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Sri Lanka’s Disastrous 2022 Ends With A Sliver Of Optimism – Analysis

Last year, Sri Lanka faced its worst economic crisis to date, accompanied by political upheaval that left its population reeling as they struggled to make ends meet. In this article, Shyamika Jayasundara-Smits briefly outlines how things played out in 2022, showing that while the crisis has had a devastating impact on the country’s stability and prosperity, 2023 signals a time for action – and change.

Protesters in front of Sri Lanka's Presidential Secretariat. Photo Credit: Jayanidu Nilupul, Wikipedia Commons

Sri Lanka entered 2022 beset by economic crisis and political upheaval. The economic crisis culminated in Sri Lanka defaulting on payment for the first time. This led to the government being completely cut off from most sources of international funding, including from official multilateral and international commercial sources.

The government’s effort to blame its debt default on the lost revenue from tourism due to the COVID-19 pandemic and increased fuel prices resulting from the war in Ukraine did not carry much weight. One analyst stated that ‘this is the most man-made and voluntary economic crisis of which I know’.

Although many Sri Lankans did not understand what default meant, the effects of the crisis were keenly felt. The foreign currency crunch that followed progressively restricted imports of food, fuel, fertiliser, medicine and other essentials. By August 2022, the annual inflation rate had reached nearly 70 per cent and inflation of food prices had reached nearly 85 per cent — the sixth highest food inflation in the world. 750,000 people have already fallen into poverty. One UNICEF report shows that the food crisis has already taken its toll on young mothers and newborn babies.

The economic crisis has also hit the previously well-off middle class, who now struggle to eat their usual three meals a day. In rural areas, heartbreaking stories have emerged of children fainting at schools because they have not had breakfast. The emergency aid, including food and fertiliser, received from the World Bank, UN World Food Program, Australia and India, was not enough to feed everyone. Food shortages were exacerbated by declining local agricultural output.

Urban Sri Lanka became plagued by lengthy queues for fuel and food, with Sri Lankans waiting under the scorching sun and in torrential downpours. The crisis triggered mass protests by thousands of people from all walks of life. The main protest slogan, GotaGoGama (Gota go home), pointed toward former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s personal responsibility for governing Sri Lanka directly into a crisis and demanded his resignation.

The mass resignation of cabinet ministers jeopardised the former president’s attempt to cling on to power. As a last resort, he formed an all-party government, but this lacked support from other politicians who were aware of the political costs of taking part. Still, the former president showed no sign of stepping down and instead made his brother, prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, resign.

Before resigning in May, former prime minister Rajapaksa wasted no time mobilising his political supporters to attack peaceful protesters outside his home and at the main protest site, Galle Face Green. The anti-government protesters retaliated by targeting the Rajapaksa supporters’ properties and businesses. Some went even further by burning down the Rajapaksa family’s ancestral home and a museum honouring their parents. In response the state rolled out a variety of repressive measures, including Sunday curfews, social media blackouts, tear gas and water cannons. Presidential orders prohibited any public gathering and protest leaders were arrested.

The peak period of protests from March to July was followed by a massive anti-government march held at Galle Face Green in Colombo on 9 July. Gotabaya Rajapaksa finally fled the country and sent his resignation from Singapore via email on 14 July. As the former president fled his residence, people flocked to occupy it. Some even had a dip in the presidential swimming pool and took selfies while relaxing in the president’s bed.

In the absence of the president, the perpetually unpopular Ranil Wickremesinghe was appointed acting president, under Article 37 (1) of the Constitution. This was announced via an extraordinary gazette notification. Sometimes nicknamed ‘the Eel’ (Aanda) for his ability to glide through any political trap, Wickremesinghe’s dream of becoming president finally came true amid Sri Lanka’s worst nightmare.

The public legitimacy of Wickremesinghe’s rule was immediately clouded. While Wickremesinghe was appointed via a parliamentary process according to Articles 40(1) (a) and 40(1) (c) of the Constitution, there have been allegations that the exiting president paid bribes to lawmakers to secure parliamentary approval for Wickremesinghe’s appointment.

