Civil Society from Alexandria to Aswan: Survival Strategies

One year ago, President Abdel-Fattah El Sisi ratified an NGO law that codified repression of civil society in Egypt. While the state’s antipathy toward civil society was nothing new, the passage of the NGO Law allowed Sisi to accomplish one of the primary objectives of his first presidential term: to bring some 46,845 civil society associations under the state’s control and surveillance. A number of NGOs had even shut down before the law went into effect on June 1, 2017. Some feared they would be unable to maintain their independence from the regime, as a long list of government officials, including members of security agencies, were essentially given veto power over NGOs’ activities. Others continue to operate but are slowly being starved of the resources they need to survive.

Despite vociferous opposition to the law and constriction of public space, little was known about its total impact. It was unclear whether the NGO Law would be enforced equally across the country. Would organizations that were less confrontational to the state or avoided politically sensitive matters be spared? Or would the law be applied to all civil society associations, regardless of political orientation? Were NGOs shutting down entirely, or were they adapting and finding ways to survive in the harsh environment? These are questions that could only be answered through extensive fieldwork.

As a sociologist based at the American University in Cairo, I developed a research project to understand the nationwide implications of this new law and its impact on society. I was fortunate to be able to hire a team of talented research assistants and, beginning in September 2016, we spent a year traveling throughout Egypt, from Alexandria in the north to Aswan in the south. Our goal was to document both the impact of the crackdown on associational life, and the extent of the crackdown including how governorates outside Cairo are coping with the draconian measures. We met with organizations and individuals who, almost without exception, were eager to tell us their story. In what follows, I highlight a few of our findings, which will be published in a series of five articles.

The Crackdown on NGOs is an Attack on Egyptian Society, with Both Social and Political Ramifications

Though the government of Egypt often famously portrays NGOs as foreign agents with a foreign agenda to justify its repressive measures, the groups we interviewed are all local NGOs and grew out of the local community. More importantly, these NGOs represent Egyptian society in all its diversity, including both urban and rural communities, Muslims and Christians, women and men, and Egyptians from both Upper and Lower Egypt, as well as the Nubian minority.

Precisely because these diverse associations are an integral part of Egyptian society, the crackdown impacts the larger society—not just the NGOs. For one, state repression has curtailed the ability of civil society to provide services to marginalized and struggling communities, thus making them even more vulnerable. Article 27 of the Egyptian Constitution aims at “achieving prosperity” and “reducing unemployment and eliminating poverty,” which is widespread, with an estimated 27.8 percent of Egyptians living under the poverty line. When workers exercised their constitutionally guaranteed right to peaceful strikes (Article 15) and advocated for improved living and working conditions, they were subjected to military trials or were taken into detention until they signed resignation papers.

We also found civil society organizations working to support the constitutional rights of Coptic Christians and thereby act to uphold Article 53 of the constitution, which guarantees equal citizenship rights. By convening interfaith dialogues and providing a range of services to people irrespective of their religion, these NGOs also contribute to the peaceful coexistence of Coptic Christians and Muslims, providing stability and acting as a bulwark against extremism. And yet many of the activities of these organizations have been hindered by the NGO Law. One association in Minya that we interviewed said that it avoided “political” issues and instead worked to promote interfaith dialogue by convening weekly meetings between Christian priests and Muslim sheikhs. However, the local Ministry of Social Solidarity office sent official letters advising people not to participate in these meetings because the organization was “illegal.”

State Repression of Civil Society Extends to All Independent Organizations, Even Those Supporting the State’s Laws and Policies

Second, large swaths of Egypt are now free of organizations that have the ability to document human rights abuses. After 2011, several of the Cairo-based human rights organizations expanded and were able to create branch offices in the governorates. The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights had established a branch office in Luxor, the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights had an office in Alexandria, and the Hisham Mubarak Law Center had maintained an office in Aswan for almost 20 years. By 2017, all of these branch offices had been shut down. Whether due to lack of funding or fear of repression, the closure of branch offices may lead to the further isolation of peripheral areas. Instead of having relatively easy access to organizations in their own governorate or nearby, victims of human rights abuses now need to travel to Cairo to seek help. For residents of Upper Egypt or South Sinai, this can entail an arduous journey of 12 hours or more each way.

Yet we discovered that the state’s repression impacts all organizations—even those that do not work in the field of human rights or democracy promotion or what may be considered politically sensitive issues. The NGO Law requires that organizations work “within the scope of the state’s plans.” However, groups that do so, or even those advocating for existing laws to be upheld, were prevented from carrying out their projects and in some cases shut down. Many of the women’s organizations we interviewed are working to support the National Council on Women’s mandate to “enhance, develop, and protect rights and freedoms of women” and are legally registered. For example, many work to uphold Law No. 126, which prohibits child marriage, but they are often treated as adversaries rather than partners. Additionally, members of the Nubian minority have been severely persecuted merely for advocating for the implementation of Article 236 in the constitution, which gives them the “right to return” to some of the land from which they were forcibly displaced because of dam construction. Nubians have formed a variety of civil society associations, but state officials have attempted to prevent them from working. In sum, civil society associations acting to support the government’s own laws faced government obstruction.

The attempt to bring civil society under the full control of the state represents a shift toward a regime with totalitarian tendencies, in the sense that the state seeks to totally control non-state actors. The NGO Law allows a much greater degree of control and surveillance of civil society than ever before. And yet because the state has codified its repressive measures in the form of a law, it can claim to be merely applying the law. The regime no longer needs to send armed security forces to raid an office and seize equipment and cash, as was the case in 2011. It can simply demand the enforcement of the NGO Law. The NGO Law has allowed the state to transform its violent repression of civil society to a form of repression that appears nonviolent and legal. In reality, it is suffocating the peaceful civil society associations that represent and support millions of Egyptians all across the country.