OPED: TALKING POINTS: #Egypt’s proposed anti-NGO law.
Earlier this week I penned an opinion piece for the Daily News Egypt – “Amidst the chaos, a really bad NGO law is about to be enacted” – where I argued the new anti-NGO law being pushed by Egyptian Minister of Social Affairs and Insurance Nagwa Hussein Khalil was a continuation of the “Mubarak Morsi-knows-best” style of governing and a direct assault on NGOs by disregarding the very nature of the word “non-” in nongovernmental:
Democracy will not survive if people – civil society – are afraid to organize and speak out. And civil society will not flourish with severe government restrictions and insurmountable access to capital.
Now, the Egyptian NGO community is pushing back: Draft NGOs bill ‘more repressive’ than Mubarak era law: CIHRS
… The Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies said the bill would “nationalize civil society and turn it into a governmental body.” The law would restrict NGO activities to development and social care only, and label human rights groups “political parties.” It also would allow the government to strongly interfere with NGOs daily activities, bans foreign funding of NGOs, forbids organizations from carrying out opinion polls, field research or any development or humanitarian activities without first obtaining permission from security forces… organizations that do human rights work, youth and culture groups would fall outside of the new definition of civil society organizations and could therefore be deemed illegal… “the draft law bespeaks attempts by President Morsi’s government to hold the whip over NGOs, bypassing all international human rights accords and standards of rights to form NGOs and stand up for human rights.” – Article summary from Project on Middle East Democracy
Why would the Muslim Brotherhood government want to control NGOs? Or prohibit human rights groups? Insist on granting permission for public opinion polls? Make youth groups illegal?
What is an NGO?
Last year under the interim SCAF-run government, state-controlled media launched an unprecedented assault designed to undermine and delegitimize Non-Governmental Organizations. Despite the intensive propaganda campaign and subsequent crackdown on NGOs, thousands of brave Egyptians continue to advocate daily for freedom, democracy, and human rights.
Definition of an NGO:
A non-governmental organization (NGO) is any non-profit, voluntary citizens’ group which is organized on a local, national or international level. Task-oriented and driven by people with a common interest, NGOs perform a variety of service and humanitarian functions, bring citizen concerns to Governments, advocate and monitor policies and encourage political participation through provision of information. Some are organized around specific issues, such as human rights, environment or health. They provide analysis and expertise, serve as early warning mechanisms and help monitor and implement international agreements…
Put simply, NGOs are the people.
On 30 December 2011, a day after Egypt’s commando-style raid on 17 NGO offices, Brian Whitaker perfectly summarized what is happening today in Egypt in The Guardian:
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.
TALKING POINTS to defeat this anti-NGO law
Nancy Messieh from the Atlantic Council’s EgyptSource expertly broke down the seven key components (numbered) in the anti-NGO law and I have added key talking points to rebut the government’s anti-NGO law:
1. New NGOs must include at least 20 founding members (up from the original 10) and must have at least 250,000EGP (up from 10,000EGP) in capital.
POINT: This virtually eliminates small, community-based NGOs, e.g., local groups working to combat adult literacy or engaging historical preservation.
2. Foreign funds and donations would be regulated by the government, with the draft law stating that donations, subsidies, and funding have to be listed as ‘public funds.’ In practice, the government could (and does) restrict funding.
POINT: The biggest impact of this government over-regulation will be on International Election Observation missions as well as any NGOs serving as government corruption “watchdog” groups. The simple ability of government to restrict, dictate or direct funding will stifle attempts to hold the Egyptian government accountable.
3. A committee formed of stakeholders in the field will oversee foreign funding-related issues.
POINT: That word “non-“ again. Non-Governmental Organizations overseen by government cease to be independent of the government. An NGO “maintains its non-governmental status by excluding government representatives from membership in the organization.”
4. Foreign organizations that receive any kind of government funding, or that promote a political party’s policies cannot operate in Egypt.
POINT: Some of the world’s largest global NGOs would be prohibited from operating in Egypt, e.g., Partners in Health, CARE International, Médecins Sans Frontières, Mercy Corps, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, International Crisis Group, Reporters Sans Frontieres et al.
This will also potentially negate organizations like UNESCO and their work to preserve cultural and historical sites vital to Egypt’s tourism industry.
5. NGOs can work in the fields of development and social welfare but are prohibited from any practices that may threaten national unity, that are in violation of public order or morals, or that discriminate against citizens based on gender, race, language, religion or creed.
POINT: Vaguely prohibiting citizens from organizing around issues/causes deemed to threaten “national unity” or “public order” defeats the very point of citizen participation within a democracy.
6. NGOs are prohibited from any political or union-related activities. Locally funded NGOs can participate in activities related to promoting awareness of legal, constitutional and human rights.
POINT: This eliminates citizen engagement in politics. There can be no groups advocating for the election or defeat of politicians based on their stands on issues.
7. NGOs cannot conduct surveys, polls or do field research without prior approval from the appropriate authorities.
POINT: Clearly this is the Egypt government’s way of prohibiting ordinary citizens from “grading” their performance.
A legitimate, functioning democracy requires the active participation and interaction between government (those who have power), political forces (those who want power) and civil society (those who decide power).
If the Muslim Brotherhood proceeds with the enactment of this anti-NGO law, then there will no longer be a democracy in Egypt. By eliminating the role of civil society, you are eliminating the voice of the people and thereby eliminating democracy.