On organising Egyptian human rights organisations

Mohamed Shuman
Wednesday 13 Jul 2016

A negative opinion of NGOs has continued throughout multiple political regimes in Egypt. Thus, the new NGO law must take into consideration ways to change this attitude and to cope with the problems NGOs may face

According to official estimations, the number of local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Egypt is about 47,000, with another 93 foreign NGOs working according to the 2002 Law.

This huge number is distributed on a wide spectrum of fields and activities covering Egypt’s governorates and cities. However, there is an extremely small number of human rights organisations that raise problems with the government concerning their role, working mechanisms, funding sources and their relation with politics in a wide sense.

These NGOs are actively defending political, social and economic human rights, including women rights and the right to organise trade unions and encouraging political participation and elections monitoring.

The government’s problems with the human rights NGOs can be summarised in their relation with foreign countries and how to specifically harmonise the requirements of the international human rights environment with Egyptian society.

For the government, a section of the elite and the street see that since those organisations receive financial and technical support from European and American organisations or transnational non-governmental organisations, the priorities of interests and activities of the local NGOs - the reports they publish, training and qualification workshops they set up - are affected.

This influence is understandable in the light of globalisation and networking between human rights NGOs across the world. However, there are some people inside and outside the government who view that this influence, as well as the globalised networking, represents a form of vassalage and may be an agent for foreign countries, as the current media discourse antagonistic to human rights activists propagates.

The evidence is that those activists played a big role in confronting the rule of Hosni Mubarak and faced administrative and legal problems. They also suffered under Mubarak’s rule from security harassment, distorted media campaigns, accusations of being foreign agents, receiving huge sums of money and profiteering without justification.

It is noteworthy to mention that the culture of human rights and human rights NGOs activities are new to the Egyptian state and society. Egypt knew nothing about these organisations except during Mubarak’s rule, when in 1985 when the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights (EOHR), as a branch of the Arab Organisation for Human Rights (AOHR), was founded.

The irony is that the majority of those who founded the EOHR were affiliated with the Nasserite regime, which committed wide scale human rights violations, as well as some leftist Marxist elements and leaders who suffered from the horrors of detention and imprisonment during the rule of Presidents Gamal Abdel-Nasser and Anwar Al-Sadat.

The second irony is the EOHR did not receive the approval of the Ministry of Social Affairs as a legal NGO except through a court verdict 18 years after announcing its founding and commencement of activities.

This illustrates the state’s non-positive handling towards this and other NGOs as Mubarak’s regime viewed the Egyptian human rights movement as a political opposition movement.

Hence, many human rights activists circumvented the current NGO Organisation Law and founded non-profit companies through which they practised their activities without submitting to the Ministry of Social Affairs charged with applying the law and organising the NGOs' work.

The truth is that the negative outlook towards the role and work of human rights NGOs kept haunting the organisations during the rule of Mubarak, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the Muslim Brotherhood and onto the current regime under which a number of human rights activists were questioned concerning receiving foreign money and tax evasion.

This was accompanied before and after with the predominance of the conspiracy theory which links NGO activities inside Egypt with the criticisms issued by Western organisations regarding human rights violations in Egypt.

According to this narrative, there is no place for the idea of globalisation and the growing roles of the transnational NGOs and civil society organisations. There is also no place for independent roles for human rights NGOs. Consequently, conspiracy theory supporters conclude that the human rights NGOs play a direct role in conspiring against the Egyptian state, especially that those NGOs do not care about the danger of terrorism that constitutes a threat to citizens’ security and the society’s safety. Besides, they do not declare clear standpoints towards the war on terrorism.

The accusations which haunt human rights NGOs and their activists persisted through political regimes and continued in spite of the positive roles they played in paving the way for what’s known as Egypt’s Revolutions in 25th January against Mubarak and 30th June against the Muslim Brotherhood.

This continuity indicates the existence of real problems that transcend the notion that all the world’s governments do not welcome human rights NGOs activities and reports.

Consequently, this problem must be raised for discussion in a transparent and profound way that goes beyond political conflict or the extreme, opposing standpoints with or against human rights NGOs and activists, especially that the government is making a serious attempt to issue a new legislation that organises the work of NGOs in Egypt, including Egyptian and foreign human rights NGOs.

This legislation aims to make the procedures of registration, financing and the activities of all the organisations transparent and clear. Thus, the administrative and legal problems are reduced and the chances of security agencies’ interference are limited.

A bill was raised to a wide debate in which many human rights NGOs and activists as well as representatives from political parties and forces have participated. I think that the new law must take into consideration a set of facts related to the emergence and development of the human rights movement and its resources as well as the human rights culture in Egypt and the mechanisms of human rights NGOs and the problems they face.

In this frame, four main observations can be mentioned:     

1-             Human rights NGOs played an extremely important role in disseminating human rights culture in the Egyptian society, despite the unwelcoming climate surrounding their emergence and development as well as the criticisms haunting them and affects the elements belonging to it or those known as human rights activists. It is hard for human rights NGOs to dispense with foreign funding or to be independent from the global human rights movement. This is due to the weakness of the civil society and lack of independent sources for funding human rights activities in Egypt.

There are alternatives represented in augmenting volunteering and consequently reducing dependence on foreign funding and building societal partnerships that may secure national funding supported by increasing volunteer work. On the other hand, NGOs can set up independent societal mechanisms for monitoring funding sources and ensuring the commitment of all NGOs to rules of disclosure and transparency in the light of the new NGO Organisation Law and its executive regulations in coordination with the Ministry of Social Affairs.

2-             There is no option for the state and society but to accept the existence and continuity of truly independent human rights NGO activity. Therefore, there is no reason for containing or employing NGOs or to see that the National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) activities suffice and consider it an alternative to independent NGOs and a sole representative of Egypt in international circles. The NHCR was established in 2003 presided over by Boutrous Ghali, former UN General Secretary, as an independent authority. However, the Council's dependence on governmental funding led to accusations of it being a vassal to the state even if it repeatedly criticised some governmental bodies during Mubarak's rule and the current regime. I think that the NCHR is indispensable provided that its financial and administrative independence is guaranteed.

3-             The necessity that human rights NGOs increase their activities and tools and renew its discourse and show commitment to internal democracy within these organisations and openness towards society instead of the elitist outlook focusing on Cairo and shunning rural areas.

4-             The final draft of the new law must resolve the problem of registration and funding in order to decrease the prerequisites for founding non-governmental organisations, liberating them of the bureaucracy of the task and the corruption of some officials. The law must clearly stipulate the kind of activities for which it is allowed to receive foreign financial or technical support, and must encourage groups to notify the Ministry of Social Affairs about the funding objectives and its items of expenditure. The Ministry of Social Affairs should be granted the right to object within 21 days. In this case, the non-governmental organisation has the right to go to court, which should adjudicate the dispute in a timely manner without procrastination.

The writer is dean of the Faculty of Communication and Mass Media at the British University in Egypt (BUE).

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