Stephen McInerney writes:
Civil society is an essential component of any democracy and it will be a key factor in determining the success of the democratic transitions now underway in the Middle East and North Africa. In his May 19 speech, President Barak Obama identified “a vibrant civil society” as one of four areas in which Egypt and Tunisia should set a strong example for the region. Speaking to a global forum in Sweden last month, Secretary Hillary Clinton described civil society as “a force for progress around the world,” while noting that “in too many places, governments are treating civil society activists as adversaries, rather than partners.” Sadly, nowhere is that now more true than in Egypt, where the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has steadily escalated a campaign against this community which is even more repressive than during the Mubarak era.
Unlike neighboring Libya and Tunisia, in which civil society was almost nonexistent prior to the revolutions of this year, Egypt has thousands of longstanding civil society organizations. Under Mubarak, the vast majority of these groups avoided any political issues, human rights concerns, or criticism of the Mubarak regime, instead focusing on issues such as health, education, and family welfare. The small subset of these groups that dared to work on political issues or human rights abuses were often the target of government harassment, interference, and intimidation. In the weeks following Mubarak’s fall, Egyptian NGOs were eager to play a broader role and to help guide the political processes during Egypt’s transition. Unfortunately, frustration set in quickly as the SCAF appeared to entirely ignore the views of civil society in its decision-making process. Tensions grew throughout the spring as the SCAF continued to ignore the demands and recommendations of civil society actors and increasingly sought to undermine their reputation with the Egyptian public, primarily through stories in the state-run media implying that Egyptian NGOs are working on behalf of foreign agendas.
In recent months, the SCAF has dramatically escalated these attacks on civil society. On July 12, Minister of International Cooperation Faiza Abul-Naga announced that the government would establish a commission of inquiry to investigate the funding of civil society organizations. Only two weeks later, state-owned October magazine ran a cover story — illustrated with a crude depiction of U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson burning Tahrir Square with flaming U.S. dollars — that accused the United States of undermining Egypt’s revolution by funding civil society organizations.