Egypt provided the formal charges against 43 members of nongovernmental organisations (NGOs), including 19 Americans, and their organisations. Among the charges were that the NGOs had received illegal foreign financing, that they were operating without proper licenses, that some of the accused were in Egypt under tourist visas, and so on.
A U.S. State Department spokeswoman said the matter should not be treated as a judicial matter, but rather should be handled as a state-to-state issue, subject to negotiations and without penalties.
The NGO issue reflects the belief of the Egyptian military leaders that last year’s unrest was fomented by foreign-funded NGOs and, as was made clear in the charges, that the NGOs have become increasingly active and are continuing to attempt to influence Egyptian politics.
The question of the role of international NGOs is a controversial one. The Russians, for example, charged that NGOs, funded by the CIA, were behind the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004-2005. Others have claimed that international NGOs were operating in their countries to destabilise their governments, frequently as tools of foreign governments trying to achieve political and strategic ends under the guise of promoting democracy or human rights.
The Americans and Europeans regard this as an appropriate mission. They see increasing democracy, strengthening civil society and pressing for human rights as reasonable efforts. The term used for this activity is “soft power,” which is when non-military, non-coercive means are used to influence and pressure foreign governments to reform. The use of NGOs toward this end goes back to the Cold War, when human rights groups, sometimes funded by the West, operated in the former Soviet Union, trying to foment change. Part of this mission, it must be added, included attempting to destabilise the Soviet regime.
This is the crux of the problem. The United States and Europe see many of the world’s existing governments as repressive and as violating human rights. NGOs, some with government funding but most without, operate in these countries to create pressure to reform. However, the regimes see themselves as the legitimate government of the country, and they see the presence of the NGOs as an attempt to foment unrest and destabilise them. In a sense, NGOs and the Egyptian government view NGOs the same way, as effective in fomenting change. The difference is that the NGOs like what they are doing and the Egyptian government doesn’t.
From the viewpoint of the Egyptian government, the NGOs have been successful in Egypt, and therefore the government intends to shut them down. Ultimately, Egypt’s leaders see the efforts of the NGOs as interference by foreign nationals in the country’s internal affairs.
All of this intersects with geopolitics in the sense that the more effective NGOs are, the more useful they are as a tool to shape the internal affairs of a country. The question is the extent to which they represent the will of their national governments. Therefore, how the NGOs are funded becomes crucial. But in the end, however they are funded, they represent a threat to existing governments.
In fact, the Egyptian government is clearly prepared to jeopardise its relationship with the United States and forfeit U.S. aid if that’s what it takes to control the NGOs. Of course, there is a political dimension, with the ruling Egyptian officials using the charges against the NGOs to portray themselves as nationalists resisting Western forces. At the same time, the case acknowledges that NGOs are an effective force.
It follows from this that other countries are watching Egypt’s actions carefully. This case could set a precedent for other governments that want to shut down Western NGOs in their country. If that happened, it would obviously affect the NGOs, but it would also affect a significant dimension of Western soft power. How far this spreads beyond Egypt will be important to watch.
“Egypt looks to rein in NGOs” republished with the permission of Stratfor, www.stratfor.com