action that captures headlines to understand the important work done by local groups. Herrold’s ethnographic research on Egypt’s nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) highlights the ongoing mobilization taking place at the grassroots in civil society. Her extensive field research reveals the strategies that local NGOs used to cultivate “democratic values and skills among everyday citizens” and she suggests that these strategies deployed by local NGOs may be more available and immediate than reforming national political institutions.

Delta Democracy: Pathways to Incremental Civic Revolution in Egypt and Beyond (Oxford UP, 2020) not only increases our understanding of the grassroots mechanisms used to combat authoritarianism, it also serves as a playbook for US policymakers as they make important decisions about the type of community organizations that they fund – and readers and listeners might be surprised by which groups are helping make important changes in Egypt. Those normally not considered “players” in the political reform arena might actually be those doing the most work building the civil society that supports democratic reform.

Herrold conducted over 100 interviews with leaders of Egyptian philanthropic foundations, development NGOs, human rights NGOs, leaders of international donor agencies, activists, academics and close observers of Egyptian civil society. The book uses triangulated findings with ethnographic participant observation and conversations with in-country experts to explore three sets of participatory democratic practices: (1) discussion, debate and collective problem solving; (2) free expression; and (3) rights claiming.

The podcast includes an overview of the chapters and a lively conversation about the importance of United States policy and private funding of groups that may not have “human rights” in their titles but nevertheless contribute to building democratic norms and practices. This beautifully written and well-organized study is the book President Biden’s team should consider if they seek to strengthen democratic principles through democratic practice.

Susan Liebell is an associate professor of political science at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. Why Diehard Originalists Aren’t Really Originalists recently appeared in the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage and Retreat from the Rule of Law: Locke and the Perils of Stand Your Ground” was published in the Journal of Politics (July 2020). Email her comments at or tweet to @SusanLiebell.

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Susan Liebell

Susan Liebell is a Professor of Political Science at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.

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