Up Front

The Future of Egypt’s Nongovernmental Organizations and Civil Society

H.A. Hellyer

Time and time again at the U.S.-Islamic World Forum in Doha, a particular issue (among others, I hasten to add) has been raised for discussion. It has been all over the place— from private, off-record conversations in corridors, to a public plenary screened all over the world. The subject of non-governmental organisations in Egypt, their future, and the engagement of the Egyptian government on the issue, will likely energise discussions far beyond this forum – as it did before it.

It is not an inconsequential matter: it is a direly important one. Of course, many Americans are energised by the matter, owing to a recent court verdict handed down by an Egyptian court— leading to the convictions of all defendants in the now infamous ‘NGO Trial’. They received one of three penalties— five years in jail, two years in jail, and one year in jail (the last as a suspended sentence). The organizations involved included American NGOs, and American employees— hence why the American press has been focusing so much on this issue, naturally.

However, this issue is not about American NGOs— and that is why the issue of NGOs, and civil society more generally, is not going away. Among those convicted included many Egyptians— not simply Americans. But this issue goes far beyond this trial—a trial that the Egyptian government was not directly responsible for. The judge involved was not a government supporter— indeed, there are a number of reports that indicate he is aligned with elements opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood and current ruling party of the Freedom and Justice Party.

The heart of the issue is not this particular trial— a travesty of justice though it is. It is a travesty, of course, that the president of Egypt, Dr Mohammed Morsi, could easily correct through an entirely legal presidential reprieve— a course of action that would not be irrational or unjustified, considering how obviously politicised the trial was. Indeed, the government has regularly claimed that the judiciary rules less from a legal perspective, and more from a (negative) political one. Defending non-intervention in the legal process on the basis that the executive should consider carefully before engaging, is somewhat difficult to square with that in mind.

At the core of this entire discussion, nevertheless, is the future of civil society in Egypt – and in that regard, the current government has an incredibly important responsibility, as it is currently formulating and discussing a new draft NGO law. It is an NGO law that scores of NGOs have decried as worse than even Hosni Mubarak’s NGO regiment. Considering those same NGOs include individuals and organisations that defended the legitimate rights of the Muslim Brotherhood against a deeply repressive Mubarak regime in years gone by, their critiques ought to be taken exceedingly seriously.

There will be those that will consider that such discussions are premature, distracting, and fail to take account of the deeply structural problems that exist in Egypt at present. Such criticisms, however, fail to take into account that a strong civil society is, as Minister Amr Darrag said in our forum earlier today, a necessity. Civil society is critical to Egypt’s transitional process— because it does jobs that no one else has the time or inclination to do. If no American had been convicted in this NGO trial; if no American NGO was involved; indeed, if no foreign attention existed at all on this issue, the issue remains critical for the short-term, medium-term and long-term development of Egypt.

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Egypt is a stronger country if civil society is stronger— and the attainment of the revolution’s goals are that closer to attainment if they are empowered, as opposed to being marginalised and restricted further. All sorts of international institutions, governments and groups may have their own particular interests in mind by supporting that— but in the end, the concern is a deeply, and intrinsically, Egyptian one. Because it will be Egypt, and Egyptians, that stand to lose— or gain— the most.