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
"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
"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
"We will see more poverty, more human rights violations, more
torture, more unemployment, and more restrictions of public freedoms
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. …