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Egypt-US Standoff Could Hit 40,000 NGOs

CAIRO, Feb 22 2012 (IPS) - The ongoing crackdown by Egypt’s military rulers on a handful of civil society groups accused of receiving illegal foreign funds has far-reaching implications for the estimated 40,000 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) operating in the Arab world’s most populous country.

Thousands of NGOs – engaged in everything from nature conservation to eradicating illiteracy and sheltering women from domestic abuse – are collateral damage in a row that threatens Egypt’s longstanding relationship with the U.S.

“This dispute is affecting all NGOs in Egypt that rely on foreign donors for grants,” the director of a Cairo-based non-profit organisation told IPS. “Unless it is resolved soon, hundreds if not thousands of NGOs will be forced to shut down.”

Egyptian security forces stormed the offices of 10 local and foreign NGOs in late December, including the U.S.-based International Republican Institute (IRI), the National Democratic Institute (NDI), and Freedom House. Since then, authorities have referred 43 employees of non-profit pro-democracy groups – including 16 Americans – to trial before a criminal court on charges of receiving unauthorised foreign funds and using them to incite anarchy in Egypt.

The tension has been building since March 2011, when Washington announced plans to distribute 65 million dollars in grants directly to pro-democracy groups in Egypt. Hundreds of local NGOs applied for the grants, angering Egypt’s military rulers, who claimed the direct funding bypassed proper government channels.

State prosecutors have accused 300 non-profit groups with offices in Egypt, including the April 6 Youth Movement that played a leading role in the uprising that toppled president Hosni Mubarak last year, of accepting unauthorised funds. A source close to the investigation said civil society organisations and prominent activists received over 300 million dollars in illicit funds between June 2010 and December 2011.

International cooperation minister Fayza Aboul Naga, the Mubarak-era holdover seen as the driving force behind the NGO crackdown, has blamed foreign hands for the continuous unrest that has rocked the country since Mubarak’s ouster last February. In October she told a judicial panel that Washington had funded unregistered non-profits operating in Egypt as part of a scheme to destabilise the country and hijack its revolution for its own interests.

“The United States and Israel could not directly create a state of chaos and work to maintain it in Egypt, so they used direct funding to organisations, especially American NGOs, as a means of implementing these goals,” state-run Middle East News Agency (MENA) quoted Aboul Naga as saying.

Rights activists contend that the military has targeted human rights and democracy-building organisations to divert attention away from its mismanagement of Egypt’s transition and exhaustive list of rights violations.

“The military is using civil society as a scapegoat for its failures,” said Negad El-Borai, a prominent rights lawyer and activist. The ruling generals are using the same repressive tactics employed by the former regime, he added.

Under Mubarak, stringent conditions for NGO registration and funding forced many groups to operate in a grey area, leaving them vulnerable to crackdowns whenever authorities felt it politically expedient. The non-profit groups at the centre of the current controversy are accused of failing to register with the Ministry of Social Solidarity as required by Egyptian law.

“In reality, the (registration) process is rarely straightforward,” said the director of a developmental NGO, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retribution. “Typically, the ministry doesn’t respond in any way to applications, so you just go ahead and operate assuming you’ve been approved.”

He said it took over five years for the ministry to approve his non-profit group’s licencing.

Approximately 30,000 NGOs were operating in Egypt at the start of the uprising that ended Mubarak’s 30-year rule. An estimated 10,000 more were established in the year since, most engaged in human rights and democracy building – areas the country’s military rulers view with deep suspicion.

“Some of the new groups were able to register, but with the Ministry of Social Solidarity in a state of paralysis since the revolution, most just started without any permits,” said the NGO director.

Analysts see the raids that catapulted a handful of NGOs into the spotlight as part of a broader campaign against civil society involving intimidation tactics, media vilification, and a probe into the bank accounts of prominent activists. Several non-profit groups that IPS spoke to claim government agents arrived unannounced at their offices demanding to see bank records and interrogating staff.

Many groups feel cornered. Egyptian authorities have allegedly refused all requests for foreign funding since the uprising, leaving civil society groups to cancel or scale back activities – or risk accepting unauthorised direct funding.

“About 20 percent of the NGOs in Egypt receive foreign funding, either direct through a donor, or through an intermediary organisation that receives funding and distributes it to grassroots NGOs,” the director explained. “Grants have been approved (by Western donors), but the government has not allowed any foreign funding since the revolution, so the NGOs can’t implement their projects.”

Egyptian civil society relies heavily on foreign funding because domestic resources are limited. Individuals and companies readily donate to charity, but local donors have small purses and are generally reluctant to support any group that engages in controversial areas such as reproductive health, drug abuse counselling, or political participation.

“The government will chip in, but only if your project is in line with its policies,” said the employee of an NGO whose project to educate citizens on their basic rights was cancelled due to a funding shortfall.

Even protecting the environment can be a sensitive issue if it involves a foreign donor.

Environmentalist Mindy Baha El-Din said the government flatly rejected her application to establish a non-profit association to manage sport hunting as a sustainable way of generating revenue and retooling the police force. The issue: the small grant needed to seed the conservation project was to come from a U.S. government agency.

“We sought money from USAID, not because it was American, but because they weren’t dictating the terms of how it could be used,” said Baha El-Din. “They were telling us, you come up with a good idea and we’ll fund it. But the Egyptian government refused to allow the funding so we couldn’t take the project forward.”

Activists say the government’s witch-hunt of foreign-funded non-profit groups has altered the way ordinary Egyptians view civil society. Many NGO workers claim they no longer feel welcome in the neighbourhoods where they serve the poor, and some have been forced out by angry mobs accusing them of being foreign agents.

“Everything has come to a standstill until this dispute is resolved,” said the administrator of a small NGO. (END/IPS/MM/IP/HD/CS/RA/CM/SS/12)

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