President Morsi and the Future of Egyptian Civil Society

by John Pollock

The election of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi as president of Egypt could mark the end of the government’s anti-NGO campaign. But the full implications of Morsi’s presidency for Egyptian civil society remain to be seen.

My summer internship in Egypt as a Research Assistant at theGerhart Center for Philanthropy and Civic Engagement has focused on the role of NGOs in providing civic education – teaching on democracy, citizenship, government structures, and voter education – during the post-revolution transition. The most salient issue arising during my interviews with these NGOs has been the impact of recent government attacks on their work. While Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood have sent mixed messages about the anti-NGO campaign, there is reason for cautious optimism that Morsi will end prosecutions and reduce the bureaucratic hurdles for the NGO sector.

The recent attacks on civil society have their roots in pre-revolution Egypt. Although Egypt’s civil society sector is the largest in the Arab world, with as many as 40,000 NGOs, it has always faced legal obstacles. Egypt’s 2002 NGO Law requires NGOs to register with the Ministry of Social Solidarity and restricts international funding for NGOs. Limits on international funding are a particular challenge since many NGOs that focus on civic education rely on funding from Europe and North America, while domestic Egyptian donors tend to support less controversial charitable activities.

The January 25 Revolution was a mixed blessing for civil society. Particularly among youth, interest in civic participation has increased dramatically. Many of the NGO leaders I have interviewed report much higher demand for their educational programs. There was also a boom in international funding for initiatives focused on civic education and political participation.

However, the transitional government, led by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), targeted NGOs more severely than ever before. Civil society was attacked through three main channels: legal action against NGOs, increased delays in approving NGO registration and project proposals, and a public campaign (aided by mainstream media outlets) to fuel paranoia and fear about international influence on NGOs.

This has had a chilling effect on civil society. The NGOs targeted for prosecution remain closed. Some NGOs have begun turning down foreign funding, and some foreign donors have cancelled funding for more controversial initiatives. New NGOs find it nearly impossible to receive registration permission from the Ministry of Social Solidarity. It often takes months for existing NGOs to get approval to initiate uncontroversial health and education programs, and even longer for politically-sensitive work.

Throughout this attack on civil society, the Muslim Brotherhood has sent mixed messages. Their leaders publicly criticized the government’s repressive tactics and praised the contribution of NGOs to Egypt’s democratization. When the SCAF-controlled Ministry of Social Solidarity circulated a more restrictive draft NGO law, the Muslim Brotherhood-controlled parliament countered with a bill which would have allowed any NGO to register without government interference. The recent dissolution of parliament prevented the bill from being passed. However, the Brotherhood also criticized the “foreign agendas” of international donors and included greater restrictions on international funding in their NGO bill.

Despite these mixed messages, Morsi’s presidency could bring an end to direct attacks against NGOs. The appointment of a new cabinet – including a replacement for Minister of Planning and International Cooperation Fayza Aboul Naga, who spearheaded the anti-NGO legal campaign – may put the brakes on further prosecutions. However, this will not necessarily help the NGO staff currently on trial.

Mohamed Morsi’s victory may also reduce bureaucratic barriers facing the NGO community. In February, Morsi publicly supported “immediate lifting of restrictions on the establishment and registration of NGOs.” While the military will continue to exercise control over the Ministries of Defense, Interior and Justice, it will likely ignore the Ministry of Social Solidarity. However, even if Morsi appoints officials who are less hostile toward NGOs, it is unclear how quickly this will change the bureaucratic culture.

While Morsi’s presidency may reduce outright attacks and government obstructionism, the recent shaping of negative public attitudes toward civil society could be more difficult to overcome. Many of the NGO staff I have interviewed report facing greater public suspicion since the beginning of the anti-NGO campaign. This limits the areas where NGOs are able to operate, the local partners that are willing to work with them, and the populations they are able to reach.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s openness to NGOs should be cause for cautious optimism. But the Brotherhood’s hostility toward international funding, Morsi’s limited power in the face of the military and entrenched bureaucracy, and public suspicion of civil society organizations are cause for continued concern about the future of Egypt’s NGOs.

About the Author

John Pollock is a second year MALD candidate at The Fletcher School focusing on Development Economics and Public/NGO Management. Before coming to Fletcher, John worked for three years at Innovations in Civic Participation, a Washington DC-based NGO which promotes youth civic engagement. He is spending summer 2012 in Egypt as a Research Assistant at the Gerhart Center for Philanthropy and Civic Engagement at the American University in Cairo, writing a report on the current state of Egyptian civic education.

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