Yesterday a court in Cairo sentenced dozens of NGO workers -- Egyptians, Americans, and Germans -- to prison for violating laws restricting the operation and funding of civil society organizations in Egypt. The verdict follows hard on Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi's release of a draft law to regulate NGOs that is far more draconian than the law under which these workers were convicted. Taken together, these events mark a sad and frustrating milestone in a long history of U.S. confrontation with Egypt over civil society independence, and over the U.S. government's desire to engage with Egypt's people as well as its government.
NGO law in Egypt has been a flashpoint for decades, with local civic groups, international rights organizations, and Western governments regularly raising concerns about the Egyptian state's persistent efforts to coopt and control this autonomous societal sector. The U.S. government has long battled the government of Egypt over NGO freedom -- before and after the revolution, through efforts at suasion, cajoling, shaming, and conditioning assistance. The government of Egypt has fought back just as tenaciously: objecting strenuously to U.S. government funding of NGOs as a supposed violation of bilateral aid agreements; stonewalling NGO activities; harassing and intimidating NGO employees; mounting press campaigns against NGOs as foreign agents and spies; and putting a number of them on trial. The case in which yesterday's verdict was issued featured all of these tactics. The verdict and the new draft law are thus neither novel nor surprising; they follow in a long history of efforts by the government to repress freedom of association in Egypt.
In the wake of the verdict, some policy wags are already questioning the wisdom of U.S. support for civil-society-led democracy efforts, labeling them unpopular and ineffective (despite numerous success stories worldwide). And after years of struggle in Egypt, some U.S. officials are ready to cry uncle. Some of the arguments run like this: We can't sacrifice our interests in Egypt to a single human rights issue; We can't have any impact on what's really a domestic matter; Polls show that Egyptians don't support foreign funding of NGOs, thus, we shouldn't insist.
In fact, each of these arguments is deeply misguided. The fate of Egypt's beleaguered civil society and the international groups that work within it should remain a central U.S. concern in shaping its policy toward Egypt -- under the Morsi government or any other. Here are some reasons why:
First, U.S. support for independent civil society -- in Egypt and around the world -- is not simply derivative of a human rights agenda that enshrines the freedom of association in international treaties; nor is it simply a product of a democracy promotion strategy that sees independent NGOs as helpfully subversive of authoritarianism. From Tocqueville to the present day, civil society organizations as essential contributors to social progress is a concept at the very core of America's civic culture. And civic action is an essential lubricant in the gears of complex modern societies -- NGOs organize citizens around common interests, convey their views to policy makers and the private sector, provide citizens information on policies they care about, and help them participate effectively in governance. Americans take independent civic action so much for granted that we literally can't imagine a healthy society without it. It's hard for Americans to understand how anything could truly dampen the voluntaristic impulse that is, in many ways, the engine of our own social dynamism. And this makes it both natural and imperative for our foreign policy to reflect this core dimension of our identity.
Second, civil society has become an essential partner in U.S. diplomacy. Over the past several decades, the United States has come to work closely with civil society organizations around the globe on tasks from humanitarian assistance, to basic human development, to the advancement of a wide range of policy goals (including democracy and human rights). As government budgets and hiring have been squeezed, NGOs have become more and more important as implementing partners. In many places, on many issues, the U.S. government is simply incapable of implementing its policies without the support -- provided through contracts, grants, and mutually beneficial cooperation -- that non-governmental groups provide. And in a globalized world where popular mobilization works across borders on issues from climate change to violent conflict, NGOs are integral to international diplomacy. Certainly, there is very little "smart power," or "soft power," without them.
Third, independent civil society in Egypt is essential to Egypt's transition to democracy. That transition faces many challenges -- but from the moment Mubarak resigned, Egyptian NGOs have played a critical role in keeping the transition oriented toward a democratic outcome, as opposed to a new form of (electoral) autocracy. From reporting torture cases, to tracking military trials of civilians, to educating voters and monitoring elections, Egyptian NGOs and their international partners have been essential to moving Egypt's bumpy transition forward. During the past two years, the Egyptian executive has ruled largely without effective institutional checks from the legislature or from the judiciary -- and the November 2012 constitutional declaration made that lack of accountability crystal clear. In this transitional environment, NGOs have been the only effective means Egyptians have had to monitor and hold their government accountable.
Even if you believe that Egypt's successful democratization will hinge on economic development rather than politics -- and I do not believe this -- NGOs' ability to work independently and effectively in Egypt is essential. The Egyptian government, despite its size and wide scope of authority, is functionally incapable of meeting the material needs of the Egyptian people without the work of NGOs. From the delivery of subsidized bread to the provision of basic health care, Egyptian and international NGOs are thoroughly integrated into Egyptian society. If they cannot form and operate with independence from the state, then they can easily become instruments of state patronage and control -- a means to consolidate autocracy. NGO freedom is thus essential to the success of Egypt's very precarious democratic experiment.
