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Unwanted: NGOs in Post-Revolution Egypt

By Carmel Delshad

In post-revolution Egypt, the suspicion of all things foreign saturates the public discourse. That suspicion, deeply rooted in the fear of foreign hands asserting their influence in Egyptian politics, has spread to nongovernment organizations and their sources of funding.

The interim government, run by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), is continuing the Mubarak-era crackdowns on NGOs, maintaining laws that outlived the ousted president’s tenure. Many hoped that the revolution would transform the NGO law, but that change never came.

In recent months, Egyptian banks have been ordered by the Central Bank of Egypt to inform the Central Bank and the Ministry of Solidarity of any transactions between NGOs and charity groups. The interim government also launched an investigation into the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) funding of unregistered NGOs in Egypt, which prompted U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson to hand over a list of organizations that have taken U.S. funds (USAID’s director in Egypt quit in August). A reported $40 million has been given to groups since the revolution.

A leaked copy of the report, published in al-Fagr newspaper, shows 39 prominent human rights organizations and NGOs that received funding while unregistered. The fact-finding committee recommended another investigation into the motivations of these groups before they send the issue over to the criminal court.

The bottom line is that things haven’t changed for the better since Mubarak, says Kareem Elbayar, a legal adviser for the Middle East and North Africa region at the International Center for Non-Profit Law. The government curbs on NGOs harm the relationship between the Egyptian public, NGOs, and the Egyptian diaspora. By accusing NGOs that receive foreign funding of pursuing activities that harm national security and further foreign agendas, the government is creating an “uncomfortable situation” for NGOs, according to Elbayar.

This is an especially difficult problem to manage for the Egyptian-American diaspora, whose members have sought to help their home country by forming their own NGOs in America. 

“My generation and I are still very connected to Egypt because we were all raised by Egyptians in our household,” says Sahar Aziz, an Egyptian-American lawyer who started an NGO after the revolution. “Many Egyptians in Egypt don’t have any idea about the diaspora and the vast resources available to them through partnerships. They aren’t seeing the big picture, and there is just a lot of distrust against the United States.” 

Dr. Gouda Abdel Khaliq, the Egyptian Minister of Social Solidarity, oversees the registration of NGOs. In July, he issued a statement warning “civil society associations and NGOs against applying for foreign grants” and called direct U.S. funding to Egyptian NGOs a violation of Egyptian sovereignty.

Although this statement mentions only official government channels of funding, such as the USAID, privately funded NGOs are also discouraged from applying, including those run by Egyptians in the diaspora.

This is a divide that proves tricky to navigate for Egyptians living in America, whose post-revolution activities are seen as jumping on the bandwagon, Aziz said.

“I think there is some antagonism to the diaspora community,” Aziz said. “People are saying, ‘Well, you weren’t here before the revolution and it’s disingenuous for you to come back after revolution.’”

Aziz, the President of the NGO Egyptian American Rule of Law Association, found general disapproval of American foreign policy among the Egyptian population when she visited to look for partnerships. Aziz struggled to find local support for her organization. Though the NGO supports post-revolution reforms to Egypt’s laws and procedures, disdain for American foreign policy has seeped into the public mindset, complicating civil society work in Egypt, especially when it comes to NGOs founded and funded in the U.S.

The military council has launched what several rights groups call a “smear campaign” against NGOs.

“It’s been unbroken since the revolution, these accusations and insinuations that Egyptian civil society organizations and human rights groups are pursuing a foreign agenda,” says  Elbayar.

This issue isn’t new. The government clampdown on civil society organizations existed long before the revolution and even before Mubarak’s reign, Elbayar says. But the crackdowns have increased since the uprising.

“Traditionally the government in Egypt has utilized an NGO law that gives it a wide amount of discretion to crackdown on organizations that it doesn’t favor, and most commonly it’s human rights or political organizations,” Elbayar says.

As fear of foreign meddling grows, it’s no longer just human rights organization in the crosshairs—it’s all foreign funded NGOs. Under Egyptian NGO law, the Ministry of Social Solidarity must first approve all foreign funding to organizations and can take up to 60 days to make a decision. The law also says the ministry can dissolve an NGO under certain cases, one of which is the receipt of foreign funding—even if that funding is from an Egyptian national—without the permission of the ministry.

So much red tape exists that many organizations don’t report their funding sources to the ministry. Some skip registration altogether.

In 2007, roughly 24,500 NGOs were registered with the Ministry of Social Solidarity. That number is estimated to be much higher, since many organizations aren’t registered or function as civil corporations, which have less-intrusive laws.

Nathan Hollenbeck works for Coptic Orphans, a diaspora NGO that works on the ground in Egypt but receives funding from America, Canada and Australia. Hollenbeck says the organization attempted to register with the ministry in 2006, but gave up after realizing the odds stacked against it.

“We realized after a certain point that, ok, we are Coptic and we are American, two things the Mubarak government was afraid of,” Hollenbeck says. “One is foreign and one is a minority group. Eventually, we basically decided we’d just keep going until someone says no.”

This is one of many loopholes Egyptians abroad have resorted to in an effort to give back to their home country, both pre and post-revolution. Another is to partner with other NGOs working in Egypt, which allows a U.S.-based group to skip the registration process altogether.

Mona Mowafi, a research fellow at Harvard School of Public Health, and Nadine Farag, an independent researcher, are spearheading an upcoming conference that will link Egyptian-Americans with their counterparts overseas to work on sustainable development projects.

“To avoid registration in Egypt, we are partnering with organizations in Egypt who are registered there and are already navigating through the legal system on their own,” Mowafi says.

Mowafi believes part of the hesitation in Egypt is based on the idea that members of the diaspora sweep in with all of the solutions, and “people resent that.”

Much of Egypt has changed since the revolution, yet Mubarak’s laws governing NGOs have remained intact. Human rights organizations are still finding it exceedingly difficult to function in Egypt.

“I think the military is making an effort to ensure that its position in society is not challenged,” Elbayar says. “It’s been more difficult for foreign funding to get to organizations, it’s been hard for them to conduct activities, but they still are. People are wondering when the other shoe will drop.”

Elbayar says it remains to be seen whether the military council will move from mere intimidation to actual prosecution. To prevent potential repercussion and protect partner law groups, Sahar Aziz’s organization, the Egyptian American Rule of Law Association, removed the names of their counterparts in Egypt from their website.

“We’re treading very cautiously,” Aziz says. “It’s clear the military is trying to exert its power and send the message to us that they are in control and are staying in control by trying to vilify us and punish the people working with us.”

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Carmel Delshad is a freelance writer who splits her time between New York and Cairo. 

[Photo courtesy of Erik N]

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