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Uncivil Society

May 31, 2012

The promise of the “Arab Spring” seems to fade day by day.  Most recently, in a series of concerns regarding the fate of the 2011 revolutions, are the civil society crackdowns underway in both Egypt and Libya.

Leaders of the Egyptian transitional government revived Mubarak’s strict stance on civil society, taking extreme measures against NGOs and civil society organizations.  On December 29th, Egyptian security forces raided seven different NGOs based in Cairo, detaining numerous employees.  The organizations targeted in the crackdown focused specifically on issues of democracy and were supposed to monitor Egypt’s upcoming parliamentary elections.  Among the Americans detained by the Egyptian government, was Sam LaHood, son of Ray LaHood, Secretary of Transportation.

Sam (left) and Ray (right) LaHood

The conflict quickly escalated as Egypt proceeded to investigate over 400 unregistered NGOs, accusing them of accepting illegal donations.  In light of these developments, Senator Leahy proposed that U.S. pull its funding from Egypt, an amount totaling to $1.3 billion of military aid.  Egyptian authorities responded, criticizing the U.S. for funding unregistered NGOs, an action that, as a Washington Post article points out, is illegal in all nations. Egyptian authorities also argued that pulling U.S. aid would constitute a breach of the terms of Egypt’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel, rendering the long-standing agreement invalid.

Under intense political pressure the Egyptian government released the American NGO workers it had barred from leaving, including Sam LaHood.  The issue has not, however, resolved itself, as the Egyptian government continues to deny NGO licenses.  In spite of this continued hostility towards civil society organizations, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, waived certain requirements of the Egyptian government and allowed aid flows to continue.

More recently, Libya seems to have started down a similar and equally disturbing path.  Starting on June 1st, a new law will prohibit Libyan NGOs from receiving foreign donations.  With presidential elections looming less than three weeks away, this development bears striking resemblance to the situation in Egypt in late December.  Indeed, pro-democracy NGOs have found it next to impossible to register as official organizations with the Libyan government.  The pattern between Egyptian and Libyan civil society suggests the Libyan government may turn to increasingly stringent and harsh regulations for NGOs.

Libyan protestors whose cause remains jeopardized

Civil society and NGOs play important roles not only in establishing democracy and transparent government, but also in economic development.  A World Bank publication examines partnerships between Nepalese civil society organizations and the USAID Education for Income Generation program, concluding that civil society organizations have the potential to “mobilize public and private sectors to reach out to and support the disadvantaged youth around income generating opportunities.”  Thus, robust civil society has the potential to transform the economic climate of developing nations.  Indeed, in March Mr. Pavol Demes applied Slovakia’s experiences with developing civil society to the current situation in Libya.  Demes emphasized the importance of civil society organizations, citing their ability to “inform the public” and influence policy as essential to the development of Libya.

The example set by Egypt jeopardizes the futures of both these transitioning nations.  The development of civil society and operation of NGOs will play a key role in the development of both Egypt and Libya.  Whether or not each government will allow it to flourish, remains uncertain.

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