Revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt sparked uprisings and protests in the Middle East and North. These uprisings resulted in the involvement of civil society organizations in ensuring democratic development in the troubled nations in the Middle East. Civil society refers to a sector of society that is distinct from government and business. It also refers to non-governmental organizations and institutions that come together to manifest and defend the will and interests of citizens. Put simply, civil society depicts organizations and individuals in society whose operations or activities are independent of government.
For a long time, the U.S. has been at the forefront when it comes to financing and supporting global civil society with the aim of ensuring democratic development around the world. One of the countries that have been critical of U.S. support for global civil society is Egypt. Since the Egyptian uprising in 2011, the Egyptian government has strongly opposed U.S. support for civil society; a move that has resulted in what is believed to be the worst deterioration of the relations between the U.S. and Egypt in history (Newby, 2012). In the aftermath of the Egyptian revolution, there has been a deterioration in the civil society environment in Egypt. The Egyptian government’s opposition of CSOs is based on the argument that they pursue foreign agendas and that they accept illegal assistance from abroad. According to the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, civil society in Egypt is both multifaceted and vibrant and is committed to addressing well over 25,000 social, political, and economic issues (Newby, 2012). However, civil society work in the country has been made difficult and almost impossible by a number of de jure and de facto realities. Following the Egyptian revolution, there was further deterioration in civil societies’ room to operate from the repressive Mubarak era. This is evident in how CSOs faced intense hostility from the interim government and the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). The Egyptian government has since launched investigations into civil society funding, conducted raids into their offices, and taken legal action against individuals leading the organizations.
Despite the hostility from the Egyptian government, U.S. assistance to global civil society particularly in Egypt is most likely to continue. The improvement of U.S. civil society assistance in Egypt in the long-term depends on the strategy in place. First, the U.S. should sustain pressure on Egypt and insist on the implementation of civil society grant programs as has been done in the past (Newby, 2012). Second, the U.S. should focus on getting the message right and improving its public messaging in Egypt. This is because Egyptian authorities through state-run media and other platforms have misrepresented how the U.S. engages with the country thus damaging the reputation of the U.S. among Egyptian citizens (Newby, 2012). Third, U.S. civil society assistance in Egypt must foster genuine local ownership projects given the nervousness among Egyptian citizens about America’s interference in domestic affairs through CSOs. It is believed that the value of local ownership is the best practice in the international assistance world (Newby, 2012). Fourth, the U.S., in providing aid to civil society in Egypt, should strive to remain as neutral as possible. This is because Egyptian government authorities and other state officials are focused on accusing the U.S. of attempts to manipulate the Egyptian political arena alongside having perceptions of U.S. involvement in political favouritism. These aspects are likely to jeopardize the objectives the U.S. is striving to achieve in Egypt. Fifth, U.S. should focus on using different tools to achieve short- and long-term gains. In the short term, in response to the civil society debacle in Egypt, the U.S. should involve or collaborate with faster and less bureaucratic donors such as the MEPI and the DRL (Newby, 2012). This could help deal with the hostility and antagonism from Egyptian authorities as far as aid to civil society is concerned.
Newby, Anna. “US civil society assistance to Egypt: Thinking long term.” Digest of Middle East Studies 21, no. 2 (2012): 327-352.