A recent article in The Guardian, “Egypt’s government to restrict NGO vote monitoring,” probably came as no surprise to people familiar with Egyptian politics. Just as governments and people worldwide have come to accept democracy as the “correct” way to govern, so too have they come to view the independence of NGOs as central to ensuring democratic practice. Whenever a national government announces restrictions to domestic NGO activities, it tends to set alarm bells ringing amongst human rights groups and the international community about the country’s humanitarian situation and governance processes. We have watched as restrictions to NGO activities have been announced across the world—from Zimbabwe to Israel, Iraq to Sri Lanka, Peru to Uganda... and each time it carries the same message: there is a lack of respect for democracy, and lack of respect for human rights.
In light of the fact that parliamentary elections are due in Egypt this year, and presidential selection comes in 2011, a recent letter from the Working Group on Egypt addressed to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, calling on the international community to take action, summarised the situation: “Egypt is at a critical turning point…[it] now has the opportunity to energize a process of political, economic, and social reform. If the government responds to demands for responsible political change, Egypt can face the future as a more democratic nation… If, on the other hand, the opportunity for reform is missed, prospects for stability and prosperity in Egypt will be in doubt.”
Indeed. Heightened awareness of the Egyptian regime as a result of NGO restrictions should be taken as an opportunityto urge Egypt’s government to make some much needed democratic reforms.
First and foremost, foreign governments should ensure that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak commits to his promise of “free and fair elections” this year and next by allowing independent election monitoring. Previous elections in Egypt have been met with allegations of corruption and malpractice; that NGOs will be restricted from monitoring elections means that the international community should push for the employment of an alternative technique. Prior to the elections, independent monitors would scrutinise candidate registration, legal frameworks, media freedom and the campaign environment. During the elections, they would monitor polling stations, the casting of votes, and the counting and tabulation of results. After the elections, they would assess election-related shortcomings and complaints, and then make their findings public through reports. These processes are vital for Egyptian democracy to thrive—the international community should take efforts to ensure this process is initiated sooner rather than later.
Secondly, with attention already on NGO-government relations in Egypt, the United Nations and human rights workers should pressure the government to amend its existing 2002 NGO law, Law 84, which severely limits independent activity in the sector, violating the country’s international obligations to uphold freedom of association for citizens. Through Law 84, the government has granted itself authority to dictate NGO activities, attend NGO meetings, add items to NGO meeting agendas, and decide who sits on NGO boards. An official statement from the UN specified that when a country’s citizens “cannot form, run, and fund civil society organizations, then there is little chance of a functioning democracy.” This is certainly the case in Egypt, and with further NGO restrictions in the pipeline, now is the time to press for change to the current framework.
Thirdly, President Mubarak must be forced to end the official state of emergency, which he has used to restrict the liberties of citizens since he came into office almost three decades ago. The state of emergency permits the executive to censor newspapers, prohibit demonstrations, monitor citizens’ personal communications, and arrest and retain individuals without charge. Just last month, Human Rights Watch reported on police dealings with a group of citizens silently protesting for “an end to... the state of emergency... and to allow for open and inclusive presidential elections.” Ninety-one people were arrested and the Egyptian authorities responded “with lawless brutality.” The current state of emergency (last renewed in May 2008) is due to conclude this month, but if previous activity is anything to go by, it is likely that it will be extended yet again unless there is significant pressure put on Mubarak from the international community to stop it.
The news announced by The Guardian serves to reinforce our conceptions that NGOs are “benchmarks” of democratic practice and reflective of government values. Hopefully the news item has helped to attract international attention to the Egyptian regime and its undemocratic practices. But the international community must learn to interpret these messages not so much as a warning signal, but as a communication to act now. Let’s just hope that it does.Civil Society, Egypt, Elections, NGO, United Nations