While a bad year for civil society, all vow to find ways to continue
Between bills, court cases and security measures, civil society groups have been bearing the brunt of state repression. Yet, for many of them, the question is not whether to continue but how
Courtesy: Arab Digital Expression Foundation's Twitter

2016 was the first time that Karim-Yassin Goessinger felt paranoid and threatened.

Goessinger set up the Cairo Institute for Liberal Arts and Sciences in 2013 with a small personal investment. Three years on, CILAS has grown to become a key learning space that provides a yearlong theoretical, discussion-based and practical educational program in the humanities, arts and culture and natural sciences.

In the past year, CILAS offered courses on elitism, oppression and resistance. But despite the growth, 2016 has seen several hiccups, including authorities refusing to allow a development grant through and limiting the institute’s ability to continue to use the space from which they have operated since being established. The programming was disrupted; some team members left.

Ominously, the year opened with the murder of Italian researcher Giulio Regeni, a commonly seen figure at CILAS. Regeni was found dead on a highway outside of Cairo in February, his body bearing signs of torture. In the course of the investigation, which is still ongoing, it emerged that the PhD student had been under surveillance by Egyptian security services.

Regeni’s death stayed with Goessinger and his colleagues.

“It is the year in which we thought the most about our programming and what to offer,” he says, adding that they opted to continue what they started.  The yearlong program is kicking off again in January with courses on nationalism, post-colonialism and gender and sexuality.

Karim-Yassin Goessinger’s speech at the opening of CILAS in 2013.

CILAS is one of many civil society groups determined to carry on its activities, despite the series of events of 2016 that contributed to an increasingly restrictive environment: a court reopening a 2011 case accusing NGOs of receiving foreign funding that targets some of Egypt’s most significant human rights organizations, Parliament passing an NGO law in December, alongside what has become the consistent routine of circumventing the work of civil society organizations, whether they are working in the field of human rights or not.

The determination of civil society workers comes from many places, but it meets at a single point: The impossibility of imagining a modern state without civil society.

“Development is not for the fainthearted,” says Azza Kamel, who founded Alwan wa Awtar in 2005 as a community learning center for underprivileged children. “If we are passionate about what we are doing, closing will never be a solution.”

Kamel faced a range of administrative hurdles that led to the closure of Alwan wa Awtar in 2014 after years of having operated and built a community in a low-income area in north Moqattam.

The young people of the center said Alwan wa Awtar should continue, even when we had lost our space and had no idea what to do next.

It was the same year in which authorities arrested Aya Hegazy, her husband and other team members at the Balady Foundation – an organization the couple founded in 2013 to work with street children – on dubious accusations of exploiting the children by prompting them to take part in Muslim Brotherhood protests. Apart from one defendant being released on bail earlier this month for health reasons, they remain in detention.

With the closure of Alwan wa Awtar, Kamel remembers that, faced with the sudden requirement to pack and leave, the question became whether to give up or find a way to continue.

“Everyone around me was telling me, ‘you have to withdraw,’” she says. “But the young people of the center became the driving force. They said we should continue, even when we had lost our space and had no idea what to do next.”

“The community was adamant that we continue. The kids would see us in the street and ask when we would start working again.”

And so, at a time when the organization’s financial lifeline was cut due to the closure, the team got together and set priorities for the organization’s needs. Some team members left. Others continued working on a voluntary basis.

The fundamental aspect of Alwan wa Awtar’s work was the educational program focused on arts, culture and life skills, but it also routinely opened its doors to parents, especially mothers, for meet-ups with topics that ranged from dealing with difficult behavior to applying make-up.

Supplied with the support of her mostly young team – half of whom are hired from within the community – Kamel began working with municipal authorities to restore Alwan wa Awtar’s permits. They were able to resume work in the same area at a sister organization, while also capitalizing on their experience in building learning centers within communities to open a new space in Ezbet al-Nasr, an impoverished area east of Cairo.

“They want civil society to be reduced to Ramadan bags, charity and the cycle of begging.”

Kamel speaks to Mada Masr from the space Alwan wa Awtar is renting as its administrative headquarters and place of interface with the state, a separation the organization made to protect its community spaces. She is surrounded by piles of papers and is in the process of closing the year’s accounts with her accountant.

The prison sentences that the new NGO bill mandates for administrative errors are terrifying, she says. Moving the headquarters of an association without notifying the authorities, for example, can mean a prison term of up to a year.

But administrative errors or not, she thinks the law will ultimately be used against those the authorities want to target.

“They want civil society to be reduced to Ramadan bags, charity and the cycle of begging,” Kamel concludes.

These thoughts were shared by Dalia Abdallah, the director of the Arab Digital Expression Foundation, which works with Egyptian and Arab youth on free culture, self-expression and technology through a community center and the convention of annual camps. She points to the charity-based nature of the organizations that parliamentary members met with following the passing of the NGO law.

“On what basis were these representatives chosen?” she asks.

According to media reports, civil society giants, such as the Food Bank, Resala, Masr al-Kheir and Ahl Masr, were the main participants in the meeting with MPs. It was reportedly explained that the new legislation will not target them, but other threatening groups, particularly those receiving foreign funding.

But the newly passed law is counterintuitive, even in light of the regime’s mission to tighten control over all players, says Khaled Mansour, a consultant and writer who has worked in development and humanitarian aid for several years.

