We're Civil Society, Hear Us Roar

12 December 2011

Twelve hours into the deadly attack by Central Security Forces on peaceful protesters on 19 November, Major General Mohsen al-Fangary, member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), indirectly implicated Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) in the current state of unrest. The interview, which was conducted by telephone with Al-Hayat satellite channel, abruptly went from his meeting with families of the revolution martyrs and the wounded to the representatives of CSOs he says were present during the meeting. Besides the fact that such references to civil society was out of context, Fangary urged viewers to reflect on their understanding of the supposed role of civil society. He then blatantly accused civil society of working "for the interest of the people." Guilty as charged, Mr. Major General? The esteemed member of the ruling military council expressed his deep shock at the realization that the concept of civil society as understood by those constituting it, was that they were there to "support the citizen" even if it meant opposing the government. Apparently he was misled, up until that moment, to believe that civil society was the government's unfaltering wingman.

The affinity of officials to blame civil society for all things gone wrong is not new in either pre- or post-revolution Egypt, and for good reason. First, repressive regimes, understandably, are not fond of the idea of a third sector standing in the way of their repression of the people. Second, it is easy to pin the blame on a body that nobody knows much about. Civil society, much like "foreign elements" and "invisible hands," is an elusive term, and for that, civil society is partly to blame.

What then, is civil society? Indeed it is a contested term, but for all intents and purposes it can be said that “civil society” describes the space, outside of state and private sector, in which people associate and assemble to achieve their aspirations and advance their common interests… essentially, yes, to support the citizens. Civil society is made up of people working for the interest of the people. The forms of civil society are as many and as fluid as its definitions and hence interpretations of what does or doesn't fall under the realm of civil society differ from one country to the other. In Egypt, the term civil society is typically used to describe one of two entities: 1) non-governmental organizations (NGOs) registered with the Ministry of Social Solidarity (MSS), which are governed by Law No. 84/2002, "Egypt's Association Law" — a law that for years has been described as draconian and restrictive by freedom of association advocates; and 2) NGOs in disguise, those human rights or other advocacy groups registered as civil not-for-profit companies or law firms, a compromise that has enabled them to pursue their goals of defending and promoting rights and freedoms without jeopardizing their own. Many of the organizations that fall under that second category had been denied registration by the government and their activities have been deemed controversial.

The Association Law, Law No. 84, not only mandates that all NGOs must register with the MSS, but also invests the ministry with authority to control the operations of the NGOs, including approvals of board members, affiliations with international organizations, foreign funding, prohibiting activities not pursuant with the purpose of the organization and involuntary dissolution and the imposition of criminal penalties, should the NGO be found in violation of the law. It is no wonder, then, that many human rights groups have chosen to evade the law by acquiring alternative legal statuses for their work. 

This distinction between the registration statuses of Egyptian NGOs usually goes unnoticed as far as the beneficiaries and stakeholders are concerned: An NGO campaigning for access to safe potable water in one of Cairo’s many slum areas could very well be addressing the slum dwellers’ greatest need, which is otherwise ignored. The fact that the organization is registered with the MSS will unlikely be celebrated by the communities being supported. It is similarly unlikely that a victim of sexual violence or one of police brutality will ask to see their human rights defenders’ registration license or turn for help elsewhere if they realize they’re dealing with an unregistered organization.

The registration status of civil society organizations doesn’t seem to bother the government much either. Not when CSOs were invited by the Ministry of Interior last June for a consultative meeting on the role of the new National Security Division, replacing the former State Security Division. Not when a number of both registered and unregistered NGOs were called on by the Minister of Finance to provide their feedback on the 2011/2012 state budget before it was referred to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces for approval, or when the minister of health welcomed the formation of a committee of civil society representatives last September to discuss health system reform with the ministry. The government likes to think it has done a good job creating the illusion of civil society participation in the state decision making process. The fact that none of the actual recommendations by CSOs were ever taken into consideration is beside the point.  These mere invitations were thought sufficient to demonstrate that the military council and its government duly engage civil society in state policies as they build a new Egypt. That should have been enough to curb the enthusiasm of human rights groups and their constant barrage of demands for measures that reflect any true commitment towards the respect of the dignity and rights of people, except it wasn’t. Civil society has kept on doing what it has always done: roar in the face of the state’s ineptitude and violations of human rights.

Human rights and other civil society organizations are roaring out against unjust military trials of thousands of civilians, against ongoing torture cases, against the drafting and passing of legislation that do not respect civil and political rights or the citizens’ basic social and economic needs, and against the incitement of hatred and violence by state apparatuses against religious minorities, activists and opposition groups. Civil society has continued to roar despite the systematic attempt by the government and the military council to tarnish the image and undermine the legitimacy of CSOs by claims of complicity in plots to destabilize the country. Hardly a day goes by without news coverage of state investigations into the malicious role of civil society, not of course without the financial support of the dark forces of planet Vega.

While such attacks have had some degree of success prior to the revolution in gluing a negative connotation to civil society organizations, especially those dealing with human rights issues, the readiness of the public to embrace these allegations has never been higher, and no one knows that better than Major General Fangary and the ruling military council. "Treason" is a word that resonates well in the public sphere and the various media agencies were eager to scoop the news of criminal investigations into Egyptian civil society organizations accused of illegally receiving foreign funding and harming national interests and security.

The attack went from bad to worse last July when Fayza Abouelnaga, who embarked on the mission to smear civil society (as fiercely as though it were the one item on her agenda as minister of international cooperation), requested that the Ministry of Justice form a fact-finding committee to investigate foreign funding of NGOs. This, according to Abouelnaga, meets "the requests of the Egyptian public who refuse such foreign funding." Soon after, the Central Bank of Egypt ordered all national and foreign banks to submit information of any transactions on accounts owned by NGOs and to check with the organizations about whether they received approvals for any foreign funding. The Ministry of Justice report was submitted to the prosecutor in September and was said to have found more than 30 organizations receiving foreign funding in violation of the Association Law. The state security prosecutor also started investigations last August into complaints received from unannounced sources against civil society organizations, accusing them of grand treason and of carrying out foreign agendas aimed at disrupting national security. If convicted, members of such organizations face imprisonment. The attack on civil society has continued despite harsh criticism by the international community, which called upon the military council to stop the investigations since they constitute a serious violation of freedom of association. Sadly though, Egypt's commitments relevant to freedom of association are no less reflected in national legislations and policies than many of its commitments to civil and political or social and economic rights under international law.

In early November, a group of 39 civil society organizations drafted a new bill to regulate NGOs that provides for the autonomy of civil society organizations from the state while at the same time guaranteeing transparent operation of these organizations in terms of their activities and sources of funding, a step they say would liberate civic action. And it certainly would, but only if the ruling council is ready to grant that liberty. It is uncertain what the near future of those organizations under investigation will be, especially with Abouelnaga still in office under Prime Minister al-Ganzouri, but it is doubtful that they, or other groups will be silenced or coerced into speaking only that which the ruling powers wish to hear. The smear campaign might have achieved part of its goal to discredit human rights organizations in the eyes of the people, but the ferocity of the attacks only go to prove that civil society is a force the state reckons with.

- Published at Al-Masry Al-Youm.