What happens when a nongovernmental organization becomes, in effect, an agency under the governmental thumb?
In Egypt, very few organizations other than militant Islamist groups have risked confrontation with the state in recent years.
Yet on May 25, in defiance of a ban on demonstrations, some 50 protesters marched outside the People's Assembly as it began debate on a law - which would pass in parliament and be signed by President Hosni Mubarak the next day - that gives the government broad new powers to regulate the activities of the country's 14,000 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Several human rights organizations claim that the law is ill- founded and unconstitutional. In their view, the bill will incapacitate them. "We will not abide by its provisions in an act of civil defiance," said Gasser Abdel Razek, director of the Center for Human Rights Legal Aid, in anticipation of passage of the law at a press conference May 22 organized by 15 rights groups. The groups' criticism of the bill was supported in an open meeting two days later organized by representatives from 105 "bread and butter" NGOs active in environment, literacy, charity, and development work all over the country. The new law gives the government considerable power to intervene in the administrative and financial activities of voluntary associations. It can veto candidates for boards of directors of NGOs and appoint government representatives in their place. It may dissolve groups that it deems do not accomplish their stated purpose. It requires all NGOs that receive foreign funding - essential to many organizations - to obtain prior approval from the government. "This law is not about funding, it's about what those organizations are monitoring, what they are reporting on," says Aida Seif al-Dawla, a psychiatrist, member of the Al-Nadim Center for the Rehabilitation of the Victims of Violence here, and one of several women who began a hunger strike to protest the bill. The government's harsh reaction indicates, she says, "a frightening agenda. "We will see more poverty, more human rights violations, more torture, more unemployment, and more restrictions of public freedoms in Egypt." That the government should be nervous about the activism of voluntary associations is no surprise. Though the bulk of the movement has been dedicated not to rooting out human rights violations, but to dispensing those social services the government has been seen by some as failing to provide, many NGOs are being drawn into political advocacy in the current climate. NGOs drive social, political change The NGO movement, restricted though it may be, has become the only viable channel to bring about social and political change in the country. Its growing activism has become a nuisance to the government, and occasionally an embarrassment. Many groups have stepped into the political vacuum created in Egypt by the absence of effective political parties, independent trade unions, and a free press. …