Egypt’s NGOs Lack Funding to Monitor Elections

It is 10 pm, and Saeed Abdelhafez, head of the Dialogue Forum for Development and Human Rights, is on a seven-hour train ride to the Upper Egypt governorate of Sohag, where he is training volunteers to monitor elections. 

The Forum is an NGO, active in the field of political and social rights education, It is currently a part of the Egyptian Coalition for Human Right, which unites the efforts of eight NGOs in Cairo, Assiut, and Mounifeya to monitor the upcoming elections. 

The first phase of the Egyptian parliamentary elections starts on the October 17 for Egyptians abroad, and on October 18 in fourteen governorates. 

“This year, foreign funding stopped, and so did the monitoring activities of most organizations,” Abdelhafez told EgyptSource

“We have acquired permits for a thousand observers to monitor the elections, and we are depending on nothing but personal savings, donations, and volunteers,” he said. 

In 1995, Abdelhafez was working for the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, one of four non-governmental organizations that took the first initiative to monitor parliamentary elections. “It was more about establishing the right of civil society to monitor the electoral process; it was a learning experience,” he explained. 

The four organizations received $30,000 from the National Democratic Institute (NDI) to fund their operations. “The funding was not legal per se,” said Abdelhafez, explaining the government allowed civil society organizations to receive funds and work freely without giving them legal permission. That way, authorities could shut them down at will, and keep them under their control. 

Nevertheless, succeeding in creating a civil society coalition to oversee elections was a major step paving the way to repeat the process on a wider scale. 

2005: The Birth of Mass Monitoring 

In 2005, movements like  Kefaya (Enough) took the streets calling for former president Hosni Mubarak’s ouster. International community pressured the regime for political reform. Civil society grew, and more than fifty organizations organized coalitions for election monitoring. 

In September, Egypt also witnessed its very first multi-candidate presidential election, instead of a one-candidate referendum. According to a State Department report, US President George W. Bush called for international monitoring of the elections, which the Egyptian government refused. They considered it an “infringement on national sovereignty.” 

“There were no major reforms in the political situation, but there was enough action and buzz to grasp the international community’s interest,” said Ahmed Samih, Director of the Andalus Institute for Tolerance and Anti-Violence Studies, an NGO monitoring elections since 2005.   

In November 2005, prior to parliamentary elections, Egyptian NGOs won a long legal battle when the Higher Administrative Court issued a landmark ruling in favor of granting civil society the right to monitor elections outside and inside polling stations, a practice that was not technically legally before. A year earlier, because of the Egyptian government’s failure to ensure that the democracy promotion funds from the United States were used accordingly, a congressional amendment granted USAID the right to “fund NGOs and other segments of civil society that were not officially recognized by the Government of Egypt,” according to an audit report of Egyptian aid. A response to a FOIA request reveals the names and amounts given directly to Egyptian organizations, and to American organizations that supports Egypt’s civil society. 

Given the alignment of local and international circumstances, foreign assistance for local NGOs came in several forms. NDI opened an office in Egypt, and conducted trainings to strengthen nonpartisan oversight on elections. Funded by USAID, the International Republican Institute (IRI) launched its program in Egypt, funding trainings and exchange visits. The US-Middle East Partnership initiative cooperated with the Committee for Election Monitoring, a coalition of Egyptian NGOS under the leadership of the Ibn Khaldun Center, to train 5,000 election observers across Egypt. 

Not surprisingly, reports issued by these coalitions were mostly negative, documenting widespread violations in the parliamentary electoral process and rigged results. The government, however, understood the significance of election monitoring. “Mubarak’s regime was aware of the importance of this process to gain credibility,” said Magdy Abdelhameed, chairman of the Egyptian Association for Community Participation Enhancement, which also started monitoring elections in 2005. According to Abdehlameed, Egyptian security apparatuses founded their own pro-government NGOs that issued false reports, praising the democratic transition and the election’s transparency. “The government was keen on conveying the image that there was real competition, and multiple players with conflicting views,” Abdelhameed said. 

In the 2010 elections, USAID and the European Union funded dozens of Egyptian NGOs with hundreds of thousands of dollars and euros to monitor the parliamentary elections. The monitors were now experienced and had acquired an advanced set of skills utilizing crowdsourced geotagging, social media communication channels, and audiovisual documentations. 

Today, this funding has dried up. 

2011: The Downhill of Foreign Funding 

In December 2011, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which assumed power following the January 25 Revolution, raided the local offices of Freedom House, Konard Adenauer Stiftung, NDI, IRI, and other US and EU-funded international and Egyptian organizations. Facing charges of working illegally in Egypt, they were forced to shut down operations. 

“These events were a turning point for civil society empowerment supported by foreign NGOs,” Mohamed Elagati, Executive Director for the Arab Forum for Alternatives, wrote in a research paper in 2013.  

Elagati told EgyptSource things have worsened since then. “Mubarak’s politicians were more sophisticated than this current regime’s politicians,” he said. “They were aware of the importance of keeping an illusion that there is a real political process, an illusion that the current authority doesn’t even bother to project.” 

Elagati cites “intimidating changes” on foreign funding laws, as an example of a worsening situation. In 2014, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi amended the penal law to punish recipients of local or foreign funding to commit “acts against the state’s interests” with life imprisonment, and a fine no less than 500,000 Egyptian pounds. 

Acquiring funds through legal channels is more challenging, according to Abdelhameed of the Egyptian Association for Community Participation Enhancement. All foreign funds must be approved by the Ministry of Social Solidarity, he says, “It continues to reject our requests,” adding that failure in processing funds and the decreasing amounts assigned by donors to Egypt last year forced him to drastically downsize his staff. 

“We used to run up to six programs and activities simultaneously at any given fiscal year, now we are down to one,” he explained. “Most donors now direct their funds to Tunisia, Morocco, and more promising countries in the region,” he added. 

Abdelhameed’s organization is still planning to monitor the upcoming election, but will depend on volunteers. Before 2011, he used to take part in coalitions that would lead up to 2,000 trained and paid observers, supervised by an operations room of at least twenty-five lawyers, activists and researchers. Today, he can only afford 469 volunteering observer, who will mostly cover their own expenses. 

“We don’t have the money to hire researchers, but I will be writing the reports myself,” he said. 

These are not the only reason funds have dried up. 

“There are no real elections in Egypt; nobody cares about the outcome anymore,” said Sameeh of Al Andalus Institute.

“There is a general understanding that the election will not witness substantial rivalry, and its outcome is unimportant,” he said—an understanding that has already showed up in reports by international organizations still operating in Egypt. 

Al Andalus Institute didn’t acquire any permits to monitor the elections, but will still deploy 200 volunteer observers. Sameeh argues it is the right of any Egyptian citizen to stand in front of a polling station and observe what’s happening, or enter the station to make sure there is no foul play. 

“In the past we had the resources to track a pin drop in any electoral booth across the country,” Sameeh said. “This election we won’t be able to notice anything quieter than an explosion.” 

Elagati believes that, in the absence of a major political change, the current bleak atmosphere is here to stay. Until then, he says, “Civil society should do its role in confronting the government and fighting for its rights.” 

Ahmed Ateyya is an award-winning Cairo-based journalist. He is the co-founder of Wojood Media, a documentary film production company.  

Image: Photo: A monitor (L) and an electoral worker wait for voters at a polling station during presidential runoff elections in Cairo June 16, 2012. (Reuters/Amr Abdallah)