By William Fisher.

During my years in Cairo, I was often invited to dinner at the apartments of Egyptian colleagues. On this night, the apartment building was a high-rise located in a middle class neighborhood close to downtown. As we entered the tiny lobby, I couldn’t help seeing that it was littered with a smorgasbord of junk, making it all but impassable.

Old fridges. Baby beds. Huge concrete boulders from construction. Toys. Books. You name it. The junk continued to block our way as we headed for the flight of stairs that led to my friend’s apartment. It was the same between apartment doors on the first floor.

“Why are all these things here?” I asked.

My colleague answered: “This is how most Egyptians think of one another. Inside our apartments everything is neat and modern. Out here – in the halls and lobby – everything belongs to all the residents and none. No one has any obligation to help anyone else.”

And then he added this really strange remark: “That’s why the NGOs are so important to this country. We don’t have a long or strong history of voluntarism yet. People helping people is a Western – mostly American – concept and it’s still young and fragile. And it has been fighting for freedom since Mubarak took over from Sadat. That’s why the current persecution couldn’t have come at a worse time.” (we had been discussing NGOs earlier in the day.)

  • If this were a discussion of American NGOs, we’d be mentioning names like the American Civil Liberties Union,  Save the Children, the Sierra Club and the American Cancer Society. Not only are they not persecuted, these names are the epicenter of our civil society. These are the groups that don’t work for a profit, and raise billions for their constituents and those who represent them in the Government. They’re the outfits that remind us of what Franklin Roosevelt told a group of reformers in 1932, Roosevelt told them: “I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.”
  • By which he meant to use the power of the people to take up those causes that demand action by political leaders who would rather play it safe and do as little as possible.

But in Egypt, the persecution of NGOs was indeed nothing new. Egyptian NGOs had been battling government political interference from Day One of the Mubarak regime. There had been NGO shutdowns and court trials and first the conviction of Saad Eddin Ibrahim followed two trials later by his exoneration. One of the country’s human rights pioneers was accused of accepting a European Union grant to make a film about political parties. A coup in the US; a criminal offense in Egypt.

Supporters of NGOs were looking toward a new spirit in the land and a new lease on life for their organizations. Now, on the cusp of the January 25th Revolution, things were about to get a lot worse. A new NGO law was being drafted and, from the sound of the gossip, it would stifle freedom even more egregiously than the expiring law.

There were some 30,00O NGOs in a country of 83.6 million — a relatively small number – and many of them were NGOs on paper only. They needed funding, training, field experience. This new law was going cut their possibilities substantially. There are 1.5 million NGOs in the US.

While advocating for human rights may make the most noise, the names of these organizations are mostly unknown except to those in the NGO field, Egypt’s 30,000 NGOs are dedicated to a wide variety of causes – from politically charged situations such as the Nile water supply to community gardens being planted by neighbors. Obviously the political causes are those that give the government the  biggest migraines.

We are still a decade away from January 25, 2012 and the fall of Mubarak. Before the election of President Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt was ruled by the military following Mubarak’s fall from power. And it was the military – the temporary SCAF – Supreme Council of Armed Forces — who initiated arguably the most severe punishment in the history of the NGO movement. There would be arrests. There would be a new NGO law even more draconian than those of the past two decades.

This ominous portent triggered perhaps the most furiously frustrated statement ever issued by the blue-chip Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) in 2012.

Here’s part of the unsigned statement the Institute wrote:

  • ‘For the past year and a half, Egypt’s NGOs have

been targeted through a systematic chain of repressive violations, culminating in an orchestrated smear campaign led by the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) and its interim cabinets. During this transitional period, the prospects of civil society and human rights advocacy in Egypt faced several endangering threats. The current government is now faced with archaic laws that are in need of change if civil society is to thrive going forward.

  • ‘Various NGOs were targeted because of their role in exposing human rights violations committed by the former regime. It was these very violations that paved the way not only for the January 25th Revolution, but also for continuous pressure towards fulfilling the people’s demands after Mubarak’s ouster.’

The statement got more apoplectic as it progressed.

“Under SCAF’s rule, human rights organizations tried to contribute to what they hoped would be a democratic transition. NGOs advocated for the adoption of several democratic initiatives aimed primarily at providing a legislative and reformist platform for the restructuring of state institutions, the statement said, adding:

“SCAF’s lack of political will to restructure state institutions on the one hand, and NGO pressure from the other is believed to be one of the main reasons behind SCAF’s smear campaign against civil society groups, which was put into motion by the Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation.”

The CIHRS statement charged that the government never intended to encourage a freer civil society. The. former Minister of International Cooperation, Fayza Abul-Naga, said that an NGO’s ‘real’ role is “helping the government in developmental fields which is more beneficial than just criticizing the government’s policies.” This was the road the government had in mind for NGO. It would effectively shift their focus away from advocating for basic human rights – the most serious and most dangerous task taken on by NGOs in a country whose police and security forces were corrupt and whose prisons were poster children for torture and death in detention.

