Egypt: Dark days ahead for NGOs

 Formal politics in Egypt are pretty moribund: aside from the competition for seats inside the ruling National Democratic Party, what you have is a ravaged landscape of opposition political parties with little or no public presence that barely mustered nine seats in the last parliamentary elections. But while political parties are either a co-optation mechanism that provides access to state backing and resources (the NDP) or weak token opposition or talking shops (the legal and largely loyal opposition), there has been a remarkable growth in the strength and vitality of civil society in the last decade.

This applies to explicitly political groups, such as religious movements like the Muslim Brothers (which is still more of a movement than an unrecognized political party), to the various movements for change grouped under the Kifaya label, to the campaign for Muhammad ElBaradei. But it mostly applies to the vast network of NGOs, human rights groups and others that, with varying levels of opposition to the regime, have in recent years done the work of advocacy and awareness-raising that politicians have largely eschewed on issues as varied as women's rights, torture, property rights, labor, minority rights and countless other aspects of defining the rights of Egyptian citizens. The groups operate under legally (and otherwise) difficult circumstances, but they have nonetheless been able to carve out a space for themselves to do politics by other means than the ballot box. The reality is that while formal politics is largely uninteresting, political vitality has moved elsewhere, to the NGOs and social movements that have formed the bulk of real opposition to the Mubarak regime's liberticide and often retrograde policies.

This is why it is alarming to hear that a new draft NGO law is currently circulating and may be passed by parliament within months. The existing law is already pretty bad. It should be changed, but not in the way that a group of 41 prominent Egyptian NGOs are now worrying about. Do read the whole statement for the details, but particularly worrying are reports that the bill would:

  • Allow state bodies to interfere in the internal management of NGOs;
  • Provide mechanism to control funding and notably restrict foreign funding;
  • Impose membership in state-run federations;
  • Prohibit NGOs from working in more than two fields;
  • Restrict the right of NGOs to form coalitions domestically and internationally;
  • Ban NGOs that are registered as civil companies rather than associations.

The last point is particularly worrying: because of the already draconian nature of the existing law, many NGOs are actually registered as businesses to get around state control and have greater flexibility in fund-raising. If the new law passes and is implemented, it could decimate some of the most vibrant NGOs in Egypt.

Two more things to note. First, the NGOs say:

It seems that the haste to pass the bill is attributable to a desire to undermine civil society efforts to monitor the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections. Following the abolition of judicial supervision of elections in the last round of constitutional amendments and the government’s refusal to allow international monitors, this step will facilitate further dishonest elections conducted without any meaningful oversight. Some articles of the new bill aim to limit the activities of human rights organizations or shut them down completely by criminalizing all forms of unregistered civic organization. 
This criminalization may have ramifications for some of the most important political reform movements (such as the National Association for Change, Kifaya, April 6th Youth and others) including the threat of imprisonment for their leaders and activists.
If that's the case, this is a threat to all the groups that have been fighting for a more democratic Egypt, as well as the ElBaradei campaign — an indeed ElBaradei himself. And there are already signs that election monitoring by a coalition of domestic NGOs, as carried out in 2005, might be curtailed. (Also see this.)
 

The other thing that struck me was a line about US backing for the new law. In a segment discussing plans to have a federation of civil organisations regulate NGOs, the statement says:

Significantly, the President of the state appoints one-third of the members of the General Federation, including its chair. It is customary for the chair to come from the ranks of former ministers or army officers—the current chair is a former prime minister who has already boasted that these changes have been supported by the U.S embassy in Cairo and USAID. 

I don't believe this to be accurate — the former prime minister's (probably Atef Ebeid actually it's Abdel Aziz al-Hegazy, PM in the mid-70s under Sadat) claim, I mean, not that he might have made the boast. The US has been critical of the NGO law in the past; the latest State Dept. human rights report for instance states:

Government restrictions on NGO and international organization activities, including limits on domestic organizations' ability to accept foreign funding, continued to limit investigation of and reporting on human rights abuses.  

The US embassy has confirmed to me that neither it nor USAID has seen any new legislation or endorsed anything whatsoever. [edited for clarity.]

I hope that if this bill does make it to parliament in the next few months, the US and other countries will take a strong stance against it; it appears to go against everything Barack Obama was talking about in his June 2009 Cairo speech. Unfortunately, the terribly misguided US decision last year to only provide USAID funding to NGOs recognized by the government sent a terrible message to the Egyptian government that US taxpayers' money can be spent according to its wishes and implicitly recognized the existing NGO regulations, going against the State Dept's longstanding reservations about freedom of association in Egypt. It was particularly perplexing when the Egyptian government has itself blocked US NGOs from establishing offices in Egypt. More generally, the funding restrictions added to the mixed messages coming from Washington, such as the establishment of the Mubarak Trust Fund.

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.