Mourners gather during the funeral procession of Mahmud al-Sayed al-Dakruri on 20 May. Photo: Getty
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By trying to control civil society, the Egyptian government could fuel more social unrest

The leaders in Egypt have repeatedly failed to recognise that the campaigning of not-for-profits plays an important role as a pressure gauge that can release dissent in a manageable way.

This week Jimmy Carter warned that Egypt “stands on the precipice”, as its transition to democracy seems to be faltering after years of social unrest. Many of us will remember the scenes on the news of millions of people pouring onto the streets and public spaces in Egypt in protests that would bring down the government in 2011, and again in 2013. After all these years of turmoil, it seems that Egypt still remains a tinderbox of tension, unrest and dissent.

The current military-backed interim government has continued the trend of quashing criticism to prevent any rebellions, but what if this silencing of critics is actually fuelling further social unrest rather than preventing it?

This may seem unlikely to the government and military leaders, but the treatment of civil society and charities in a country can have a huge impact on that country’s political stability.

In Egypt, policy makers have been careful to create legislation that is sufficiently broad to allow any troublesome voices to be silenced. Their law on non-governmental organisations set what looks like reasonable restrictions on their activities, including the prohibiting of “advocating the program of one of the political parties, contributing to electoral campaigns, and putting forth candidates for office”.

However, those in authority have applied a broad interpretation of ‘political activity’ and have wilfully failed to distinguish between partisan political campaigning and public policy campaigning. This has prevented not-for-profits from voicing concerns. For example, in 2005 the Egyptian Association Against Torture were prohibited from starting a campaign to pressure the government to eliminate torture in police stations, as even this was considered to be ‘political activity’.

However Egypt’s ruling class still felt after the 2011 revolution that Hosni Mubarak’s government had not gone far enough in their attempt to suppress criticism from within civil society. So the atmosphere for non-profits got even worse under President Mohamed Morsi. In February 2013 Legislation was passed to increase the funds needed to register a charitable organisation, to increase reporting requirements and to designate all funds received from foreign donors as “public funds”. The Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) claimed this was an attempt by the government to “nationalize civil society and turn it into a quasi-governmental apparatus”.

Despite their best efforts to stifle all criticism and control non-profits, the summer of 2013 saw yet more protests and the fall of another regime. Unfortunately this next regime has continued to be hostile to civil society and has not learnt from the previous president’s mistakes.

Under Adly’s Mansour’s interim Presidency, the government has plumbed new depths in search of increasingly punitive measures to dissuade public criticism. Raids on rights groups has served to control civil society organisations by means of intimidation. A proposed anti-terrorism law would also expand the definition of terrorism to include absurdly broad terms such as ‘damaging national unity’ It will mean that the death penalty will be allowed even when supposed “terrorist” activities do not result in a loss of life.

Unfortunately Egypt is not alone in seeking to suppress any campaigning by non-profits. Many justify it by arguing that lobbying by large, well funded and unelected non-for-profits, often operating across borders, leach power from the government and threaten the sovereignty of the state.

However, as can be seen in Egypt, the rationale for restricting the voice of civil society organisations assumes that their campaigning and advocacy is a cause of social and political unrest. In fact, there is reason to believe the reverse is true.

If we look at some of the most stable governments in the world, the majority of them have liberal laws that recognise the right of non-profits to campaign and even to criticise government policy.

Civil society is the vehicle by which citizens can represent themselves, either by forming organisations, participating in campaigns, donating money or volunteering. It offers an opportunity for grass-roots movements to grow and provides a constructive channel for social tensions to be turned into reasoned and targeted dialogue with government.

The leaders in Egypt have repeatedly failed to recognise that the campaigning of not-for-profits plays an important role as a pressure gauge that can release dissent in a manageable way. It protects the state from the social unrest that results from a build up of pent-up civic tension. If Egypt wants a more stable future they need to learn from history. Throughout the world we see that without an appropriate means to voice dissent, disenfranchised citizens will, as Jimmy Carter advised a panel of Latin American ambassadors, “eventually make their grievances known, and it may be in radical and destructive ways”.

In an era of globalisation and increasing internet connectivity, national borders can no longer limit the spread of ideas and values. In this changed context, people will demand certain freedoms. Governments who attempt to suppress calls for increased freedoms are merely  fighting the tide by building a dam made of sand. The tide will come anyway, but in one large and unexpected wave. Allowing civil society organisations to represent the needs and the aspirations of citizens allows a controlled release of tension, and the opportunity to learn and address its root cause.

In the Charities Aid Foundation’s latest report ‘Future World Giving: Enabling an Independent Not-for-Profit Sector’ we show that Egypt is not alone in its growing hostility towards campaigning and lobbying. Countries as diverse as Azerbaijan, Indonesia, Ecuador, Canada and the UK are introducing new laws to curb ‘political advocacy’. We highlight that this will do more damage than good.

Governments should not only recognise, but put legal guarantees in place to ensure civil society organisations are able to speak, and act independently, even when criticising government policy. There should be no limit on non-profits’ political activity, providing that they do so in accordance with their charitable causes and are not endorsing particular political candidates or parties.

With a fragile democracy in Egypt and the elections later this month, it is vital that their next government try a new tactic. No benefit can come from silencing all critical voices. As counterintuitive as it may seem to the government struggling to maintain control, it is critical that non-profits perform their role as a pressure gauge, giving voice to those disenfranchised with the ruling class in Egypt to help create a healthy dialogue for change.

Adam Pickering is International Policy Manager at the Charities Aid Foundation

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Stephen Hawking's enthusiasm for colonising space makes him almost as bad as Trump

The physicist's inistence on mankind's expansion risks making him a handmaiden of inequality.

“Spreading out may be the only thing that saves us from ourselves,” Stephen Hawking has warned. And he’s not just talking about surviving the UK's recent run of record breaking heat. If humanity doesn’t start sending people to Mars soon, then in a few hundred years he says we can all expect to be kaput; there just isn’t enough space for us all.

The theoretical physicist gave his address to the glittering Starmus Festival of science and arts in Norway. According to the BBC, he argued that climate change and the depletion of natural resources help make space travel essential. With this in mind, he would like to see a mission to Mars by 2025 and a new lunar base within 30 years.

He even took a swipe at Donald Trump: “I am not denying the importance of fighting climate change and global warming, unlike Donald Trump, who may just have taken the most serious, and wrong, decision on climate change this world has seen.”

Yet there are striking similarities between Hawking's statement and the President's bombast. For one thing there was the context in which it was made - an address to a festival dripping with conspicuous consumption, where 18 carat gold OMEGA watches were dished out as prizes.

More importantly there's the inescapable reality that space colonisation is an inherently elitist affair: under Trump you may be able to pay your way out of earthly catastrophe, while for Elon Musk, brawn could be a deciding advantage, given he wants his early settlers on Mars to be able to dredge up buried ice.

Whichever way you divide it up, it is unlikely that everyone will be able to RightMove their way to a less crowded galaxy. Hell, most people can’t even make it to Starmus itself (€800  for a full price ticket), where the line-up of speakers is overwhelmingly white and male.

So while this obsession with space travel has a certain nobility, it also risks elevating earthly inequalities to an interplanetary scale.

And although Hawking is right to call out Trump on climate change, the concern that space travel diverts money from saving earth's ecosystems still stands. 

In a context where the American government is upping NASA’s budget for manned space flights at the same time as it cuts funds for critical work observing the changes on earth, it is imperative that the wider science community stands up against this worrying trend.

Hawking's enthusiasm for colonising the solar system risks playing into the hands of the those who share the President destructive views on the climate, at the expense of the planet underneath us.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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