The government’s standard trojan horse against violations by NGOs was legitimized by whitewashing the regime’s appearance. “A repressive NGO law regulated civil society and ensured NGO’s human rights advocacy programs had limited impact.  The law guaranteed that conditions under which the NGOs operated were restrictive, with sources of funding and all activities monitored and subject to state security approval,” the statement said.
It continued: “The wording of the law was intentionally ambiguous, making it easy to prohibit organizations from engaging in political or trade union activities, facilitating state repression of NGOs.  It also prohibited foreign funding in all its forms (donations or grants without advance approval of the Minister of Social Affairs)

After Mubarak’s ouster, NGOs tried to change the law, to ensure it respected the universal standards of freedom of association and guaranteed the existence of a free civil society in Egypt that could advocate for human rights. Some 39 NGOs signed a new draft law that met these standards, while also removing the power of the Ministry of Social Affairs over NGOs.

The CIHRS statement alleged that “at around the same time, the government launched an investigation into several organizations following a statement by US Ambassador Anne Patterson that local groups had received more than $40 million in funding from the US government.” It added that her statements “galvanized suspicions about NGO funding, and were a major push for what came next.”

Last December, while security forces were trying to discover documents supporting their view that foreign donations were funding the protests in Tahrir Square. The Government said the protests were “spreading chaos and inciting violence.”
Measures were taken to limit NGO funding of organizations, as was the case with the “New Woman Foundation”, CEWLA, a feminist organization, and the Arab Program for Human Rights Activists, the statement charged.
This reporter is without first-hand information about Ambassador Anne Patterson and why she disclosed the funding of $40,000 for the two small women’s programs.

But I can report based on first hand observation my attendance at one of the US-sponsored “democracy” Institutes, where senior officials of the Mubarak regime were seated in the audience listening to a very professional English-language lecture on modern political parties and their care and feeding.

I can also report that in about this same time period, approaching the turn of the century, USAID launched an NGO Center to teach local NGO officials about administrative tasks such as planning special events, launching fund-raising campaigns, and holding elections. Given the Government’s attitudes toward NGOs, it is just about impossible to understand why this NGO Center ever got off the ground (though it had a very short life). It is inconceivable that the Government was unaware of its existence, since every program introduced by USAID must be “requested” by the host government.

The attack on the foreign funding issue reached a head during a raid on several international NGOs, the CIHRS statement said.  The Government was shifting its emphasis toward a more aggressive approach in dealing with civil society in Egypt, and “resulted in the referral of several employees from these organizations to criminal prosecution in a trial that is ongoing to this day,” the statement read. The trial has been postponed a number of times, while non-Egyptian defendants have flown back to their home countries but have sworn to return for the trial. Meanwhile, NGOs are drafting “a new law that would put an end to state repression of these organizations.”

With the election of President Mohamed Morsi, “NGOs hoped that the president’s promises would be fulfilled, and that he would break from an inherited restrictive legacy, which includes the notorious NGO law,’ the statement said, adding:

“The first 60 days of his presidency would prove otherwise. Security forces have continued to violently disperse protests, watched over the displacement of Christians, and detained dozens of civilians following bloody clashes between citizens and the

POMED, the Project on Middle East Democracy, told this reporter, “The so-called ‘foreign-funded’ NGO trial is still moving its way through the Cairo criminal court. In February 2012, 43 U.S. and local NGO workers were charged with receiving foreign funding without proper government approval in violation of law no.84/2002. The defendants’ lawyers were able to present documents that detailed the expenditures of the NGOs involved in the case, to try and disprove government claims that the funds were used for nefarious purposes. Documents further showed that the Egyptian government had prior knowledge and approval of at least $33 million of funding to the accused NGOs.”

But many, in Egyptian as well as foreign government circles, are hopeful that this trial will never happen. The US has made it clear that such a trial could have a negative effect on the current $1.3 billion in military aid it has been giving Egypt since Egypt and Israel signed their peace treaty in 1979.

In a letter to the SCAF (the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces), Daphne McCurdy, a Senior Research Associate with POMED said: “These groups have worked transparently and in cooperation with Egyptian authorities to help support Egypt’s democratic transition—a goal to which the ruling military council purports to be committed. Sixteen of those charged are American citizens, seriously threatening the future of the U.S.-Egypt relationship.”

Internally, the new Egyptian government seems set on passing a new NGO law that is widely criticized as more restrictive, according to POMED – the Project on Middle East Democracy, a credible US-based NGO.

What’s the bottom line here? It is that we can’t want representative government more than the Egyptians want it. And, at least in respect to NGOs, they don’t appear to want it.

They are not the least bit interested in having creative, vibrant organizations capable of improving on government-fashioned policies and practices. If the good ideas aren’t coming from the government, maybe there aren’t any good ideas!

My friend Lu Rudel, one of our very first Foreign Service Officers, is fond of telling me about another Arab Awakening) in which it took Ataturk 100 years to bring law and order to Turkey.

Well, it looks like the Egyptians are going to require the same degree of patience.

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William Fisher has managed economic development programs for the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development in the Middle East, North Africa, Latin America, Asia and elsewhere for the past 25 years. He has supervised major multi-year projects for AID in Egypt, where he lived and worked for three years. He returned later with his team to design Egypt's agricultural strategy. Fisher served in the international affairs area in the administration of President John F. Kennedy. He began his working life as a reporter and bureau chief for the Daytona Beach News-Journal and the Associated Press in Florida. He now reports on a wide-range of issues for a number of online journals.