Wickremesinghe has managed to bring slight relief to the people as fuel, electricity, medicine and food items have slowly begun to be replenished. Wickremesinghe’s poor reputation among conservative voters, who widely considered him to be an elitist, Western-style cosmopolitan, was dropped — at least for now — when he secured a bailout package from the IMF by flaunting his liberal sensibilities. Wickremesinghe secured a commitment from Japan to lead the debt restructuring talks with Sri Lanka’s creditors, which are essential to secure a US$2.9 billion bailout package from the IMF. Even a subtle attempt to push Wickremesinghe under the bus any time soon will likely provoke a relapse toward another crisis.

2023 comes with some concerns over the conditions on government spending that an IMF bailout will entail, as well as hope for the opportunities it will provide to promote financial stability. One can expect fewer angry protests in 2023, as the cross-class spirit of Aragalaya (Revolution) has already begun to wane since Wickremesinghe started laying the ground work for rescuing the economy and disciplining society.

As global calls for ‘debt justice’ continue to gather momentum, there is an opportunity for Sri Lankans to take the lead in this emerging movement by rekindling their past ‘Aragalaya’ spirit and channelling it towards the global political arena.

This blog was first published in East Asia Forum.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the author:

Shyamika Jayasundara-Smits is an Assistant Professor in conflict and peace studies at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS), Erasmus University Rotterdam.


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Is the legacy of the Arab Spring greater oppression? Twelve years after the Egyptian Revolution, Egypt’s civil society has been all but nationalized

The popular uprising that swept across Egypt exactly twelve years ago was supposed to herald a new era marked by greater political freedom and the end of state oppression. But optimism that things would change for the better quickly evaporated after the resurgence of authoritarian practices. In this blog article, we argue that ever since the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, the Egyptian government has taken steps to nationalize civil society, turning it into yet another administrative machinery under its direct control.


From hope to horror

This week marks the 12th anniversary of 2011 Egyptian Revolution, or the 25 January Revolution – the popular uprising that led to the fall of President Hosni Mubarak and ended his 30-year period of rule. In the aftermath of the Arab Spring that took place in the 2010s in the wider MENA region, hopes were high that civil society would be able to play a stronger role in the socio-political realm; the same was hoped for Egypt’s civil society.

And for a moment it did seem that this could be happening: the number of NGOs in Egypt increased from 42,000 in 2013 to 52,000 in 2022. But this optimism quickly evaporated with the resurgence of authoritarianism in the country and continued efforts by successive governments to control and stifle activities in the civic space. Notable measures the Egyptian government has taken are:

Such measures have led to the prohibition of all efforts of civil society actors independent of the state to mobilize collectively. Thus, since the 2011 uprising, the Egyptian government has actually successfully consolidated its authoritarian control over the operation of the civil society sector, making it hard to identify any independent NGO activity.

In the past decade, as development practitioners and scholars[1], we have been closely monitoring the status of state-civil society relations in Egypt. The revolution was supposed to change state-civil society relations for the better, but during this period, we have witnessed increasing state control of the independence of NGOs through its bureaucratic apparatus and attempts to nationalize the efforts of civil society and place it under strict oversight by the government. We argue that the Egyptian government has been able to do this by:

  1. blurring the state-civil society divide
  2. controlling foreign and domestic funds, and
  3. demonizing independent civil society organizations.


Blurring the state-civil society divide

On 9 January, just two weeks ago, current Egyptian President El Sisi launched the first conference of the so-called National Alliance for Civil Development Work (NACDW) after his announcement in September 2021 that 2022 would be “the year of civil society”. The alliance was founded in March 2022, comprising 30 local NGOs – mostly relief organizations – that are closely linked to the state. Since its establishment, the NACDW has been mostly working under the umbrella of the Ministry of Social Solidarity (MoSS) to support the implementation of two flagship social protection programs, the ‘Takaful’ and ‘Karama’ (‘Solidarity’ and ‘Dignity’) Cash Transfer Programs, as well as the presidential initiative ‘Haya Karima’ (‘Dignified Life’).

