All NGO's unjustly tarred with the same brush
Egypt, Politics, 6/2/2001
The seven-year jail sentence against Egyptian-US academic Saad Eddin Ibrahim ignited a fresh bout of debate over the future of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Egypt, an Egyptian report said.
The issue of foreign finance will remain inconclusive as long as the government is unable to produce a viable alternative to Law No.153/1999, whose constitutionality was challenged.
Saad Eddin Ibrahim, whose ordeal won him the title of democracy activist, was sentenced to seven years in jail after the State Security Court found him guilty of defaming Egypt in his rights reports. He was also charged with damaging state interests by spreading "false reports" alleging electoral fraud and religious persecution.
The court found the 62-year-old sociology professor guilty of receiving funds illegally from the European Commission to monitor parliamentary elections and offering bribes to forge official documents. Up to 20 employees in the Ibn Khaldoun Centre for Social Development Studies, a Cairo-based group run by Ibrahim, received sentences ranging between one and five years.
Local and foreign rights groups reacted with fury to the sentence, but Egyptian writers and journalists have been unusually vocal in supporting the sentence. Unfortunately, the whole case was pathetically personalised thereby obscuring the real issue of how to regulate the activities of NGOs.
So far the government still harbours very serious doubts regarding the role of civil society institutions. In 1999 it issued a new law which virtually crippled most NGOs from pursuing their activities as it strictly prohibited them from accepting any foreign funding without government approval. In other words, the government sought to tighten its control over these sources of finance to ensure that the money is used only for what it deems to be 'appropriate activities'.
But NGOs reacted strongly to this law which they considered a death warrant to their activities and wished the government would give up its obsession with controlling them. Certainly they couldn't promise to stop receiving foreign funding because this was their main source of finance, especially at a time when the government is not prepared to pay a penny to bankroll the activities of NGOs.
Throughout the high-profile trial, Ibrahim received intensive media attention. After his release on bail, Ibrahim accorded a myriad of interviews to newspapers and magazines and contributed a series of articles on the civil society in Egypt and the Arab world in an Arab daily newspaper. He criticised Arab governments of trying to undermine NGOs to avoid the appearance of real civil societies which can threaten their monopoly on decision-making. Ibrahim's argument was to a great extent plausible because most Arab governments have only reluctantly accepted the appearance of NGOs but spared no effort to guarantee that they only maintain a low-profile presence.
But Ibrahim gave his critics a pretext to savage him when he issued a statement on alleged discrimination against Copts during the visit of the US religious freedom committee to Cairo. Although he didn't meet the committee members personally, his statement had a substantial impact on its assessment of the situation in Egypt. Ibrahim's colleagues and other rights activists were shocked by the statement, which entrenched the prejudices of the committee. Even the staunchest rights activists in Egypt had reservations on the outcome of the committee's visit, believing that its members jumped to conclusions without conducting any thorough research.
It's absolutely absurd to try to judge Saad Eddin Ibrahim's intentions. They might have been good, but it's also certain that the activities of rights activists couldn't possibly be 100% neutral if they are linked with foreign finance. Past experiences produced abundant evidence that donors always expect something in return, even if this is not put in a blatant way.
While Ibrahim's defence is preparing to lodge an appeal with the Court of Cassation, Egyptian human rights groups expressed both shock and surprise at the severity of the sentence. The Secretary General of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights Hafez Abu Seida said the sentence was a clear message to rights activists in Egypt to stop their activities.
"It's up to the government to make the choice. It can either produce an acceptable law to regulate the activities of NGOs or tell us frankly to close our organisations and give up this work altogether," he said.
The director of the centre for legal aid to human rights Amir Salem disagreed with Saad Eddin Ibrahim's approach, but believed the punishment was too disproportionate with the scale of his offence. "We have strong respect for court orders, but the bases on which the sentence was grounded are unconstitutional," he said.
Abu Seida, who was entangled in a sticky case involving foreign finance not so long ago, said it was unreasonable to reduce the whole case to a mere dispute over foreign finance to NGOs and rights groups.
"We haven't received any donations for the last two years. We haven't been doing any serious work because we are also prevented from receiving any donations from local organisations or individuals either," he said.
"How does the government expect more than 19,000 non-profit organisations to survive without donations?" he wondered, adding that they don't expect to generate any money from their activities.
Sociology Professor Amani Kandil, also an advocate of non-governmental and voluntary work, believes Abu Seida's argument is reasonable in every sense. She said the service sector in modern societies depends on the efforts of the government, NGOs and the contributions of the business community.
"I think the government must reconsider its approach towards NGOs. It may put in place stringent controls to guarantee that donations are spent in the right directions instead of considering donations a proof on treason," she said.
Lawyer Abdel Malek Khalil, a pioneer in creating NGOs, believes the major problem lies in the absence of a clear legal perception of the activities of NGOs and other associations. "Law 153/1999 was passed without identifying a clear philosophy of how to deal with the civil organisations. The government doesn't seem to have a clear-cut policy on this issue and the contradictions in its behaviour prove that it has double standards," he said.
Egypt said decision of judiciary on Professor Ibrahm is independent
Egypt human rights report
Saad El-Din Ibragim: my case is due to the coming parliament elections
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