Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Egyptian Government Muzzling Civil Society

On Dec. 25, the Egyptian Administrative Court rejected the application of the Egyptian Association Against Torture. The group's founders, which includes noted human rights advocates such as Susan Fayed and Aida Seif el Dawa and others, plan to appeal the rejection.

The rejection occurred despite the recommendations of the state consultant's report, which not only recommended approval of the NGO but was a strong statement of support for NGOs and on behalf of human rights. However, the rejection is not surprising; there has been a clear pattern of stifling the formation and support of NGOs as part of the government's larger effort to muzzle civil society. The rejection of legitimate NGO applications, as well as the harassment of existing NGOs is of the same as the government's harassment and arrest of political opponents, regulation of political parties, control of the media and professional organizations and even attacks on marginal ethnic, social and religious groups.

This is anomaly. Egypt has a long and strong history of civil society. On one side, this is shown in its vibrant intellectual life through the arts and literature and universities . It's also been shown through in its politics, which has always found room for socialists, nationalists, liberals, secularists, Islamists, Copts and other many other groups. The vibrant civil society has been essential to allowing all these groups c0-exist. The result hasn't always been pretty, but it's been stable in a region of unstability. Supporters of the Mubarak regime appear to believe that stability comes from it's authoritarian rule and they oppose any efforts to change that. They are wrong, completely wrong. The Mubarak government, of course, isn't the first to try to control civil society, but with passage of the recent NGO law, and with the government's aggressive use of its authority under that law and the State of Emergency provisions, we are going into new territory.

So, the rejection of a small NGO's application is significant. In many ways, this is where the real battle for reform will take place, because the existence and operation of these groups will always provide some buffer against an authoritarian government, and an important outlet for political and social activity. People far more attuned to Egyptian politics than I -- Saad Ibrahim for one -- point out that in crushing civil society, the Egyptian government only ensures that the only effective outlet for political opposition is the Islamist groups. In recent weeks there has been a lot of attention to whether the U.S. government should pressure Egypt on political reform. It should, of course, but in doing so, the U.S. should not neglect the important role and important needs in creating space for Egyptian civil society.

Click here for an Amnesty International report on Egyptian civil society.

Click here for an AI report on the arrest of five members of Egyptian NGOs last year.

Click here for a 1999 statement on the Egyptian NGO law.


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