Middle East Research and Information Project: Critical Coverage of the Middle East Since 1971

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have been touted as a cure for almost every malady afflicting developing societies. Western governments, international organizations and regional activists expect NGOs to help fill the gap left by underfunded, ineffective state bureaucracies. NGOs are viewed as antidotes to authoritarian and corrupt rule and considered more efficient providers of social services than beleaguered governments. In the Middle East, NGOs are also thought to be potential catalysts for significant social and political change in the region, hastening its transition to democracy.

Nowhere in the Middle East have expectations of NGOs been as high as in Egypt. And nowhere else do they command such vast resources and prestige. The  past 15 years have seen a dramatic rise of a new type of NGO. Unlike traditional NGOs that provide social services and charity, and which are usually based on voluntary participation, the new “professional NGOs” strive for social and political change. While some “professional NGOs” do provide social services, they often integrate issues of empowerment into their work and methodologies. Another group of professional NGOs prioritizes issues such as democratization, women’s issues and human rights. These “advocacy NGOs” are trying to accomplish — with the help of generous foreign funding — what weak political parties, coopted unions and state-controlled syndicates could not. But how does the record of Egyptian advocacy NGOs compare with the exalted expectations placed upon them? How successful have they been in advancing the cause of social and political change in the Arab world’s largest nation?

The experience of the last ten years has shown that advocacy NGOs’ ability to effect meaningful political and social change is rather limited. Tackling their own political struggles as well as complying with donors’ agendas has strained these NGOs’ ability to fulfill their mission. In addition, their outspokenness and increasing numbers have provoked a backlash from the Mubarak administration, further compromising their ability to challenge the state’s prerogatives.

A Narrow Playing Field

There is scarcely any space in Egypt’s political landscape for those seeking political and social change. Opposition political parties are hopelessly weak and labor unions have been thoroughly compromised by their dependence on the state. One of the few avenues open to opponents of the government in the late 1980s and early 1990s were professional syndicates (unions), where relatively fair elections were allowed to take place. But when the Islamists won elections in a number of crucial syndicates, they, too, became victims of restrictive government policy. Egypt’s infamous Law 100, passed in 1992, effectively imposed a caretaker system on syndicates, placing their governing boards under the direct control of the authorities. [1]

At about the same time, advocacy NGOs were emerging as an important channel for political activism. Secularists and leftists established a wide range of human rights, women’s and democracy organizations. Drawing on the enthusiasm and zeal oftheir activist members, these groups were unafraid to take on the most controversial issues, including police brutality, torture, election fraud and violence against women. In the years that followed, they became prominent players in the Egyptian political and social landscape. Staffed by well-educated and highly trained activists, they have access to embassies and international organizations and are invited to receptions and conferences. Although they find an attentive foreign and sometimes local press, this has not yet translated into desired change.

To ensure that this remains the case, the Mubarak administration established new rules to regulate the relationship between NGOs and the state. Among the more controversial provisions of Law 156 of 1999 were the continued restrictions on the right to form associations and the continued requirement that all NGOs must gain Ministry of Social Affairs approval before accepting foreign donations. The law also prohibits NGOs from exercising what is loosely defined as “political and unionist activity.” [2]

The new NGO law, dubbed by then-Minister of Social Affairs Mervat al-Tallawi as “the most democratic piece of legislation ever,” was immediately condemned by activists. Even though the administration issued guidelines six months later indicating that it would hold to a narrow definition of “political and unionist activity,” most NGOs were unappeased. One group criticized the new guidelines, arguing that refinements of the law “cannot be progressive or representative…when the NGO law itself is oppressive.” Some activists pointed out that the new guidelines could be rescinded at any time by the minister, but any revisions to the law itself would require parliamentary approval.

Ironically, NGOs’ vulnerability to such legislation is, in part, the result of the weakness of political parties, syndicates and unions. Throughout the parliamentary debate on the new NGO law, opposition parties clearly asserted their opposition to the restrictive provisions of the law. But in a parliament where roughly 90 percent of MPs are members of the ruling National Democratic Party, their united voices amounted to nothing more than a whisper.

