CAIRO - Egyptian NGOs hoping for greater freedoms and more space to operate after the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s government say they have encountered just the opposite: an unprecedented clampdown by the post-revolution military rulers.
“Following Egypt’s historic protests calling for basic political freedoms, it is deeply disturbing that the Egyptian military has targeted Egypt’s democracy and human rights community in ways not even dared during Mubarak’s despotic rule,” wrote Stephen McInerney, executive director of the Washington-based Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED).
The first parliamentary elections since Mubarak’s fall are scheduled for 28 November, but NGO leaders say the transitional government led by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has mounted a “smear campaign” against them by accusing them of receiving millions of dollars from foreign donors to destabilize the country - going so far as to say the violence on the streets of Cairo during and after the revolution was supported by foreign funding channelled through NGOs.
Many of the local organizations being targeted intended to monitor the upcoming elections, but have been prevented from doing so by the Electoral Commission. SCAF has already banned foreign groups from monitoring the vote.
“This [smear campaign] is yet another episode in the suffering of NGOs in this country,” Maged Adeeb, the chairman of local NGO National Centre for Human Rights, told IRIN. “By accusing us of receiving funds and using them in weakening Egypt’s security, the government creates an unbridgeable gap between us and ordinary citizens.”
In a recent conference in Cairo, Negad Al Borae, a leading civil society activist, said the new government was collaborating with some political powers - namely members of the former ruling party - to destroy the nation’s NGOs.
Egypt’s law 84/2002 does not prevent NGOs from getting funding from abroad, but requires them to register with the government and all funding to be approved by the Ministry of Social Solidarity. In 2010, the government introduced a bill in parliament (it later became law) which further restricted NGOs and gave state security the power to approve or deny international funding to NGOs.
US aid to NGOs
Ominous signs began in June, when US Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson said the USA had spent US$40 million in Egypt to “promote democracy” since the revolution. She said 600 Egyptian NGOs had presented applications for funding.
The government said none of the registered NGOs had informed it about any funds they received in this regard. In July, Minister of International Cooperation Faiza Abul-Naga announced an investigation into foreign funding of unregistered NGOs, saying such funding was considered “an intervention in our internal affairs”.
National and international organizations have received tens of millions of dollars - one media report put it as high as $225 million - in foreign funding since February.
In September, the cabinet said the government investigation found about 30 NGOs to have been illegally receiving foreign funding because they were not registered. An article in Al-Fagr newspaper named reputable NGOs like the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, and the National Democratic Institute (NDI) to be among the “illegal” entities.
According to POMED’s McInerney, many of them had registered instead as civil corporations, law firms or other legal entities which are supervised by less intrusive government ministries and laws.
Minister of Justice Mohamed Abdel Aziz al-Guindi has said these organizations face charges of treason for conspiring against the country by sending sensitive information to foreign parties.
Civil society activists like Adeeb say the government has put their funding under the microscope by asking Central Bank officials to reveal their bank dealings to see whether they match financial statements presented to the government.
On 9 October, the Justice Ministry summoned five civil society activists and accused them of using foreign funding to foment violence during the revolution.
“Agencies like ours have always been a thorn in the back of dictatorial governments,” said Emad Abdel Qawy, the head of local NGO Justice and Citizenship, which works in the south of Egypt. “This is why the government will be happy to either stop our work or even tarnish our reputation.”
But the government says NGOs need to be more transparent about the funds they receive.
“I cannot understand why civil society activists should be worried when the government asks about funding,” Social Solidarity Minister Gouda Abdel Khaliq said late last month in an interview with private Dream TV. “These organizations should not be afraid as long as they are on the right track.”
It is not only civil society activists who are worried. The Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network, an international network of human rights groups, on 9 October sent a delegation to Cairo to investigate the issue of freedom of association. The network called for an immediate end to what it called the “harassment” of Egypt’s NGOs. Human Rights Watch has also condemned the government’s moves against NGOs and called for it to close “treason” investigations right away.
Even so, the government’s campaign against NGOs seems to have changed the way ordinary Egyptians view civil society. Activists talk about people who approach them not asking about their development programmes or their political awareness campaigns, but about where they get their funding.
“This has become a very common question these days,” said Emad Abdel Qawy, the head of the Minya-based Justice and Citizenship Society. “The funny thing is that none of these ordinary citizens had asked about this funding before.”
A few days ago, Abdel Qawy narrowly escaped an attack in the southern Governorate of Qena by some people who called him “traitor” and a “paid agent”. He had gone with other activists to present a theatrical show on the importance of political participation when a group of people stormed into the theatre and beat them with sticks.
There are around 30,000 NGOs in Egypt, mostly working in political education, human rights and development.