CAIRO: The effectiveness of Egypt’s human rights organizations, as activists note, could vary from one field to another, from one case to another. Recognizing the targets set in each case should also be factored in the answer, along with government interventions and funding restrictions as influencing factors.
“NGOs can get into issues that have very concrete targets,” said Hossam Bahgat, executive director of Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.
Securing the release of a detainee held under administrative detention is one such target, Bahgat explained. “Other issues are in need of campaigning with the aim of changing a law or even engaging in a dialogue with the government.
“But sometimes we engage in activism or interventions where we know that the chances of success are not high, but it’s important to fight and establish our principle and introduce our discourse,” he added.
One such battle is the one against sectarian violence, where the Ministry of Interior could be the adversary, according to Bahgat.
Yet there are concerns that some of the basic human rights are left out — a fifth of Egypt’s population lives in poverty.
“I think human rights organizations in Egypt failed to build a strong social constituency of [supporters] in Egypt and failed to cultivate an innovative approach to mobilize Egypt’s ordinary citizens and to form a large civil movement supporting human rights,” explained Moataz El Fegiery, executive director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies.
Not all NGOs are alike, but they collectively act as a watchdog monitoring the government, explained Schade-Poulsen, executive director of Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network.
These organizations, for instance, take care of the political, legal matters that are not always easy to grasp by ordinary citizens, he said.
Their work has to be looked into broadly, he added.
“It is difficult to generalize on NGOs in Egypt; there are the good, the bad and many others. However, there are restrictions on NGO work in Egypt and on political life in general which makes political parties [and] trade unions freer than NGOs," Schade-Poulsen said.
Funding and Restrictive Laws
It is generally illegal for NGOs here to accept funds from foreign governments. The Egyptian government has the upper hand in the decision to accept the source of the funding.
“The law says if we are seeking a grant, we have to ask for approval by the ministry [of Social Solidarity] and they have 60 days to decide. And if they don’t decide in 60 days, we can receive the grant,” Bahgat said.
But in reality, the process is not so simple.
Sometimes receiving government approval takes up to 14 months. If the NGOs procure the money before the official approval, they are subject to questioning and even prison sentences, he explained.
But NGOs cannot operate without foreign funds due to the lack of local donors.
In its defense the government says that foreign donors impose their own agenda on the recipient NGOs and this is why it is applying those restrictions.
"To be able to draw your own conclusions, dig deeper into the outcome,” El-Fegiery said.
Organizations campaigning against torture aren’t making it up, he said, noting that demand by NGOs to work on issues pertaining to torture and elections are local. “So most of the work we do is in fact based on internal demand,” he explained.
NGOs all over the world accept funding from international donors, even in Europe, rights activists said. It’s an inevitable byproduct of globalization, they added, explaining that delaying NGO work by stalling funding approvals undermines the efficiency of their work.
But despite the funding limitations and the restrictions of the 84/2002 law regulating NGO work, rights activists say they were able to bring in change that the people were looking for. "With regards to policies, I think human rights organizations have had an impact … on the overall discourse," explained Bahgat.
According to human rights activists, it is no coincidence that in all labor and youth movements, the language used is the one propagated by NGOs “demanding rights”.
“We have managed to penetrate and influence the discourse, not only that of the society but also of the government,” Bahgat added.
There has also been an incremental victory in legal reforms, including securing release orders for political detainees and campaigning against the state of emergency — the government announced this year while renewing the decades-old stated of emergency that the law would be limited to charges relating to narcotics and terrorism.
The government’s relative openness to address human rights can be credited to NGO efforts to promote a rights-based public discourse in Egypt.
El Fegiary explains that this openness is a result of the obligations imposed by the United Nations’ Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review, the UN body examines the record of member states through government and independent NGO reports. Egypt’s record was reviewed earlier this year..
Other societal changes in this regard can be detected.
"I recall that in around 2003 we discussed why after 15 years of systematic reporting on torture, more people were still unaware of the existence of torture," Bahgat said.
But now, he continued, the average citizen is aware of cases of detention and torture, in addition to terms like getting beaten and electrified. "So I think in terms of public awareness and influence on the discourse and struggling to keep the limited space that is available for activism, rights NGOs should be thanked,” he said.
Other activists note that in spite of intimidation and restrictive government policies, they reached the type of mobilization needed to hold demonstrations — although with limited numbers of participants — against torture in front of the Ministry of Interior.
As for lifting restrictions, activists are not optimistic.
"We do not think that there will be a reform of the law regulating the activities of civil society organizations," said Bahgat.
The government is reportedly discussing a new bill that would impose even more restrictions.
Schade-Poulsen thinks that there should be a serious and honest dialogue between the NGOs and the Ministry of Social Solidarity — the government body overlooking their work — and Parliament to formulate a law that abides by international standards.
However, NGOs said that the restrictive law wasn’t a fluke; it’s part of a series of laws put in place to control trade and labor unions, NGOs and political parties.
“We do not think that one of them will be fixed and the rest are the same. There has to be a general departure from this moment where we find ourselves living in an authoritarian state to a new place where we have democratic, accountable and systematic governments and where civil society is an integral part of the democratic system,” concludes Bahgat.