That NGOs are not popular in public opinion polls is entirely irrelevant to their importance in the democratic process. NGOs -- especially NGOs focused on human rights and democracy -- are almost never widely popular. The nature of their work means that they appeal to niche interest groups. The American Civil Liberties Union, for example, has only 500,000 members in a country of over 300 million people -- less than 0.2 percent. But it is hard to imagine the contemporary legal framework of our First Amendment without it. To take a more controversial example, the National Rifle Association has fewer than 5 million members, a tiny minority of Americans, for its mission to defend the Second Amendment. Does its lack of broad support mean it should subordinate itself to government vetoes on its work, to ensure it supports the national interest? This is the claim of Egypt's government in court and in the draft NGO law.
Even if the United States was not committed to support democracy in Egypt, the United States would still have a strong interest in civil society freedom there. That's because, at the most fundamental level, the United States needs a stable region -- and a stable region demands a stable Egypt. Washington has worked assiduously since February 2011 to ensure Egypt's continued cooperation with key U.S. regional security priorities, from counterterrorism to opposing Iran's nuclear program. In the wake of the last two years' changes, it is impossible to envision an Egyptian government that can act effectively on behalf of regional security and stability without a basic degree of consensus on and effectiveness of governance at home.
The formal political actors within the Egyptian system are highly polarized and dug in -- the major opposition groups planning to boycott elections, the judiciary repeatedly striking down the electoral law, and key bureaucratic institutions in the executive branch exercising leverage to get concessions from the president and cabinet on behalf of their interests. In the meantime, the government refuses to take urgent economic policy decisions, which is exacerbating and accelerating a currency crisis with dire consequences for Egypt's large poor population.
How is Egyptian politics to become unstuck and set on a stable road? It's quite clear that regardless of its constitutional form or regime type, any government of Egypt will need to take greater account of public sentiment and to be more responsive to public need. And in a complex, heterogeneous society of 90 million people, it's hard to see how a government can effectively do that without civil society playing its essential role as aggregators of citizens' interests, as conveyers of information about government action, and so on.
It's also hard to see how the United States can achieve its policy goals in this more dynamic, complex Egypt without building a stronger ability to engage with, work with, and influence Egyptian society, not just the Egyptian government. The old authoritarian bargain is gone forever. And thus the U.S. government, and the American people, needs relationships and partnerships with civil society in Egypt.
If the fate of independent civil society in Egypt will affect the country's stability, security, development, and democracy, then clearly it's not a marginal or dispensable issue. And if repression of NGOs threatens the United States's ability to work with like-minded Egyptians -- in the government and outside it -- on behalf of all these interests, then the verdict in the NGO trial and the draft law restricting NGOs should be a top priority for the United States. Little wonder, then, that Secretary of State John Kerry promptly condemned the verdict as "incompatible with a transition to democracy."
But what can the U.S. government do beyond issuing statements of concern? The battle for associational freedom is an enduring one. Here are some of my own hard-won lessons:
1) Echo local concerns. U.S. diplomacy should focus on the substantive concerns raised by local activists and NGOs, who know their political environment best, and who have to live with the policies it produces.
2) Work jointly with other international actors. Working together and sharing information with like-minded governments and U.N. offices emphasizes that freedom of association is a universal right, and highlights the breadth of opprobrium that Egypt's suppression of civil society would earn.
3) Be persistent. Diplomatic engagement with the Egyptian government must make clear that the United States is not singling out Egypt, but upholding international standards in Egypt as it does worldwide. It should also make clear that, regardless of the constraints the government of Egypt may impose, Egyptian groups have a right to engage with international civic groups and funders, and that the U.S. government will find a way to continue to partner with these local organizations.
4) Link U.S. engagement that the government of Egypt wants to engagement it doesn't want. While the United States has many interests in Egypt, not all of them are vital -- and some desirable forms of cooperation, such as U.S. government-funded programs that support government projects or provide technical assistance, can be made contingent on concomitant programs that benefit civil society and associational freedom. If the U.S. government believes that it must partner with people, not just governments, then it must spend its money to reflect that insight.
The U.S. and other international efforts already undertaken have bolstered the local NGOs campaigning for better laws and respect for associational freedom. Such efforts stalled a draft law proposed by former President Hosni Mubarak in 2010, and torpedoed the Shura Council's almost identical proposal earlier this year. The intensive public-relations campaign by Morsi's staff over this issue reveals his sensitivity to international criticism. This is no time to let up the pressure -- there is simply too much at stake.
Tamara Cofman Wittes is the Director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy and the author of Freedom's Unsteady March: America's Role in Building Arab Democracy. She served from 2009-2012 as Deputy Assistance Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs.
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