“The current government is shooting the Egyptian state in the foot,” he explains. “It is undermining a state that cannot provide services, by weakening its civil society.” He contrasts the current period with the 1960s, when the state had a social contract with the people and created and chaperoned civil society accordingly.

Civil society as a whole, including the socio-economic component, will be weakened, and this is precarious, he warns.

Highly restrictive legislation will ultimately hurt the rule of law more than civil society.

Mansour believes that highly restrictive legislation tends to produce two things: selective application of the law and people continuing to work outside of it. In other ways, it is ultimately “the rule of law that will be hurt to a greater degree.”

While many organizations fear the real threat that they may become victims of selective targeting, they are seeking to continue to function by exploring different ways to cope with the law and the range of intensifying restrictions.

Abdallah highlights four ways of coping. Ensuring that work is done in a transparent manner is one way. Then, they will continue the organization’s work as planned. “I won’t change my programs, as we would lose the reason behind our existence, and because I won’t know what form a threat will take.”

Building links to form a network of civil society organizations engaging in meaningful work is another strategy Abdallah has been thinking about a lot lately.

Most importantly, she says, “We need to strengthen our community base. Our community is our defense.” Besides targeted programing, she believes that organizations have to “strengthen the confidence of those working with us and in our role as civil society workers.”

Abdallah’s office overlooks the walls of the downstairs community space, which are filled with messy, yet distinguishable, pieces of graffiti, drawn and painted by both members of the community and the foundation’s workers. For her, the question centers on surviving a difficult moment and is not existential, as she sees ADEF’s continued existence as inevitable.

“Knowledge and cultural consciousness is key for generational development,” she says, explaining the importance of ADEF’s work. “There is cultural and educational deterioration, and there is a deep lack of awareness of how important these fields are. Maybe we won’t do politics or human rights, but we won’t stop doing cultural and artistic development. The regime will go, but the people will stay, and they will need this.”

But what will the civil society organizations working in human rights advocacy do, as they are the state’s prime targets in its current battle against civil society and dissent more broadly?

Emad Mubarak, a member the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, says there are three scenarios available for these organizations: registration under the Ministry of Social Solidarity, closure or imprisonment.

Mubarak founded AFTE in 2006 with the aim of working on culture, information and media policies, as well as researching, documenting and providing legal support for academic freedoms. Like other similar organizations, AFTE was established as a law firm rather than an NGO, as its main activity was the provision of legal support to victims of human rights violations.

AFTE has recently moved offices to a smaller, slightly more run-down space compared to the premises it previously occupied in downtown Cairo. Behind Mubarak, a small and poorly painted Christmas tree sits on a desk.

Under the looming threat of harassment and closure, Mubarak has a vision of how the organization’s work can continue. As essentially a collection of human rights lawyers, Mubarak thinks that the most legally sound and practical option may be to provide legal support, while outsourcing other activities.

Take the advocacy dimension of the organization’s work, says Mubarak. It could be carried out by one of the non-institutional groups that emerged to address human rights issues after the January 2011 revolution. These groups use human rights as a reference, as opposed to a clear-cut political ideology.

At a crossroads, must civil society choose between specialization and a broad membership base?

“We can give the legal support to students, as we have always done, and they can take care of advocacy,” Mubarak says. The same can be applied to arts and culture groups who concerned with policies governing their work.

“I have long wondered if we are working on behalf of targeted groups or with them,” says Mubarak.

Mubarak is looking into ways to strengthen the legal practice that would remain, if AFTE stripped itself of other work. “Have we worked enough on strategic litigation? Can we work on creating a different legal principle? What about proposing alternative legislation instead of only commenting on government legislation?”

For Mubarak, the crisis is also an opportunity for an overdue self-evaluation of the human rights movement. A key question here is the institutional set-up. “Do we want to continue to be professionalized organizations, or do we want to be organizations with a wide-scale membership?”

But does it have to be one or the other?

For Mubarak, to develop a broad membership base would be to compromise on specialization, as the organization’s stakeholders would become its membership base and provide their available expertise.

Human rights organization created following the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights and the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, the pioneers of the movement in the 1980s, opted for specialization. Some focused on freedom of expression, others on torture or personal rights.

“Specialization had a positive impact on these issues,” says Mubarak. However, professionalization also meant that the development of a large grassroots following and social acceptance was overlooked.

Describing how these two approaches can come together, Mubarak returns to AFTE’s work with the students movement, whereby a board of academics has provided financial support to allow the lawyers to provide legal support.

Like Kamel and Abdallah’s thoughts on community support as their defense mechanism, Mansour also sees that a new conception of the organization of human rights works is inevitable, and that such a new way of thinking must combine professionalization with societal reach. “The human rights advocates have always worked with the understanding that, if civil and political rights are respected, the rest will follow. Now the movement needs to realize that the relation between rights and day-to-day challenges. Otherwise, with a professionalized practice, you get a small group of well-meaning people saying they represent society, but lacking its support.”


You have a right to access accurate information, be stimulated by innovative and nuanced reporting, and be moved by compelling storytelling.

Subscribe now to become part of the growing community of members who help us maintain our editorial independence.
Know more

Join us

Your support is the only way to ensure independent,
progressive journalism