Over the years, it has become near impossible to distinguish between the efforts of the MoSS and NGOs cooperating with the state in implementing such programs. Overall, the MoSS has succeeded in co-opting the sector by engaging certain organizations in their programs that have the state blessing and operate as the ministry implementation machinery. Since 2011, the ministry also has the upper hand in deciding how national or foreign aid should be spent and which priorities they see as more viable. Mostly, it has been able to expand its territory of controlling funds allocated for NGO activities and has the ultimate say on what NGOs can do or not, leaving most of the sector paralyzed if they don’t agree to collaborate with the state or abide by its narratives. This control has had negative implications for the freedom of association for the broader sector, especially organizations whose activities are oriented towards policy, advocacy, and human rights.


Closing the money tap: foreign and domestic funding struggles

In an attempt to hijack funding traditionally earmarked for NGOs, on 1 May last year, the Egyptian Cabinet on its official Facebook page published an announcement forbidding the collection of donations on social media without a permit. The post stated the need to apply for a license three days before the collection of donations, whether financial or material. It also threatened legal consequences for anyone who collected such donations without a license.

Similarly, as part of the increasingly restrictive environment and state control over NGO activities, the MoSS recently launched a new campaign that limits any collective donation through social media channels or any other online platform unless approved by the ministry. The campaign emphasized that in case of breaking the law, organizations or individuals would be legally investigated for violating article 26 of the civil society law no. 149 of 2019.

The government’s ongoing efforts to control the funding of NGOs can be traced back to 2011, when previous Minister of International Cooperation Faiza Abu El Naga emphasized the need for the government to be the gatekeeper of foreign funding; she argued that the state should allocate this funding according to its vision and national interest.

While these narratives primarily targeted foreign funding at the time, the current decisions of MoSS to control domestic sources of funding and how it should be spent forms part of the state’s strategy to control both domestic and foreign sources of funding for NGOs and other civil society groups. This increasing control of MoSS on both the domestic and foreign sources of funding has placed civil society groups under ongoing pressure by the ministry to continuously align civil society efforts to the interests of the ministry and the current political regime.


Demonizing independent civil society organizations

In our previous book chapter titled ‘Reinvention of nationalism and the moral panic against foreign aid in Egypt’ in the book Barriers to Effective Civil Society Organizations, we argue that the Egyptian state and its successive military regimes have tried over time to act as moral entrepreneur in society in an attempt to control narratives of patriotism, which in turn have shaped state discourses and policies towards civil society and foreign aid. Since the birth of the post-colonial Egyptian state, the reception of foreign funds, in particular by civil society organizations in Egypt, has always been presented as an act akin to treason, demonstrating a lack of patriotism and a threat to national unity.


New tactics, same objectives

The state’s recent focus on controlling how civil society groups organize themselves and domestically try to collect money for collective action is worrying. In light of the criticism of foreign aid in supporting local NGOs, domestic fundraising for civil society efforts provides a viable alternative to fill the gap produced by the government’s failure to provide quality public services for its citizens. The government’s determination to continue stifling any innovative ways of financing civil society initiatives poses a great risk to the existence of independent civil society organizations.

To conclude, the state in Egypt is dominating civil society by means of its direct control and is co-opting it while controlling money flows to NGOs and vilifying whoever seeks independence. This control will have a lasting effect on the structure of civil society in Egypt and will greatly reduce citizen participation in public affairs. Thus, 12 years after the revolution, we are witnessing a civil society sector that is under siege and has been nationalized by the government. The case of Egypt presents a vivid example of how authoritarian regimes evolve their tactics to clamp down on civil society spaces through various formal and informal practices.

[1] Over the past decade, we have been working with number of local and international development and human rights organizations in Egypt and across the MENA region. We have reflected on this experience in various publications on how CSOs navigate the restrictive environment in Egypt.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the authors:

Ahmed El Assal is a PhD Candidate at the International Institute of Social Studies. His current research focuses on governance, political economy of aid assistance, and accountability of public service provision.






Amr Marzouk is a PhD Candidate at the Erasmus School of Law.

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