Egyptian civil society activists are seen on trial in Cairo. (Reuters file)

Egyptian civil society played a critical role in paving the way for the January 2011 revolution by challenging the former autocracy and educating citizens about their rights. After the revolution, Egyptian civil society, including non-governmental organizations (NGOs), trade unions, and voluntary youth activists, have acted as attentive watchdogs of the advancement of civil rights in the new Egypt. These groups, mainly composed of open-minded and well-educated young people, are bravely standing up to those who want to abuse Egypt’s socio-political fragility during the transition to achieve personal gains or establish a new dictatorship.

Earlier this month, the upper house of parliament (Shura Council) approved, in principle, a new law regulating the work of NGOs, both local and foreign. As the lower house of parliament is currently dissolved, the Shura Council, to which President Mohamed Morsi appointed a majority of Brotherhood representatives, has a temporary legislative authority to approve or disapprove urgent regulations. The new NGO law was initially drafted by the ruling Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) without consulting the concerned civil society organizations despite the fact that some leading NGOs recommended an alternative draft in February.

insight generic INSIGHT: Egyptian Civil Society Under ThreatThe new NGO law is believed to be a tool of the government to control civil society organizations, especially those advocating human rights and democratic transformation. Although the law satisfies one of the main demands of civil society leaders by allowing the establishment of NGOs by notification and prevents the executive authority from dissolving the NGO after it has already been established, the law imposes unlimited restrictions on the resources and the management of operations and projects of the NGO. In other words, the law acts as a trap to allow NGOs to start and then freeze their activity.

“Amid the political chaos and economic threats facing Egypt, the last thing the country needs is a weak civil society with limited resources and its activities restricted.” – Dalia Ziada, civil society activist

According to the law’s article 14, the government shall form a “Coordinating Committee” to decide whether NGOs should receive funds or donations from local or foreign donating entities or individuals. At the same time, the law prevents local NGOs from receiving any foreign funds, forcing them to depend only on local donations. In a country like Egypt where the state does not allocate a budget for supporting civil society and there is little culture of donating to human rights organizations, such a regulation would definitely weaken – if not kill – civil society.

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Egyptian soldiers stand guard as government agents raid an NGO office in Cairo December 29, 2011. (AP)

Nevertheless, the new law obligates NGOs to report every single step they take to the Ministry of Social Solidarity (or MISA), a government-appointed body. According to article 19, this includes the mailings and correspondence of the organization, the decisions of the board of directors or trustees, and the projects it is planning to work on. Even worse, MISA has the right, according to the new law, to object and nullify the decisions of the board of directors and decide for the NGO which projects they should be working on. This would certainly hinder the work of the NGOs, especially activities that are meant to monitor the work of the government like election monitoring or advocating for transparent decision-making.

In illiberal democracies, such a strategy is used to give the false impression that the regime is supporting civil society, while in fact it is controlling it. Mubarak’s regime implemented a similar strategy between 2000 and 2005. During those years, the NGO Law 84 (2002) was passed and contributed greatly to controlling the activities of local NGOs, especially those working on human rights. It allowed the government to use the legislation to arrest several NGO activists and close their NGOs. The arrest of Dr. Saad Eddin Ibrahim, the godfather of Egyptian civil society, and the dismantling of his organization in 2000-2003 serves as one prominent example.

Only in 2005, when then U.S. President George Bush pushed then Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to give more space to civil society, the regime kept its hands off the local organizations and encouraged more foreign NGOs to open offices in Egypt. When Egyptian civil society was given its due space, it worked hard and relentlessly to promote democratization, human rights, and civil freedoms until it finally succeeded in motivating the public to stand up for their rights and start a non-violent revolution.

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Egyptian police officers are seen in front of a cage holding civil society activists accused of working for unlicensed NGOs and receiving funds from questionable sources at their trial in Cairo February 26, 2012. (Reuters)

Apparently, the current regime is scared of repeating the same scenario, especially given the increasing unpopularity of President Morsi and his government. Rather than encouraging Egyptian civil society to play its authentic role of creating and sustaining a channel of mutual dialogue between the government and the citizens, the unpopular government thought it would be safer for them to block the NGOs from acting. One reason for the government doing so is the strong relationship forged between those organizations and the international community over the past twenty years. The United States and the European Union, for example, have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in solidifying Egyptian civil society and most Egyptian civil society leaders have strong credibility in the West.

Amid the political chaos and economic threats facing Egypt, the last thing the country needs is a weak civil society with limited resources and and its activities restricted. As the judicial system has gradually lost its independence to the ruling regime, and the military has chosen to keep its hands out of politics, civil society organizations have been persistent in pressuring the government to accelerate democratization, and encouraging grassroots efforts to effectively advocate for the future of their country. It is not an exaggeration to say that civil society is the last pillar holding the state accountable and keeping the hope alive for the true revolutionary aspirations of a liberal democratic state that respects civil rights and guarantees human freedoms.

This post was originally published on Fikra Forum.

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 INSIGHT: Egyptian Civil Society Under Threat

Dalia Ziada

Dalia Ziada is the executive director of the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies in Cairo, Egypt.