Thursday, March 23, 2006

Look to the NGOs

Does the future of Egyptian reform lie with the opposition political parties? Recent events suggest the answer is no.

Last year’s parliamentary elections left only the Muslim Brothers as a significant organized political force, even though its organization remains officially banned. Every other political party is lacking a significant presence in the parliament. Many others are facing leadership problems. Some of these come from undemocratic leadership within the party; in other case, sectarian divisions within the party are worsening the situation.

This is unfortunate, but it has to be added that one thing the Mubarak government has learned to do skillfully is to encourage such divisions in the opposition, through harassment, enticements and other tactics. The prime example is its treatment of Ayman Nour, the leader of al-Ghad (Tomorrow), who went from being runner-up in the presidential race to a five-year jail sentence on forgery charges, charges that appear to be political motivated by the government.

But if we look away from the parties, there is reason for optimism. Look to the NGOs. The judges’ demonstration last week is a timely example of how people outside the political system are not being cowered. As the opposition political parties struggle for survival, the Egyptian tradition of an independent civil society is showing its strength. They too, of course, face harassment, much as do the political parties. It wasn't long ago that one of the important NGO institutions, the el Nadim Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Torture and Domestic Violence, was being threatened with being shut down by the government. The hated NGO law is still in force, giving the government incomprehensible authority over their funding, governance and activities.

The strength of the NGOs vs. opposition political parties raises the issue of whether international and U.S. priorities should be for democracy or for human rights. In fact, the need to support the NGOs gives priority to an emphasis on human rights. That can be justified on the basis of where there is a foundation of human rights and civil society, democracy will follow, but the reverse is not necessarily true.

My belief is that the focus of reformers efforts should be to create space and support for the NGOs to do their work. This doesn't mean turning our back on the opposition political parties; but right now civil society work is likely to produce more results.

Here's what a recent article in the Arab Reform Bulletin says about the issue.

Here's what Amnesty International said about civil society in Egypt in 2000.


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