The Middle East Channel

Egyptian civil society at risk

Reports of a potential new law governing NGOs has sent a shudder through Egypt's civil society. A group of more than 41 NGOs have banded together to oppose the legislation, warning it could be used not only to curtail their activities, but also restrict the ability of groups such as the National Coalition for Change led by Muhammad ElBaradei from campaigning for reform. The new law is also cause for alarm for the Obama administration, whose own change of policies towards some U.S. funding of Egyptian NGOs is seen by activists as having sent the wrong signal to the Mubarak regime. If the U.S. is serious about its declared support for Arab civil society, now is the time for the administration to show its hand.

The alarm in the Egyptian NGO community revolves around a bill drafted by the Ministry of Social Solidarity that could become law within months should the government decide to send it to parliament. The NGO coalition warns that the government is rushing a bill which would "limit the activities of human rights organizations or shut them down completely by criminalizing all forms of unregistered civic organization... [with]  ramifications for some of the most important political reform movements (such as the National Association for Change, Kifaya, April 6th Youth and others)." It warns that the bill would establish "unprecedented control over civil society worse than the crackdown that followed the July 1952 revolution which nationalized political, partisan, syndicate and civic action."

The coalition does not exaggerate.  The bill, whose text has been published in the independent press (Arabic), could decimate independent NGOs and marshall registered ones under the same restrictive state-controlled bureaucracy that political parties and trade unions have suffered. It could also provide a weapon against popular movements such as the National Association for Change headed by former IAEA chief Muhammad ElBaradei, who in recent months has become an unlikely challenger to the 29-year rule of President Hosni Mubarak. Activists fear that it will be passed by the pliant parliament in time to restrict civil society monitoring of this year's parliamentary election and next year's presidential election, and more generally, dampen political life ahead of a likely presidential succession.

Egypt can ill-afford the stifling of its beleaguered independent civil society.  New ideas and challenges to Egypt's status quo in recent years have mostly come from movements like Kifaya, civil society campaigns against specific issues such as corruption or electoral fraud, human rights associations and political movements that are denied legal status such as the Muslim Brotherhood. They have not come from the official opposition parties, which deserve much criticism for their lack of cohesion and internal democracy, but face more structural constraints. Ever since the late Anwaral-Sadat introduced multi-partyism to Egypt, political parties have operated under the restrictions of a Political Parties Committee (PPC) that, by law, can decide whether or not a party can exist, weigh in on its internal disputes, and even freeze it on the merest of pretexts. The PPC is headed by Safwat al-Sherif, the president of the Shura Council, the upper house of parliament, who is also the secretary-general of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP). In practice, then, the NDP can pick and choose its own opposition and punish politicians who cross its red lines.

Many civic organizations, from human rights NGOs to pro-democracy think tanks to single-issue advocacy groups, have been able to escape the grasp of government control by existing as non-profit corporations, legal offices or even health clinics (in the case of associations dealing with victims of torture). This has allowed for the proliferation of a strong and increasingly sophisticated human rights movement, but also for the rise of Kifaya and its many off shoots as a potent platform around which politics can take place outside of the confines of elections. Many now fear that the new law would impose restrictions on civic associations that are as stifling as those imposed on political parties.

What will the Obama administration do about this Egyptian gambit? U.S. policy towards Arab civil society today appears even more muddled and contradictory than it was under the Bush administration. In theory, the U.S. appears eager to promote civil society in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world. The Fiscal Year 2010 Congressional Budget Justification for instance says "the United States will support programs to expand civil liberties, introduce transparency and accountability in government, and foster more democratic institutions." While funding for civil society under the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) is actually increasing, the way it is distributed may be more important.

In the last year, the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and USAID have reverted to a past practice --abandoned in 2004 due to Congressional pressure -- of following Egyptian guidelines and only funding government-approved NGOs. This does not yet apply to grants under MEPI, but, if passed, a new NGO law could essentially have the same effect.  Many believe it was a grave mistake to revert to the pre-2004 funding process. A report by the Project on Middle East Democracy examining U.S. funding found that:

this move has raised alarm -- both within the community of U.S. democracy and human rights supporters as well as among Egyptian democracy advocates and activists -- not only for its negative impact on the potential for genuine reform and improved civic engagement, but also for the signal it sends about the place of democracy and support for civil society in the U.S.-Egypt relationship.

I have confirmed this assessment in many conversations with Egyptian activists -- even those who refuse U.S. funding are aghast that Washington is sending the messageto the Egyptian government that its NGO regulations are acceptable.  Many think the shift in approach has been more damaging than any aid cuts would have been. "It's not about the money, it's about the signal it sent. It has even alarmed activist elsewhere in the region who worry about the precedent it sets," says Bahei Eddin Hassan, a veteran activist who heads the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies.

In its statement the NGO coalition cites a former Egyptian prime minister as saying the new law has the backing of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and USAID. The embassy denies that either it or USAID have seen the bill, and such an endorsement appears unlikely as it would clash with the repeated concerns over freedom of association noted by the State Department's own annual human rights report.

But the efforts of U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Margaret Scobey to repair the strains in the bilateral relationship caused by Bush's policies and congressional cuts in aid to Egypt, a policy of silence on a worsening political climate, may have inadvertently sent the wrong message. It certainly strikes a contrast with senior Obama administration officials who have vowed backing for Arab civil society, such as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's declaration to the Forum for the Future in Morocco last November:

You have before you people who have paid a big price for standing up for democracy, for fighting against corruption, for asking that government actions be transparent and accountable. And I want to stand with them because the United States stands with them, and we want to be sure that we send a very clear message to the region and to individual leaders that it is in their interest to work with these men and women. It will actually strengthen the legitimacy and create a better atmosphere for helping to improve and develop the societies.

For the moment, the highlights of U.S.-Egypt relations have been administration and congressional approval of a $50 million endowment for Egypt (dubbed by criticsas "the Mubarak Trust Fund") and a $3.2 billion F-16 deal. If Clinton is serious about what she said, she should re-examine policy toward Egypt and make sure Cairo is getting the message, starting by resuming support to unregistered NGOs and stating her opposition to this bill.

Issandr El Amrani is a journalist and political consultant based in Cairo. He writes about North Africa for Middle East International, The Economist, The National and elsewhere, and blogs at www.arabist.net.

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