This article was first published in the New Statesman on 21 May 2014.
The leaders in Egypt have repeatedly failed to recognise that the campaigning of not-for-profits plays an important role as a pressure gauge that can release dissent in a manageable way.
This week Jimmy Carter warned that Egypt “stands on the precipice”, as its transition to democracy seems to be faltering after years of social unrest. Many of us will remember the scenes on the news of millions of people pouring onto the streets and public spaces in Egypt in protests that would bring down the government in 2011, and again in 2013. After all these years of turmoil, it seems that Egypt still remains a tinderbox of tension, unrest and dissent.
The current military-backed interim government has continued the trend of quashing criticism to prevent any rebellions, but what if this silencing of critics is actually fuelling further social unrest rather than preventing it?
This may seem unlikely to the government and military leaders, but the treatment of civil society and charities in a country can have a huge impact on that country’s political stability.
In Egypt, policy makers have been careful to create legislation that is sufficiently broad to allow any troublesome voices to be silenced. Their law on non-governmental organisations set what looks like reasonable restrictions on their activities, including the prohibiting of “advocating the program of one of the political parties, contributing to electoral campaigns, and putting forth candidates for office”.
However, those in authority have applied a broad interpretation of ‘political activity’ and have wilfully failed to distinguish between partisan political campaigning and public policy campaigning. This has prevented not-for-profits from voicing concerns. For example, in 2005 the Egyptian Association Against Torture were prohibited from starting a campaign to pressure the government to eliminate torture in police stations, as even this was considered to be ‘political activity’.
However Egypt’s ruling class still felt after the 2011 revolution that Hosni Mubarak’s government had not gone far enough in their attempt to suppress criticism from within civil society. So the atmosphere for non-profits got even worse under President Mohamed Morsi. In February 2013 Legislation was passed to increase the funds needed to register a charitable organisation, to increase reporting requirements and to designate all funds received from foreign donors as “public funds”. The Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) claimed this was an attempt by the government to “nationalize civil society and turn it into a quasi-governmental apparatus”.
Despite their best efforts to stifle all criticism and control non-profits, the summer of 2013 saw yet more protests and the fall of another regime. Unfortunately this next regime has continued to be hostile to civil society and has not learnt from the previous president’s mistakes.
Under Adly’s Mansour’s interim Presidency, the government has plumbed new depths in search of increasingly punitive measures to dissuade public criticism. Raids on rights groups has served to control civil society organisations by means of intimidation. A proposed anti-terrorism law would also expand the definition of terrorism to include absurdly broad terms such as ‘damaging national unity’ It will mean that the death penalty will be allowed even when supposed “terrorist” activities do not result in a loss of life.
Unfortunately Egypt is not alone in seeking to suppress any campaigning by non-profits. Many justify it by arguing that lobbying by large, well funded and unelected non-for-profits, often operating across borders, leach power from the government and threaten the sovereignty of the state.
However, as can be seen in Egypt, the rationale for restricting the voice of civil society organisations assumes that their campaigning and advocacy is a cause of social and political unrest. In fact, there is reason to believe the reverse is true.
If we look at some of the most stable governments in the world, the majority of them have liberal laws that recognise the right of non-profits to campaign and even to criticise government policy.
Civil society is the vehicle by which citizens can represent themselves, either by forming organisations, participating in campaigns, donating money or volunteering. It offers an opportunity for grass-roots movements to grow and provides a constructive channel for social tensions to be turned into reasoned and targeted dialogue with government.
The leaders in Egypt have repeatedly failed to recognise that the campaigning of not-for-profits plays an important role as a pressure gauge that can release dissent in a manageable way. It protects the state from the social unrest that results from a build up of pent-up civic tension. If Egypt wants a more stable future they need to learn from history. Throughout the world we see that without an appropriate means to voice dissent, disenfranchised citizens will, as Jimmy Carter advised a panel of Latin American ambassadors, “eventually make their grievances known, and it may be in radical and destructive ways”.
In an era of globalisation and increasing internet connectivity, national borders can no longer limit the spread of ideas and values. In this changed context, people will demand certain freedoms. Governments who attempt to suppress calls for increased freedoms are merely fighting the tide by building a dam made of sand. The tide will come anyway, but in one large and unexpected wave. Allowing civil society organisations to represent the needs and the aspirations of citizens allows a controlled release of tension, and the opportunity to learn and address its root cause.
In the Charities Aid Foundation’s latest report ‘Future World Giving: Enabling an Independent Not-for-Profit Sector’ we show that Egypt is not alone in its growing hostility towards campaigning and lobbying. Countries as diverse as Azerbaijan, Indonesia, Ecuador, Canada and the UK are introducing new laws to curb ‘political advocacy’. We highlight that this will do more damage than good.
Governments should not only recognise, but put legal guarantees in place to ensure civil society organisations are able to speak, and act independently, even when criticising government policy. There should be no limit on non-profits’ political activity, providing that they do so in accordance with their charitable causes and are not endorsing particular political candidates or parties.
With a fragile democracy in Egypt and the elections later this month, it is vital that their next government try a new tactic. No benefit can come from silencing all critical voices. As counterintuitive as it may seem to the government struggling to maintain control, it is critical that non-profits perform their role as a pressure gauge, giving voice to those disenfranchised with the ruling class in Egypt to help create a healthy dialogue for change.
Adam Pickering is International Policy Manager at the Charities Aid Foundation