Costs of Foreign Intervention

Many Egyptian advocacy NGOs rely heavily on foreign funding, but in recent years this windfall from abroad has been as much curse as blessing. Receiving external sources of funding exposes NGOs to accusations of facilitating foreign interference in Egyptian affairs, a charge the government has not hesitated to exploit in order to tarnish the image of activist NGOs. Articles in the state-controlled press expose human rights “boutiques,” a name coined to discredit the fast-growing human rights NGO sector and its foreign backers. Reflecting the official line, former minister al-Tallawi last summer accused certain NGOs of using human rights “as a pretext to interfere in the domestic affairs of some countries.” Foreign funding renders NGOs even more vulnerable to governmental scapegoating than political parties, unions or professional syndicates ever were.

Sometimes it is the foreign approach, rather than foreign money, that is problematic. Thanks to foreign funding, a staff person from the Egyptian Ministry of Agriculture attended a one-week gender-training workshop in Europe, only to return shocked. He had been forced to belly dance in front of his European trainers as part of a reverse role-playing exercise. One wonders how effective he will be in disseminating his newfound gender awareness. Since countless gender programs, many supported and implemented by NGOs, do not take the Egyptian cultural context into proper consideration, gender issues are more often than not misunderstood, dismissed as irrelevant, or worse, perceived as a dangerous foreign intervention designed to destroy Egypt’s moral fabric.

Another constraint on foreign-funded NGOs is the governmental approval process that precedes project implementation. NGOs are in the uncomfortable position of having to seek approval from the very political power centers that stand to lose most if their projects are successfully implemented. The controversial nature of Egyptian advocacy NGOs’ work, coupled with the cultural and political sensitivities of the government, sets sharp limits on donors’ efforts in Egypt, especially for projects designed to facilitate social and political change. Some donors have learned this the hard way. A USAID official discussing the parameters of a new human rights project designed to work with Egyptian NGOs used the arrogant terminology of a superpower: “If the Egyptian government doesn’t like the Americans doing human rights work, they will just have to get used to it.” Political realities eventually challenged this officer’s vision. Three years later, the last USAID-funded human rights project was phased out of Egypt. When questioned, a USAID official noted that “human rights was a political issue to be handled by the Embassy.”

To Whom Are NGOs Accountable?

If NGOs are to drive social and political change, the following questions arise: Who seeks the change? Who sets the agenda? Egyptian advocacy NGOs are generally staffed by social and political elites. They tend to be well educated, politicized, computer-literate, English speaking and familiar with “civil society” discourse. Their political activism threatens the political establishment, while their “progressive” social and political agenda often push the boundaries of traditional Egyptian society.

NGOs often alienate the very people they aim to serve. One illustration of this alienation arose during a conference near the southern Egyptian town of Minya in 1994. A group of development practitioners from Upper Egypt had gathered to debate women’s legal rights. At one point during the conference, when the assembly was discussing the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, a young woman stood up, her six-month-old baby on her hip. Speaking deferentially before the distinguished guests, the woman pointed out that the document and the ensuing discussions offered little help for women in Upper Egypt who were trying to overcome daily struggles. She had come to the conference not to look at the implications of the convention for Egypt, but for a far more down-to-earth reason: “I came here to find practical solutions,” she said. “I want to ensure, for example, that in my village a pregnant woman does not need to carry heavy jugs of water on her head.” This young woman’s priority was to relieve the daily hardships implicit in prevailing social and economic realities — in this instance, the absence of running water in houses. This example demonstrates that advocacy NGOs should explore ways of combining consciousness-raising programs focusing on civil/political rights with activities that address people’s everyday socioeconomic needs and concerns. In this way, the very real link between international conventions and the daily problems people face would become more apparent in the target community.

Ideally, NGOs should serve as the liaison between international organizations/donorsand pregnant women carrying water jugs on their heads. Yet many activists seem more adept at developing proposals that suit the priorities of international donors, who generally fund projects that reflect their own methodologies, values and organizational structures. But these proposals are not always compatible with the needs of the target communities. Years ago, I attended a conference in Amman on ways to enhance women’s knowledge of legal issues. During the conference, one of the participants, a lawyer, described the frustrations of trying to inform women in poor districts about their legal rights. “Just to show you how backward they are,” she said, “I’d like to share a story with you.” She then recounted that a group of local men had forced the cancellation of a legal rights workshop after the first day. Evidently, the women had gone home after the first session and discussed the day’s events with their husbands. Fearing that their wives were being given information that weakened their own positions of power and control, the husbands responded angrily, demanding that the rest of the program be cancelled. The activist lawyers were bringing an important, though controversial, message to these women, yet were unable to introduce it in a manner acceptable to the community they had hoped to serve.

