Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
6 - 12 April 2000
Issue No. 476
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The Egyptian controversy

By Mariz Tadros

"Intense" and "uproarious" best describe the sessions on advocacy and human rights organisations in Egypt. From the very first session, the question of foreign funding for human rights organisations dominated discussions, which were permeated by innuendoes of embezzlement, corruption and illegality.

Hala Mustafa, head of the political systems research units at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, argued that although state hegemony has often been blamed for the problems between the government and civil society, it may not be the only cause.

On Mustafa's list of problems plaguing Egyptian NGOs was corruption, "especially among newly-established organisations which receive foreign funding, unlike the traditional organisations which have relied on local funding". She added that "many of these organisations are best described as political bodies, often manipulated by certain ideological trends." She argued that NGOs are no more enlightened or democratic than the existing political forces, and do not allow for greater freedom of expression, greater participation or representation.

"But can we create a strong civil society in the absence of democracy and respect for public freedoms?" asked Mohamed El-Sayed Said, deputy director of the Al-Ahram Centre. Not so, he said, in answering his own question: "Civil society cannot develop in a healthy way in the absence of a democratic climate." Said suggested that while there can be a strong political community and a weak civil society, the opposite is impossible; a strong civil society cannot exist if political activity is weak.

Accusing human rights organisations of politicisation, argued Said, is a government ploy, directed against members who were political activists in the past.

The traditional dichotomy between "civil" and "political" is superficial and blurred, he stated, because, after all, there is a certain level of inegalitarianism that governs civil relations. In fact, the two were closely interlinked, well before the emergence of human rights organisations in Egypt. Government-organised non-governmental organisations (GONGOs), for example, have long included officials who owe patronage to the government, he suggested.

At the heart of the issue, reflected Mustafa Kamel El-Sayed, a professor of political science, is the paternalistic nature of the state, which does not tolerate an independent civil society. "Even some intellectuals reject the idea that NGOs should have independence, out of fear that they would spread ideas that are counter to the interests of the state and society," he added. "The government's right to appoint the head of the NGO Federation is an example of its hegemony over NGOs."

Many participants pointed out that what is being reaped now -- the absence of adequate space for political activity -- was the consequence of the death of the political movement after the army revolution in 1952.

However, what caused the storm at the conference was the question of the accountability and transparency of human rights organisations. Egyptian human rights activists attending the conference reacted angrily to a paper prepared by Vivian Fouad, Nadia Rifaat and Samir Morkos on relations between the state and NGOs and the new NGO Law. The paper contained significant references to the activism and show of solidarity displayed by advocacy NGOs in their campaign against the law, but there were also strong criticisms. Their presentation questioned human rights organisations' legitimacy as well as their terms of reference, "which originate abroad, and not locally." It suggested that reliance on foreign funding hindered their ability to build up a grass-root base and, consequently, they lack legitimacy and cannot be influential in society. Receiving foreign funds undermined their bargaining position with the government in relation to the NGO Law.

The same concerns were expressed by Ahmed Abdallah, of the El-Jeel Centre, who aired suspicions about the intentions of foreign donors supporting local organisations. He added that "some of these human rights organisations are no more than fronts for foreign companies." Abdallah's El- Jeel is also a recipient of substantial foreign funding.

The Al-Ahram Centre's El-Sayed Said asserted that making such sweeping generalisations about NGOs being Western offshoots is unjustified, especially when many of these organisations have no ties with the West. "Human rights causes, such as the rights of prisoners, the rights of children and the rights of women... are not Western causes; these are causes of social justice," he affirmed

Referring to a study carried out by the Arab Research Centre, Abdel-Ghaffar Shukr, its deputy chairman, questioned the prospects of promoting democracy through charity and service-providing associations, specifically Islamic associations, which have popular support.

The Research Centre conducted studies on Islamic associations in five African countries, including 27 organisations in Egypt. The research, said Shukr, showed that Islamic associations do not play a positive role in the promotion of democracy in society, despite their proliferation and wide membership. In the 1960s Islamic associations constituted 17.3 per cent of the total number of civic associations, rising to 34 per cent in the 1980s.

In common with other organisations and associations in society, Islamic associations are run undemocratically, with decision-making centralised in the hands of the board chairman and the participation of volunteers limited and that of women low. Shukr suggested that there is a correlation between the level of democracy in society and the level of democracy in NGOs. He asserted that Islamic associations do not teach their members democratic values and do not contribute to the promotion of democracy in society.

However, NGOs do not necessarily have to be either involved in service-provision without advocacy, which characterises the work of the majority of religious charity associations, or restrict themselves to advocacy work.

The Centre for Worker and Trade Union Services is an NGO that combines both service provision and efforts to encourage workers to practice their civic rights, such as participating in trade unions. The Centre, which won the French human rights prize in 1999, according to researcher Didier Monciaud, is one of the few associations dedicated to issues related to workers and trade unionism. The Centre has sought to be responsive to the social needs of its constituency, explained Monciaud, and has been able to win in a few years an unequalled place in the industrial suburb of Helwan, among the workers and in civil society. The provided services feature training trade unionists and legal assistance, while advocacy initiatives include campaigning.

Egyptian NGOs, many participants observed, are far from being a driving force behind major populist movements, but they perform a significant social function in society, whose importance was drowned at the conference by the issue of foreign funding.

Potential partners across the barricades<

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