It is a bit sad, but unsurprising.
From the 1950s onwards, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) were victims of some of the most sustained repression by the Egyptian state since the early 1950s. One would have thought that they would have been the first to remove any permission for it when they got the chance: but instead, they've resisted (and every human rights organization knows this) any effort to dismantle it.
In the last six decades, the worst enemies of the MB were never pro-Mubarak businessmen, who made much off the corruption of the Egyptian state – those businessmen generally could not have cared less about the MB. The worst enemies were those forces vested with maintaining the structures of the Egyptian state: in particular, the interior ministry and the police force. It was in these structures that torture was most evident – and it was in their physical buildings where members of the MB, and many others, faced their worst ordeals.
A repeat of history?
One would have thought that once in office, the MB would turn their attention to ensuring that what happened to them under Mubarak’s rule would never be allowed to happen to anyone, ever again. Despite the offers of help and advice from non-governmental organizations, foreign agencies and others, however, the MB government has done… well, nothing.
One day, the MB will be out of government yet again – and the NGO sector will be called upon to defend its legitimate rights under another government.Dr. H.A. Hellyer
Not one move – not one more to reform the interior ministry, not one move to reform the police force, not one move to end torture.
But it would be unfair to claim that the MB has done nothing at all in that arena, though. They haven’t sought to reform the interior ministry & the police or to end torture – but they have sought to ‘reform’ the legal regime governing non-governmental organizations in Egypt.
Under Hosni Mubarak, the most consistent supporters of the MB were not Salafists or other Islamists. Indeed, they were mostly silent, not wishing to attract attention upon themselves – no, the most consistent supporters of this Islamist group were the civil rights and human rights community. These staunchly patriotic Egyptian forces suffered great harassment (and often worse) as they set about documenting abuses – and raising awareness about such abuses inside and outside of Egypt. The MB has now rewarded these NGOs.
“The Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and its political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), are currently seeking to curb the right to freedom of association through legal restrictions even more severe than those imposed by the Mubarak regime…”
[Joint statement on the proposed NGO law, by several dozen Egyptian NGOs]
“It would also give the authorities complete discretion to object to activities of Egyptian and international organizations, including human rights groups that document or criticize rights abuses by the government.”
[Human Rights Watch statement on the proposed NGO law]
This sector was, and remains, a critical one for the reform of any and all institutions in Egypt. The government should be doing its best to co-opt it, and bring its expertise into the state where it is so direly needed – instead, it is crippling the sector. The conclusion that many within the NGO community is becoming one of consensus: that the civil rights community is the most vocal at holding government – any government – to account, and thus cannot be allowed to continue with impunity.
In response, supporters of the government argue two basic points: firstly, that this is hardly an important law, when we see that the main law-making institution (parliament) is still not even in place owing to the machinations of the Mubarak-aligned legal system; and secondly, that these organizations are not grounded ones, with so much dependence on foreign funds that they are socially unacceptable to the vast majority of Egyptians.
Those two points are interesting ones – but essentially flawed ones. If we were to answer critiques of governance with the response of ‘well, there are these problems, and they are far worse’, then in all likelihood, no reforms would ever get done. It is the job of government and the state to focus on tackling the largest problems first as part of a strategic plan for progress and reform – that is their responsibility as government, because they have the power to do so. It is not the responsibility of those who do not have the capacity to do so – because they do not have the capacity to do so. Otherwise, why should there be campaigns about sexual violence; or torture; or anything else for that matter? Moreover, in this case, it is an example of the government itself adding to an existing problem – not simply failing to sort out an existing problem.
One need not be an NGO to care about this law and its repercussions – indeed, anyone who is involved in civil society work on any level ought to be concerned about it. Indeed, even if one accepts that there are far more important problems in Egypt, such as the absence of a parliament, then one should be driven even more so to support the NGO sector. In the absence of a parliament, it is that sector which becomes ever more important in holding government to account – and it is that sector which will hold to account also the legal establishment. Eventually, there will be a parliament – and the NGOs then become important in another way – holding different political parties to account as well. If you want those NGOs to become more socially grounded, such a desire is more difficult to fulfil if they have to deal with such an arbitrary and restrictive legal regime. Generally speaking, the support of this sector is a win-win situation.
In the end, none of this surprising. But it is sad. It becomes even more of a pity when one considers that the MB itself will probably not realise the folly of this policy… until it is too late. Because one day, the MB will be out of government yet again – and the NGO sector will be called upon to defend its legitimate rights under another government. Those people that I know within it are too full of principle to be petty about defending even those that made their lives difficult – but it will be a shame indeed that they won’t be able to say, ‘the MB were defended by the NGOs, and in return, they implemented a just and ethical legal regime to regulate our work.’ Instead, they’ll probably say, ‘we’ll defend their rights – even though they made our lives so difficult, we could barely defend others.’
Dr. H.A. Hellyer, non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution and the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, is a Cairo-based specialist on Arab affairs who previously held senior posts at Gallup and Warwick University. Follow him on Twitter at @hahellyer.
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