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

Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko
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Ruin porn: the art world’s awkward obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture

Deserted fairgrounds, disused factories and forgotten military bases may look cool, but are we fetishising the remnants of such a cruel history?

Armenia, where one side of my family is from, was one of the first members of the USSR, annexed by Russia in 1922. A few years ago, when I visited this little country that perches precariously in the south of the Caucasus, I was struck most by its Soviet architecture.

Although its landscape is a hotchpotch of medieval Orthodox churches, a smattering of Persian-era domes, and brutalist concrete, it was the latter that particularly stuck out. From unfelled statues of Stalin to giant tower blocks spelling out the letters “CCCP” from a bird’s-eye view (well, half spelt-out – construction stopped partway through, with the fall of the Soviet Union), I’ve never forgotten it.

Perhaps it was so compelling because such stark physical symbols make recent history all the more tangible. A history still profoundly affecting the country of my ancestors (and all post-Soviet and communist states). But also, it just looked really cool.

Mixed air corps, Mongolia. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Eric Losito

It’s a bit passé now to mock the hipster obsession with reclaimed industrial detritus, exposed pipes and bare concrete. An aesthetic – that of a post-industrial wasteland, but a chic one – which has gripped western cities for years, and crept worldwide.

But it could be this tendency to find disused stuff visually intriguing, and a morbid fascination with cruel regimes, which has led to the art world’s obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture. A whole wave of artists and photographers have been poking around the eastern bloc’s architectural graveyard in recent years.

Late last year, we saw the hugely popular disused Soviet bus stop series by photographer Christopher Herwig, echoing photographer Sergey Novikov’s equally absorbing collection of abandoned Soviet cinemas from 2013.

Following Russian filmmaker and photographer Maria Morina’s “Atomic Cities” project four years ago, London-based artist Nadav Kander explored the “aesthetics of destruction” in his exhibition, Dust, in 2014, snapping “radioactive ruins” of secret cities on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia. The same year, Moscow photographers Sasha Mademuaselle and Sergey Kostromin travelled to the disputed region of Abkhazia, capturing fragments of its deserted infrastructure.

Fighter aviation regiment, Mongolia. Photo: Eric Losito

And photojournalist Anton Petrus’ now iconic pictures of Chernobyl’s abandoned amusement park have long been an internet favourite, as have numerous haunting images of Pripyet – the city famous for lying deserted following the nuclear disaster.

Jamie Rann, a lecturer in Russian at Oxford University, has written that the quality and technical accomplishment of most of this photography make the style more “ruin erotica” than “ruin porn” (the tag being used by some critics), but argues: “The enormous online popularity of this genre . . . combined with their voyeuristic, almost exploitative feel, certainly has something porny about it.”

The latest exploration of Soviet society’s skeletons can be found at the Power & Architecture season at London’s Calvert 22 Foundation. In an exhibition called Dead Space and Ruins, we see abandoned military bases and formerly mighty monuments, forgotten space ports freezing in the tundra, the ghost of an entire unused, unfinished city in Armenia lying derelict.

The unfinished "ghost city" built in Armenia to house earthquake survivors (water added by artist). Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Vahram Aghasyan

The works are beautiful, but do they feed in to this zeitgeisty lust for Soviet ruins?

One of its curators, Will Strong, laments this trend. “I was keen that this didn’t become like a kind of ‘ruin lust’, ‘ruin porn’ thing; this slightly buzzwordy term that there is at the moment, this kind of fetishisation of dead space,” he tells me.

“This history is incredibly loaded, and it did not end in 1991. To sort of fetishise it in the very bourgeois western way of, ‘oh yeah, look at all this wonderful Soviet architecture, isn’t it fantastic?’ Obviously a lot of people who lived in that time hated it . . . a lot of people were very miserable under these regimes, so it’s important not to forget that.”

Gym at the Independent Radar Centre of Early Detection, Latvia. Photo: Eric Losito

He adds: “It’s more a point of reflection on how buildings were designed, what their legacy is, what their narrative is, and who the people are who live with that story. This show looks at the aftermaths of when utopia hasn’t been delivered.”

This view is echoed by the Moscow artist, Danila Tkachenko, whose work is featured in the exhibition. “It is rather a metaphor for the future, not the past,” he says. “It represents an image of a possible future. When there is a visualisation of this issue [utopia], it evokes a response in people; they see this utopia in their lives . . . There is disappointment in all utopias.”

The world's largest diesel submarine, in Russia's Samara region. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko

His Restricted Areas series explores great behemoths of European communism left to lie forgotten in the tundra of remote regions in and around Russia and Kazakhstan: the world’s largest diesel submarine, like a beached whale in the snow; a giant satellite, thatched with antennae, built to communicate with Soviet bases on other planets some day; the deserted flying saucer-like communist headquarters in a region of Bulgaria. The structures hover in blank, white space, making the photos appear black-and-white.

Deserted observatory, Kazakhstan's Almaty region. Photo: Danila Tkachenko

Anton Ginzburg is an artist who grew up in St Petersburg in the Eighties as the Soviet Union was disintegrating. He believes studies like his film, Turo, of disused modernist constructions in the post-Soviet bloc, appeal to people’s connection to history. After all, picking through the architectural carcasses of former societies isn’t exactly a new thing:

“Russian culture is still haunted by its Communist past, and constructivist architecture is a decaying shell for its ghosts. It is an active reminder of the recent history,” he reflects. “Perhaps [its appeal] is a mixture of memento mori, with its thrill of beauty and destruction, along with a Romantic tradition of contemplation of Greek and Roman ruins.”

(Anton Ginzburg Turo teaser from Visionaireworld on Vimeo.)

The Power & Architecture season is on at the Calvert 22 Foundation, London, from 10 June-9 October 2016. Entry is free.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.