Myanmar’s Resilient Revolution: How non-state welfare is sustaining democratic struggle

Myanmar’s Resilient Revolution: How non-state welfare is sustaining democratic struggle

Myanmar’s Spring Revolution is now in its third year since the February 2021 military coup. Despite facing brutal repression including arson attacks and aerial bombardment by Myanmar’s state security personnel, ...

The Global South and the return of geopolitics

The Global South and the return of geopolitics

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A rise in the number and scale of political tensions between countries in the Global North clearly signal the return of geopolitics; the war waged by Russia on Ukraine is ...

Why and how the City of Amsterdam should be opposing Israel’s apartheid regime

Numerous Palestinian, Israeli, international and UN organizations as well as scholars have called Israel an apartheid and settler-colonial regime. The City of Amsterdam has historically acted against South Africa’s apartheid regime, yet the same is not happening now in relation to Israel’s apartheid regime. At a recent panel discussion on anti-racism, Jeff Handmaker talked to renowned anti-apartheid activists about the role the city could and should play in condemning Israel’s oppressive and racist actions. It is important that Amsterdam affirm its cultural heritage as a space for solidarity anti-racism, he writes.

Since 2005, several discussions, films and solidarity events have been organized globally and annually around the theme ‘Israeli Apartheid Week’. Eighteen years ago, it was a lot more difficult to argue that Israel’s regime should be called racist, apartheid and settler-colonial, even though Palestinian organizations for years had been showing this was the case. At present, owing to years of discussions on the topic, there is greater agreement on the nature and consequences of Israel’s human rights transgressions and forceful oppression of the Palestinian people.

But there is still a long way to go in getting countries and organizations to condemn Israel as it did South Africa. And so, last week, as part of Israeli Apartheid Week activities, I participated in a panel at an anti-racism conference in Amsterdam at Pakhuis De Zwijger to dialogue about the involvement of the City of Amsterdam during the South African anti-apartheid movement back in the 1970s and 1980s and whether it should be doing the same at present in relation to Israel’s apartheid regime.

Together with Layla Katterman, renowned German-Palestinian student activist and founder of Students for Palestine, veteran anti-apartheid activists Corrie Roeper (formerly of the Holland Committee for Southern Africa) and Bart Luirink (formerly of the Anti-Apartheid Movement in the Netherlands), as well as veteran Palestinian solidarity activist and writer Robert Soeterik, we reflected on the city of Amsterdam’s stance on apartheid dating back several decades. This stance featured solidarity linkages and concrete projects between the municipality and anti-apartheid groups in South Africa. In reflecting on this history, we hoped to understand the dynamics of the anti-apartheid movement initiated by the city and to contemplate what scope there was for the formation of a similar anti-apartheid movement in respect of Israel’s racist, brutal, and colonial treatment of Palestinians. Here are some thoughts that were shared during the panel discussion.


Dutch and South African resistance movements had different roles

In the first part of the panel, the panellists reflected on the Netherlands’ role in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. I emphasised that black liberation groups led the movement, while others, including white liberal organizations such as lawyers’ groups, student groups and women’s groups supported it.  Eventually, many of these groups came together during the establishment of the United Democratic Front in 1983, led by anti-apartheid activists Yusuf Dadoo, Allan Boesak and others.

Accordingly, white liberal groups in South Africa such as Lawyers for Human Rights, the women’s-led group Black Sash and others, as well as groups from the global anti-apartheid movement, trade unions and others played key roles in helping to liberate South Africa. However, these roles were very different from those of the African National Congress and Pan-African Congress and black consciousness groups (though they were banned and operated underground) and eventually the United Democratic Front.  Black consciousness leader Steve Biko articulated this clearly in 1970:


The South African white community is a homogeneous community. It is a community of people who sit to enjoy a privileged position that they do not deserve, are aware of this, and therefore spend their time trying to justify why they are doing so. Where differences in political opinion exist, they are in the process of trying to justify their position of privilege and their usurpation of power.


Each group must be able to attain its style of existence without encroaching on or being thwarted by another. Out of this mutual respect for each other and complete freedom of self-determination … (there will arise) a true integration.


In other words, white liberal groups needed to understand the perspective of black liberation groups; the possibility for unity existed, although the former needed to learn how to listen. A similar dynamic exists in relation to liberal Israeli groups.


