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, 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:
- blurring the state-civil society divide
- controlling foreign and domestic funds, and
- 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.
 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.