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Democracy in Egypt needs more civic space, not less

By Agnes Callamard

Civil society in Egypt is under attack.

Human rights organisations have sadly become accustomed in recent years to state led initiatives to reign in the work of Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs). We have been forced to look on as governments introduce legislation that is designed to cut away at NGO purse strings, and in particular at threads of foreign funding.

Russia, Ethiopia and Algeria are among those who have introduced such legislation. They are not alone. Foreign funding concerns threaten NGOs working in Cambodia, Venezuela, Israel and Belarus. The reasons articulated for these measures are frequently dressed up in nationalist sentiment; foreign funding is characterised as a manevolent outside influece seeking to impose a global western liberal ideology. This narrative has fueled growing hostility towards civil society. Worryingly, this narrative is finding expression in new and unexpected places, including among those that champion democracy; nowhere is this more evident than Egypt.

In March, the then President Mohammed Morsi launched an attack on civil society; a law was passed prohibiting NGOs from engaging in or endorsing political work. A powerful (political) committee drawn from across government would determine what might be deemed to be political. All foreign funding for NGOs would have to be approved by this committee. It doesn't take much imagination to see the potential for censorship in this arrangement.

In July, the military ousted the democratically elected President, claiming to be the custodions of the democratic revolution. Many Egyptian intellectuals and champions of the democratic transition in Egypt supported this move. This includes Mr. Al Aswani, who has also become a vocal critic of foreign funding for NGOs. The issue has been recycled across the political divide in Egypt. He is among those that believe foreign funding undermines the legitimacy of domestic democratic soveriegnty; for him, foreign cash advances a foreign agenda that has no place in a new Egypt.

I don't believe this to be the case.

ARTICLE 19 has for many years, been the recipient of funding from the British and US government. This has not stopped us (and many other recipients of Western funds) from virulently attacking their extensive surveillance programmes as a violation of freedom of expression, the man hunt against Edward Snowden and the political and judicial attacks against Wikeleaks.

As the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of association notes “It is paradoxical that some of the States stigmatizing foreign-funded associations in their own countries are receiving foreign funding themselves (in the form of loans, financing or development assistance), often in substantially greater amounts than that flowing to CSOs in their country.”

This certainly applies to Egypt! Between 1946 and 2011, the United States provided Egypt with a total of $71.7 billion in bilateral foreign aid. According to the most recent data (FY2011) from USAID's US Overseas Loans and Grants database, Egypt was the fifth largest recipient of US foreign economic and military assistance.

Mr Al-Aswani also believes Egyptian business should take the lead in funding civil society. Whilst no one will dispute that business might have a role to play in contributing towards a successful democracy, I suggest extreme caution. If we apply the logic that foreign funding fosters foreign interests, should we not be concerned that magnates of industry would seek to further their own commercial interests through such work? It also seems apparent that where commercial interests are at stake, corporate risk would inform funding choices; marginal, controversial and divisive issues would be brushed aside in favour of populist causes for the sake of public relations and profit margins. Egyptian business priorities should surely be to create jobs and develop industries that can compete in difficult international markets.

Foreign funding for NGOs is absolutely vital. It pays for organisations to tackle issues that governments have either neglected or do not have the capacity to deal with, including social and economic development, the environment and education. It creates thousands of jobs, including at community level. It supports national governments in identifying problems and finding solutions. The combination of these many voices is a vital foundation for a democratic society. Without access to funds from abroad, many organisations will not be able to continue the work that they do, and where they can, will be severely limited.

For all these reasons, international human rights law protects the right of civil society to access foreign funding, as part of the realisation of article 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which affirms that “everyone shall have the right to freedom of association with others, including the right to form and join trade unions for the protection of his interests.” For instance:

  • On 21 March 2013, the Human Rights Council adopted resolution 22/6, in which it called upon States to ensure that reporting requirements “do not inhibit functional autonomy [of associations]” and “do not discriminatorily impose restrictions on potential sources of funding.”
  • In communication No. 1274/2004, the Human Rights Committee observed that “the right to freedom of association relates not only to the right to form an association, but also guarantees the right of such an association freely to carry out its statutory activities. The protection afforded by article 22 extends to all activities of an association […].”
  • Article 13 of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders5 constitutes states that “everyone has the right, individually and in association with others, to solicit, receive and utilize resources for the express purpose of promoting and protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms through peaceful means, in accordance with article 3 of the present Declaration”
  • In his 2013 annual report to the General Assembly, the UN Special Rapporteur notes that “Protection of State sovereignty is not just an illegitimate excuse, but a fallacious pretext... Associations, whether domestic- or foreign-funded, should therefore be free to promote their views – even minority and dissenting views, challenge governments about their human rights record or campaign for democratic reforms, without being accused of treason and other defamatory terms. Dissenting views should be seen by the authorities as an opportunity for dialogue and mutual understanding.”

Foreign funding helps develop an active civil society. The project for sovereign democracy should and must be to create more civic space, not less. Cutting foreign funding shrinks that space and threatens democracy.

Agnes Callamard is the executive director of ARTICLE 19.

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