Civil Society’s Fundamental Role in Egypt

Executive authorities in countries around the world clamp down on civil society organizations when they wish to delude citizens about what’s really going on in society.  These authorities find it particularly convenient to suppress civil society when seeking to ensure silence about the ways in which the rule of law is being violated and rights and freedoms abused.

In Russia, for instance, the President Vladimir Putin’s government has, for years, pressured civil society organizations, including rights groups, by repressing their work and imposing numerous restrictions on their organizational and financial resources. Russian organizations constantly face threats of closure, the cancelation of official licenses allowing them to work, and summary trials if they refuse to submit to the will of the executive authorities.  The only way for Russian civil society groups to avoid such reprisals is to cease working as independent organizations and to turn into entities which, while appearing to be of a non-governmental nature on paper, are in reality controlled by the government.

The same tactics are employed by the executive authorities to target civil society in other major countries as well.  In China, the government does not even attempt to conceal its hostility towards local and international civic organizations.  Hungary’s successive governments – rightist and leftist alike – have similarly continued to obstruct the work of civil society, despite the fact that the country has witnessed free, pluralistic elections since the 1990s and was even admitted to European Union just a few years ago.  Saudi Arabia outright refuses to issue official licenses to rights groups and other non-governmental organizations except for in rare cases, and then only after the organization’s complete subordination to the executive authorities has been demonstrated.  In Zimbabwe, President Robert Mugabe, who has been in power for decades, similarly represses Zimbabwean civil society, claiming that all civic organizations serve the interests of foreign imperialist powers, global capitalism, and western racism.

These same practices are currently being replicated by the executive authorities in Egypt, where working professionally or volunteering with a civil society organization in the field of human rights has become equivalent to participating in predetermined “criminal acts.”  In Egypt, it is all but impossible to obtain an official permit for a newly established non-governmental organization, much as its founders might wish to ensure that the organization operates in a transparent, fair, and open manner by allowing it to be overseen by the appropriate executive and judicial bodies based on the rule of law.  Today, reaching an agreement with the government to allow civil society to carry out its activities in a legally and socially safe environment, while also ensuring that civil society organizations operate with transparency and integrity according to the law, appears even more unrealistic than it did under Mubarak in 2010.

There is no denying that the executive and judicial authorities have the right to conduct open, legal oversight of civil society, its sources of funding, and the nature of its activities.  The Egyptian state has the right to know what foreign sources are providing funding to civil society organizations, to verify that such funding meets conditions for transparency and honesty, and to ensure that sources of funding do not pose a threat to Egypt’s sovereignty and national security.  There is also a need for effective accountability for those who violate the law in the realm of civil society, as in all other areas.

However, when applying these principles of governmental oversight in reality, we must recognize that civil society plays a fundamental role in representing the interests of citizens and of the broader society.  Indeed, civil society should be enabled to protect these interests through cooperation with state institutions, rather than encountering dynamics of deception, intimidation, secrecy, or constant conflict when dealing with the authorities.  Governmental oversight must be applied without resorting to extraordinary measures that result in repression or undue restrictions.  Such oversight must occur in an environment free of suspicion on the part of the authorities towards civil society, and without employing legal formulations that prevent civic organizations from obtaining official licenses to carry out their work in an open, transparent manner.  This oversight must not force civil society to submit to the will of the authorities as a precondition to exist, to continue its work, or to face the very repression that they seek to protect Egyptians from.  The government must oversee civil society without continuously threatening employees or volunteers with prosecution and imprisonment merely for their defense of rights and freedoms.

Now is a time for solidarity and cooperation between citizens, the broader society, and the state – a time for us to work together to confront the terrorism which threatens us all, as well as to combat negligence and corruption.  Now is the time for us to claim our right to a nation of justice and progress.  We must restore the confidence of the many sectors of the population that have become discouraged to the point of withdrawing from the public sphere.  We must draw upon the potential and effectiveness of these Egyptians, rather than leaving them to stand by and watch in desperation as autocratic attacks continue against their fellow citizens and society. We must stop listening to the fears incited by those in power and to their rejection of democracy, which are leading you to undermine the solidarity and cooperation that Egypt needs so badly.  We must stop pressuring civil society, which is at the forefront of our struggle against terrorism, violence, abuses, and injustice.