Egypt Must Not Hold Its NGOs Hostage

February 14, 2012

In his three decades of leading Egypt, Hosni Mubarak never understood civil society or the need to have civil organizations outside the authority of the government.

That ignorance of the role of civil society ultimately undid him, as the organizational ability of women’s groups, students and scholars, journalists, lawyers and other professionals played an essential role in running him from power a year ago this weekend.

So it shouldn’t be surprising that the Mubarak cronies and old generals who remain in power share the same contempt for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) evidenced by the announcement last week that they were referring 43 people, including several Americans, for investigation of violating rules governing NGOs operation and funding.

The harsh tactics used in investigating NGOs, and the severe nationalistic rhetoric used to hold them hostage, show that the generals understand one lesson Mubarak didn’t: An assault on Egyptian civil society is a battle about Egypt’s future.

Egyptian activists are fighting back and Amnesty International joins them in demanding that all charges be dropped and for Egypt to scrap its repressive laws on the registration and funding of NGOs.

Anyone found guilty of breaking Egypt’s Draconian law on associations faces up to a year’s imprisonment and/or a heavy fine. In January the authorities announced a draft law to replace it that would place even more restrictions on civil society.

In the US, much of the attention has focused on the investigation of US-based NGOs and individuals, including the son of a US cabinet official.  Yesterday, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) introduced an amendment calling for the end of all $1.3 billion in foreign aid to Egypt unless “illegally detained American citizens are released.”

But focusing on the US organizations would be a mistake, one that serves to give unintended credence to the Egyptian government’s narrative that NGOs act on behalf of Western interests.  If the US can not find the same energy to stand aside Egyptian organizations, including many that are critical of the US, all the NGOs will suffer.

In fact what the US NGOs are facing now is what Egyptian NGOs have dealt with on a regular basis under the 30 years of Mubarak rule.

It was only several months ago, in the middle of the Jan. 25 uprisings, that Egyptian security forces raided several Egyptian NGOs and took dozens of activists into detention, including some visiting Amnesty International researchers.

Nearly a decade ago, the same charges being hurled against NGOs were used to send noted civil society activist Saad Ibrahim to jail for his work in promoting voting educational initiatives in Egypt.

Instead, the attacks on the NGOs should be seen as another aspect of the long shadow of the Mubarak regime.  Egyptian activists themselves are pointing to the role of former Mubarak crony Fayza Abul-Naga, the minister of international cooperation, and others in the justice and interior ministries.

In the end, the greatest threat to NGOs may come less this time from legal investigations than from the rhetoric, which is tarnishing them as being pawns of the West interested only in destabilizing Egypt. The layers of the state-controlled media established under Mubarak have not been wiped away, and NGOs have had few public opportunities to explain themselves and the importance of civil society actors for Egypt’s future.

Egypt has a long and strong tradition of a vigorous civil society.  Because of this, a cadre of journalists, scholars, lawyers, judges and women’s groups have been able to survive decades of efforts to muzzle their voices.  At a time when these groups, so strong in February, should be leading the way toward building a new political culture in Egypt they instead face a challenge to their effectiveness.  If they are silenced now, it may be some time before they get another chance.

In a new opinion piece, Amnesty International Secretary-General Salil Shetty writes of the denials behind the new wave of repression in Egypt.