The Collapse of Egypt’s Civil Society – Ethics, transparency, and ‘governmental NGOs’

If the Egyptian uprising of January 25th 2011 was about reclaiming space for the people, the last 18 months has been about the state taking it back.

And then some.

Along with reductions on the media and freedom of speech, the state has also insisted that NGOs adhere to a Mubarak era law that regulates civil society. It requires NGOs to register with the Orwellian “Ministry for Social Solidarity”, and NGOs feel that this is just the latest tactic to restrict their behaviour and get them in line with the regime.

Sadly this is nothing new for post Jan 25 Egypt. Human Rights Watch staff were denied entry to Egypt in August after criticising the government’s crackdown on Islamists, and last year 43 people were sentenced to between 1-5 years in prison for working for unregistered NGOS. As part of the sentence, 5 foreign NGOs were shutdown and their funds confiscated.

While this behaviour on behalf of the state is entirely disproportionate and unreasonable, it did cause me to ask myself – what were these NGOs actually doing?

One of the “NGOs” shutdown was Freedom House. According to their 2013 Financial Report on their website, of their roughly $37 million revenue last year, $32 million came from the government. That’s around 86%. To what extent can their website claims of “independence” and their status as a Non Governmental Organisation be upheld with this knowledge?

The International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute – also shutdown in Egypt – are also U.S. government funded.

To what extent can they be regarded as campaigners for positive change, and to what extent can they be regarded as extensions of U.S. foreign policy?

This question is not limited to Egypt. James Petras (1997) criticised NGOs in Latin America from a Leftist perspective and found that “the mass of NGOs are increasingly instruments of neoliberalism” due to their funding from the World Bank and European or American government agencies.

This highlights the problem from Western centric NGOs with headquarters in London and Washington. Too often this relationship echoes colonialist power dynamics – consciously or otherwise – and naturally draws suspicion from people in recipient countries.

Central to this question is openness and transparency – it would seem less suspicious if government funded agencies such as the ones above made their affiliations with government clearer. It’s not hidden, but neither is it made clear.

Another central issue here is ethics. Freedom House states that part of its mission is to “support frontline activists to defend human rights and promote democratic change“. To what extent is it ethical to interfere in another countries politics in such a way?

Meanwhile the biggest problem for Egypt right now is that the crackdown on these ‘NGOs’ has meant that all NGOs have been targeted, including domestic ones. When considering the moral implications of getting involved in a foreign country, you must also consider what happens if it goes wrong.

Of the 43 sentenced to prison in June 2013, most of the foreigners were flown out by the military. The Egyptians, who had nowhere to flee to, are now in jail.

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