Egypt’s raids on NGOs are about control.
Restricting NGO funding is typical of authoritarian regimes happy to take foreign aid but less happy about human rights
… The right of people to get together in pursuit of shared interests or purposes is one of the building blocks of freedom. Exercising that right is the essence of civil society activity, and you can’t have a flourishing democracy without a flourishing civil society.
That is why authoritarian regimes are wary of NGOs and other civil society organisations, and why they seek to control or restrict them. Such activities are viewed as subversive because they undermine the idea that the authorities always know best. Even charitable work can be considered dangerous if it draws attention to the government’s failure to provide basic services…
… Another technique is to create extraordinarily cumbersome but often vague rules under which NGOs are allowed to operate. Egypt is notorious in this respect and it means that if the authorities want to prosecute an organisation or close it down they can usually find some legal pretext for doing so.
Increasingly, Arab governments also seek to control funding from abroad. This is a major obstacle for NGOs in the poorer countries where local funding is difficult to obtain…
… Viewed in this context, the raiding of NGO offices in Egypt on Thursday is not especially surprising – though, of course, one of the main goals of the revolution was to put an end to such dictatorial practices, and the raiding of 17 NGOs in a single day was unprecedented, even during the Mubarak years.
One very common tactic among beleaguered regimes is to whip up nationalist sentiment and blame their problems on foreigners – which may partly explain the ruling military council’s behaviour in Egypt.
Human Rights Watch says there has been “an escalation in public rhetoric from the cabinet and the military over the past month that appears designed to delegitimise organisations that receive foreign funding”.
The April 6 Youth Movement, which helped to trigger the revolution, has also been accused of receiving foreign funds to provoke a “conflict between the military and the Egyptian people”.
It’s a spurious argument. The idea that NGOs should not be funded from abroad holds no water at all when the Egyptian military themselves are perfectly happy to accept American taxpayers’ money, and in fact depend on it. Since 1975, Egypt has received well over $50bn in US aid – much of it military. Against that, the $40m recently allocated by the US to promote democracy and human rights in Egypt is a drop in the ocean.
The real issue is not an objection to foreign money on principle. The Egyptian military want it and need it, but they also want to determine how it shall be spent. And they would rather have it spent on weapons than on irritating little NGOs that keep bleating about democracy and human rights.