The end of an era for Egypt’s NGOs

November 10, marks a milestone for Egypt’s non-governmental organizations

H.A. Hellyer

Published: Updated:

Today, November 10, marks a milestone for Egypt’s non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Few are sure what will happen tomorrow, or the day after, but one thing is crystal clear. Today is an end of an era for Egypt’s NGOs – and the next epoch is not likely to be easier. Indeed, it’s liable to be tougher, grittier, harder – but it’s also not the end. There will be other days. It remains, nonetheless, Egypt’s loss.

Egypt’s authorities since Mubarak’s resignation and every successive administration since, have been trying to establish a new legal regime for NGOs. Each time, human rights organizations and civil rights groups have expressed concerns that the suggested legal drafts will simply restrict the space for NGOs, rather than regulate them in a fair manner. Each time, they’ve drawn attention to Egypt’s international legal commitments and the international community has often agreed. It is no wonder that at the recent Universal Periodic Review at the United Nations last week, the subject of NGOs and the reduction of public space for them to operate was raised many times.

Today, however, is a landmark. Earlier this year, Egypt’s authorities issued an ultimatum: while a new NGO law is being drafted, organizations that are carrying out NGO work must register under Mubarak’s old NGO law. It dates back to 2002, and many within Egypt’s NGO community worry that to register under it, with the legal regime it entails, will end the effective independence of NGOs.

Internationally, there are some who enquire about the restrictions from among Egypt’s partners – but with limited intensity

H.A. Hellyer

But this is not an advisory notice from the Egyptian authorities. It’s an order – and it is accompanied by a threat. If groups do not register under the 2002 law in time, then authorities have indicated they will be pursued, one way or another. The directive comes against a particular backdrop – a “war on terror” that informs so much of the policy direction within the country, and a media that generally frames dissent of any kind as being treasonous. There’s a specific subversive motive laid at the doors of NGOs – never before have they in particular, and civil society in general, been so demonized by so many different sectors in unison.

Forcibly closed

That kind of setting ensures that if NGOs are forcibly closed in Egypt, there will be little domestic pressure or pushback. There is no parliament, and if there were, it’s unlikely there would be much resistance to such a measure. Protests are now regulated by what international rights groups describe as a draconian law, passed earlier this year, and as such rarely take place.

Internationally, there are some who enquire about the restrictions from among Egypt’s partners – but with limited intensity. Far too many in the international community have implicitly accepted the argument that security should trump protection of freedoms – as though that were the choice in the first place. Others are even more cynical, arguing that Egyptians and Arabs are not culturally ready for political systems that protect even fundamental rights. According to this framework, Egyptians are, essentially, children of a lesser God. That’s the polite way to put it. Unfortunately, it seems many in Egypt’s own political elite would agree, positing that authoritarianism is not only acceptable, but necessary to “control” Egyptians. But they fail to recognize a key historical lesson – no country, no society, no nation moves forward without a vibrant and active civil society. Instead, it simply simmers with tension, ever increasingly.

It seems there are many who do not take too kindly to those within the country that disagree. Hence, for example, the media reports that rights groups and individual defenders have been gradually restricting their activity. A conglomerate of them failed to participate, as would have been normal, in the United Nations UPR, citing fears of retribution back in Egypt. International human rights groups such as Amnesty International note that “the Egyptian authorities are sowing a climate of fear which has stopped NGOs from doing their vital work of defending human rights and the law.”

Deepening restrictions

If there are deepening restrictions, or closures of these organizations, certain things are predictable. In the international community, there has never been a time when more people, in and out of governments, are looking at Egypt’s domestic rights issues with such attention. That is not going to stop – and while it is clear that the regional security situation will marginalize these concerns about societal freedoms, that will not always be possible. At some point, the circumstances will change – and the calculus will as well. If the international community begins to realize that any workable security strategy includes a full fledged protection of human rights, the calculus might change even soon. Indeed – violations of fundamental rights tend to lead to longer periods of insecurity, rather than shorter ones.

Within Egypt itself, the public mood will also not last indefinitely – but the real question is what rights groups will do in the meantime, while the most intense of restrictions endure. That is something that remains to be seen – what forms will their activism take and what models might they entertain? During this period, will the rights movement also be able to take the opportunity to consider their own internal challenges? Have these movements really developed far enough for them to become relevant enough to the people of Egypt and the region? Are they original enough, rooted enough, so that there is something truly intrinsic and indigenous?

Benjamin Franklin said, “in this world, nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” One might say, “in Egypt, nothing can be said to be certain, except death and the young.” For, indeed, the young will be not only what defines the broader population, with the demographic shifts that are so fundamental. Rather, they will also define how the rights movement will respond to the next phase. It’s not if the rights movement will respond – it’s how. As much as many might wish that these defenders of fundamental rights might simply disappear and fade away – that’s not what history teaches us.

There is a generation in the rights movement that has learned more in three years, perhaps, than many would have learned in a decade. More than anyone else, they are the active agents for change – and many will continue to be drawn to their ranks. For the last three years, they have rejected right-wing religious radicalism, and authoritarian nationalism. It is they who will be in a position to shift the broader sphere in any way, when that becomes possible. If they continue to mature, and are supported, they could be the standard bearers for a progressivism that is far more impactful than what has yet come.

Change is history’s custom. It’s a lesson that too few seem to realize, including in the Arab region. There were fruits of the 2011 revolutionary uprisings – and a part of that are the youth that will one day take over the rights movements in Egypt and elsewhere. They’re not finished yet. Indeed, in truth, they’ve not really even started. And more of them will follow.


Dr. H.A. Hellyer, non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, the Royal United Services Institute, and the Harvard University Kennedy School, previously held senior posts at Gallup and Warwick University. Follow him on Twitter at @hahellyer.

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