Mourners gather during the funeral procession of Mahmud al-Sayed al-Dakruri on 20 May. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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

Show Hide image

Scarred lands: visiting the villages Boko Haram left behind reveals the toxic legacy of terrorism

The progress and challenges of Nigerian communities rebuilding after Boko Haram’s insurgency begins to wane.

“Sometimes it’s when I go to bed that what happened comes back to me.” Two years ago, Boko Haram militants stormed into 23-year-old John Amida’s home late at night in a village in Gwoza, Borno State, northeast Nigeria. Shielding his eyes with his hands from the torchlight saved his life. He shows me the mark in the centre of his forearm where the bullet aimed for his head went instead.

“All my friends were either killed or abducted,” he says. “I don’t try to forget what happened because it’s not possible; it’s with you even when it is not in your mind. The best thing is just to keep on living every day.”

After a broadly effective 18-month military campaign, Boko Haram remains a deadly yet waning force. Many communities once occupied by Boko Haram are now liberated. In Adamawa, just south of Borno, over 630,000 people previously displaced by Boko Haram have returned home.

With them, over 170,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) now live in camps, or – like John and his family – in host communities. He and his family live in a home vacated and lent to them by a local. All over Adamawa, IDPs live in homes shared with residents or given to them temporarily in exchange for help, crops or token sums of rent.

Adamawa is a serene, largely rural, mountainous state. Even deep into the dry season, driving through the roads that cut between its vast countryside, its land is incredibly scenic. But within local communities, in more rural, isolated villages north of the state’s capital, Yola, the picture is more complicated.

Gombi, a small town a few hours’ drive from Yola, was recaptured from Boko Haram in late 2014. Much of what was destroyed in the insurgency – shops and small businesses – have been rebuilt or replaced. The local government buildings have been largely restored. The impact is still visible but, according to locals, decreasingly so.

But in less urban areas, like in Garaha, a village in Adamawa, rebuilt homes sit next to broken, abandoned houses, churches, mosques and buildings blackened by the fires that damaged them. Local government officials say the damage across Adamawa by the insurgency has set the state’s development back by a decade. Funding for rebuilding the state, which local governments complain is insufficient, is concentrated on urban areas.

According to Chief Suleimanu, a traditional ruler in Garaha, mental health issues are widespread but few are financially able to access support. While some people have been able to move on, others are still dealing with the consequences.

“Many couples and families have separated,” he tells me, detailing how in some couples one partner feels attached to their home while the other can’t face returning, or feel there is little to return to.

“The same with the children, some of the young people have gone to bigger cities like Kano or Abuja because of a lack of opportunities.”

Many returnees, who left camps in Cameroon to come back to Adamawa, are from families who have lived in their villages for generations. Their ancestral roots anchor them to their homes because their farmland is their main source of income. Non-agriculture-based industries provide few jobs. For many people, fleeing their homes meant abandoning their livelihoods.

As of 2015, 52 per cent of people in Nigeria lived in rural areas. Their relative isolation is a blessing and a curse. Larger rural spaces provide them with adequate land to cultivate their crops – but it also leaves them exposed.

During Boko Haram attacks on Garaha through to early 2015, there was minimal protection from security forces who often take hours to arrive.

For many people living in rural Adamawa, life is getting harder and easier at the same time. Armed herdsmen, mainly from the Fulani ethnicity have become a greater threat across Nigeria, partly due to tensions between land ownership and cattle grazing.

According to locals, killings by herdsmen have increased this year. But villages are addressing their vulnerability. Armed vigilantes, some of which formed due to the lack of military protection against Boko Haram, are increasing. The police services are often too far away or too under-resourced to protect them. But some vigilantes now have more weapons and vehicles due to help from state services and locals. It is not an ideal solution but it has made places like Garaha safer.

With this new-found relative safety, villagers have begun farming again. With cash grants and donated tools from charities like Tearfund, it has been easier for thousands of people to begin cultivating land. In many villages there are small, lively recreation centres where young people play snooker and watch sport. Many of their places of worship have been rebuilt.

But the situation is grimmer in communities where such charities are not present.  Without resources, state or non-government help, rebuilding is a real challenge.

Adamawa is a state maxing on its credit of hospitality, relative safety and appreciation of agriculture. A recession in Nigeria and a severe food crisis in the northeast have added pressures on returnees and IDPs. Liberated communities will need more help and attention before they truly feel free.

Emmanuel Akinwotu is a journalist based between Lagos and London who writes about Africa, migration, and specialises in Nigeria.