Misguided, frequently elitist, approaches are not the only problem. To receive funds, NGOs must expend significant time and energy marketing their skills and capabilities to donors. Local, regional and international conferences and workshops attended by NGO activists produce reams of policy and programming recommendations and provide networking opportunities for both the donors and the NGOs. But these activities leave little time for the NGOs to interact with the target communities.

Once they receive international funds, NGOs must devote considerable time to the completion of periodic programmatic and financial reports demanded by the donors. Yet accountability towards the donor is not necessarily echoed at the community level. This is especially ironic given that so much of current funding going to advocacy NGOs seeks to effect democratic principles of representation and pluralism. A legal center publication reports targets of 16,000 women to be registered on the electoral lists in the Cairo and Giza governorates. Achieving such a high registration in Egypt would probably be a dream, even for a governmental program. If projects were to be designed so as to ensure accountability at the community level through proper, unbiased evaluation, and to facilitate community participation in program development and implementation realistic numbers might have been given for this project.

Problems of democracy and accountability are not limited only to those running advocacy NGOs. I have observed the board of directors of a women’s development NGO in a low-income area in a town in southern Egypt set its programming priorities according to which activities will enhance their position of power and sources of income. The important goals of empowering and integrating the community into organizational planning, program development and evaluation received only lip service.

When the target community is left on the sidelines, its potential political power is diluted. As a result, advocacy NGOs are deprived of their political bases and rendered more vulnerable to governmental manipulation. (Indeed, the aforementioned southern Egyptian NGO’s board of directors was constantly fearful that the regional governor’s wife would take over their operations.) If Egyptian authorities banned all human rights organizations tomorrow, international organizations and donors would cry foul, but inside Egypt, the reaction would be muted.

Letting “The People” Decide

Donor programs designed from a Western perspective can also reinforce traditional power structures. To counteract these trends some donors have turned to participatory models in their quest for social and political change. The participatory approach engages local government and community representatives in all stages of project development and implementation. It aims to empower local groups by imparting technical skills and participatory methodologies that will sustain program goals when the donor-funded project ends.

As noble as this approach may sound, however, it has also encountered difficulties at the local level. In practice, community participation often means accepting hierarchies that are themselves obstacles to political and social change. In one incident, a local development association wanted to help women in its community attain identification cards — documents essential for accessing the legal system, voting and borrowing money. Instead of instituting an enduring mechanism that could address such an issue in the long run, however, a member of the association’s board of directors used her governmental contacts to get the women their identification cards. In so doing, she reinforced the dependency inherent in patron-client relations and postponed systemic structural changes.

Despite international donors’ best intentions, and despite the best efforts of Egyptian advocacy NGOs, development and human rights projects have had a limited impact on political and social change in Egypt. The general lack of popular support for the advocacy NGOs’ mission has led activists to seek solace in international organizations. Yet this alliance has diverted their focus away from working with and for the “the people’s priorities” while further compromising their legitimacy by the simple fact that they work with foreign organizations.

Let us assume that advocacy NGOs will overcome these problems. The government still has all the legal means to stop them at any time. Again, let us assume the government does not utilize those means. Still, Egyptian advocacy NGOs would be hard-pressed to realize their mission because the political environment in which they operate lacks meaningful support. They are being asked to do the job on their own, without assistance from any other indigenous agents of political change. Strong political parties, independent unions and unhindered syndicates would help provide the support that NGOs desperately need to serve the communities they hope to assist. Advocacy NGOs alone cannot fill the vacuum.

Endnotes

[1] The Law requires that half of the syndicate’s general assembly vote in order to validate an election. If that quota is not met, then there is a second option: getting 33 percent of the membership to vote. Both of these percentages are virtually impossible to attain in today’s political environment. If neither is realized, a Ministry of Justice-appointed electoral committee takes charge of syndicate affairs.
[2] The crucial difference between the former Law 32 and the new Law 156 is that Law 156 has closed a loophole used by most advocacy NGOs under Law 32, whereby they registered as not-for-profit “civil companies” outside the heavy hand of Law 32.

How to cite this article:

Krista Masonis El-Gawhary "Egyptian Advocacy NGOs," Middle East Report 214 (Spring 2000).
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