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Civil society played a critical role in democratic transitions in Eastern Europe and Latin America. To the disappointment of many, it hasn’t played that role in the Arab world. Across the region, non-governmental organizations have been weakened and tamed. Meanwhile, the United States, the EU, and the international community continue to emphasize the importance of civil society development. Western funding for Arab NGOs has grown markedly since the attacks of 9/11. By fiscal year 2009, the level of annual US democracy aid in the Middle East was more than the total amount spent between 1991 to 2001. But the mode of NGO empowerment remains both flawed and often aimless. To begin, three interrelated concerns are worth focusing our attention on.
First of all, there is the matter of government co-option: many NGOs are not actually NGOs. They are what observers are now calling GONGOs – government organized non-governmental organizations. They are funded, staffed, and otherwise supported by governments. The idea is not to instigate or inspire change, but rather to control and manage it.
Second, even in countries where it is relatively easier to establish pro-democracy organizations, these are still severely restricted by law. In Jordan, for instance, all NGO board members must be cleared by internal security. More problematically, the Ministry of Social Development – whose primary purpose is to monitor the activities of civil society – can replace NGO boards with temporary boards of its own choosing and has the power to dissolve NGOs altogether.
But that these government powers are exercised in practice is not the point. The point is that they can be exercised at any time. Organizations, therefore, have an incentive to meet the demands of the relevant ministries and avoid doing anything to invite sanction. Fear leads to self-censorship and creation of self-enforcing norms that encourage accommodation with the state and discourage confrontation. This, in effect, is repression by other means. The result is that civil society, once considered a key driver of Middle East democratization, becomes an arena of state hegemony rather than an “instrument of collective empowerment.”
Third, the even pro-democracy NGOs are not, in fact, pro-democracy NGOs. Democracy entails “alternation of power,” but most NGOs that favor democratization do not do anything that can be construed as supporting a change in regime. This is in contrast to the experience of the colored revolutions where the objective of NGOs and political movements alike was to replace the prevailing regime with something else. Very few NGOs in the Arab world are organizing for street protest and nonviolent civil disobedience.
These inconvenient realities call into question any Western democracy promotion strategy that puts civil society front and center.
In addition to these set of problems, any Western strategy that includes a funding component, will inevitably face a number of obstacles. Many Arab NGOs instituted a policy of not accepting any American government funding in 2004 due to the unpopularity of the Bush administration’s policies. Some of them revised policy and began accepting funding in 2009 due to the perceived popularity of President Barack Obama.
But the hype surrounding the Bush “freedom agenda” – which included the creation of the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) and a doubling of National Endowment for Democracy funding – obscured the fundamental reality that American, as well as European, financial assistance has been just as limited as the NGOs and political groups it has tried to support.
Much of the money has gone to NGOs that aren’t even explicitly political, but rather focus on economic, social, and cultural issues. It is worth remembering that MEPI’s programs fall under four categories: economic reform, political reform, educational reform, and women’s empowerment.
Putting that aside for a moment, U.S. and EU funding usually goes to NGO programming that is oppositional but not necessarily conducive to the sort of sustained, structural change that democratization requires. Again, this if we wish to use moving toward “alternation of power,” as a barometer.
Due to bilateral relationships between Western nations and Arab recipient countries, it is often difficult for the former to fund NGOs that are not approved by the latter. In regards to Egypt, the Obama administration, shortly upon entering office, made a decision to provide bilateral assistance only to organizations registered by the Egyptian government. Of course, such organizations are approved for a reason: they are not at all threatening to regime interests and provide the facade of an active civil society and political openness. (Many of the most active human rights NGOs in Egypt are part of something called the Human Right Forum, and nearly all of them are unregistered as NGOs. Rather, they are registered as law firms or companies).
As for political groups or movements, they generally have not received US assistance. Such groups are obviously more controversial as their goals extend well beyond the mandate of NGOs, which are relatively small and focused on more limited objectives. In Egypt, this includes groups such as Kifaya, April 6, the National Association for Change, and the Muslim Brotherhood. None have received U.S. funding. On one hand, it would be odd if the United States simultaneously funded both regimes and their oppositions. Certainly, Egypt and other Arab regimes allied with the United States would not accept this and have repeatedly made clear that even contact with such groups crosses the red line.
Considering the growing unpopularity of President Obama – a recent poll conducted by Brookings scholar Shibley Telhami found that in several Arab countries, U.S. favorability ratings have dropped below what they were under the Bush administration – it is difficult to imagine a scenario in which opposition movements would be willing to accept U.S. funding. They may, on the other hand, be willing to accept funding from U.S. nongovernmental organizations such as Freedom House, the National Endowment for Democracy, and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, but, here, much of the same hesitation on both sides persists. These NGOs receive funding from the U.S. government and are, thus, unlikely to support popular revolution and the undermining of friendly Arab regimes.
This, of course, hampers the opposition and puts them at a severe disadvantage in the face of regimes that have unlimited coffers for political combat. It is very difficult for opposition groups to receive funding from internal sources, since donors, usually well-known businessmen, can easily be bribed or harassed into withdrawing support. According to George Ishak, a leader in the Mohamed El Baradei’s National Association for Change, the association has a budget of around 15,000 Egyptian pounds, a rather remarkable figure considering that it aims to be the nation’s vanguard of political change. The NAC, as a result, lacks what successful opposition movements have long had in other regions, including Eastern Europe and Latin America. The NAC does not have a headquarters. It does not have regional offices. It does not have professional full-time staff and depends entirely on activists volunteering their time on an ad-hoc basis.
The problem of funding is a critical one for emerging liberal and leftist opposition movements throughout the region. Not only does this put them at a disadvantage vis-à-vis regimes but also makes it more difficult form them to compete with Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood that have a network of hundreds of thousands supporters that pay membership fees as well as make donations, as necessary.
In short, the problem of funding is likely to endure for the foreseeable future. Successful democratic transitions elsewhere took place in part because the international community, and particularly Western donors, were able to make a strong financial commitment to democratic change. This was certainly the case in the “colored revolutions,” and particularly in Ukraine. Arab NGOs and opposition groups need to carefully consider this situation and more effectively develop a sustainable model for funding from internal and regional sources. Western nations, and Western-based NGOs, are unlikely to change. But this doesn’t mean that Arab opposition forces should concede this part of the battle to their governments.
Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the Afaq al Mustaqbal Journal, published by the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research.
 See Augustus Richard Norton, Civil Society in the Middle East, 2 vols. (New York: Brill, 1994, 1996)
 Quentin Wiktorowicz, The Management of Islamic Activism (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2001), p. 3
 Interview by author with George Ishak, Cairo, August 11, 2010