Both Palestinians and South Africans have experienced oppression

As a crucial point of comparison, Palestinians, like black South Africans, have been engaged in a longstanding struggle for self-determination against oppressive regimes. A further comparison to be made is that both in Palestine and in South Africa, there has been considerable fragmentation of the land, of political systems, and of the people themselves. In Israel-Palestine, a so-called “two-state solution”, which has been the official, albeit naïve position of most states to resolve the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, is truly an illusion.

Both systems of apartheid have involved layers of racial(ized) and legalized discrimination, undermining one’s access to equal / equitable education, health care, jobs, and livelihoods, as well as access to justice.

Yet, there are also key distinctions to be made; in particular, there is no such thing as Israeli nationality. By contrast, South Africa never imposed different nationalities; it did, however, classify and treat people differently based on racial(ized) legal categories.


The City of Amsterdam hasn’t (yet) declared Israel an apartheid state

We then sought to understand the current partnership between the cities of Amsterdam and Tel Aviv. In the latter half of the twentieth century, the City of Amsterdam explicitly opposed South Africa’s apartheid regime by severing former linkages with South African institutions and supporting anti-apartheid groups, both financially and politically. However, the same is not happening in the case of Israel. Despite Amnesty’s 2022 report, another by the Israeli NGO B’tselem and numerous others, including the most recent by Al Haq all declaring Israel to be an apartheid state, the mayor of Amsterdam and the Dutch government have considered the declaration of Israeli apartheid to be invalid. Moreover, both city and national government officials feel that such a matter should be decided by the court; there thus has been no official recognition by the city administration of Israel’s status as apartheid regime.

However, this is a blatantly incorrect position. The matter has in fact already been decided by several international courts, including the International Court of Justice in 2004 that affirmed Israel was violating international human rights.[1] This was followed by the opening of an international criminal investigation by the International Criminal Court following a decision by the Pre-Trial Chamber in 2021. [2] Thus, as an integral organ of the Dutch state, the municipality of Amsterdam is obliged to act in accordance with international law, including the outcomes of these two courts.


Amsterdam should formally sever its relationship with Tel Aviv

Lastly, we explored what could be done about this dismal situation. It was clear to most in the room that as long as there were not consequences for Israel’s criminal behaviour (as there frequently have been for Palestinians), there would be continued impunity. Consequences for state and individual violations are an essential feature of both state and individual accountability – this indeed is one of the principal reasons why treaties were concluded to establish the Geneva Conventions, the UN and more recently the ICC.

Hence, the speakers on the panel felt it was important to affirm, on the basis of both moral and legal obligations, that the City of Amsterdam is obliged to respect international law and not to assist an illegal situation. Accordingly, we felt it should sever its formal relationship with the city of Tel Aviv. In other words, beyond being a matter of legal obligation, in accordance with both the United Nations Charter and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, it is important that Amsterdam affirm its cultural heritage as a space for solidarity anti-racism.

At a broader level, we found that it is crucial to unpack what the role of settler-colonialism has been as a historical force, including how spatial segregation has occurred on the basis of race and ethnicity. In Israel-Palestine, certainly, this has principally been marked by the well-planned and systematic ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.


The latest event taking place on 24 March 2023 at the ISS sought to address how one can legitimately resist this regime. A report of this event is forthcoming.

[1] The International Court of Justice affirmed in its 2004 Advisory Opinion that: (1) there is a Palestinian people with a right to self-determination; (2) the West Bank and Gaza, including E. Jerusalem, are occupied territories under international law, and Israel is an occupying power with legal obligations towards all civilians in the territory (i.e. PRINCIPAL obligations are aimed at Israel); (3) Israeli settlements violate international law and Wall is illegally constructed; (4) Conventions of International Humanitarian Law are fully binding on Israel, and must govern all Israeli actions in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and (5) Israel’s occupation practices (associated regime) violate both international humanitarian law and human rights.

[2] On 3 March 2021, the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court announced it was opening an investigation into the Situation in the State of Palestine. This followed a decision on 5 February 2021 by the Pre-Trial Chamber of the Court that the ICC could exercise its criminal jurisdiction in the Situation, including alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity (which includes the crime of apartheid).

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

About the author:

Jeff Handmaker is Associate Professor of Legal Sociology at the International Institute of Social Studies and, together with Margarethe Wewerinke-Singh at the University of Amsterdam Law School, a member of the Steering Group of the Legal Mobilization Platform

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

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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.

Are you looking for more content about Global Development and Social Justice? Subscribe to Bliss, the official blog of the International Institute of Social Studies, and stay updated about interesting topics our researchers are working on.