Waveland It seems not so much a pattern as an iron law that as governments move to clamp down on their citizens, first they come for the nonprofits. The evidence is everywhere, but the most recent examples can be found in Russia and Egypt. When a delegation from the Organizers’ Forum visited each of these countries in recent years, first Russia in 2007 and Egypt in 2011, the tendencies were clear, but now they are full-blown.
In Russia, the first steps involved registration of nonprofits, but it was obvious that the real issue was not so much whether or not there was proper registration with local authorities as whether or not it would be possible to block financial support from international NGOs and other foreign sources. In Egypt, since the repression following the revolution there have been arrests of representatives of nonprofits and human rights officials including foreign nationals from several countries including the USA whose work was focused on civic engagement or democracy building.
Journalists, bloggers, and activists have certainly suffered the brunt of continued repression. In Russia, we had met Evgenia Chirikova, who at the time was a young middle class mother of two children whose family had moved to the outskirts of Moscow and had become an environmentalist when she stumbled onto red X’s on trees in the Khimki Forest while walking her daughters and realized a highway was going to be built through the ancient forest. I still follow their fight against all odds, enduring beatings, false arrests, and constant harassment in what has been largely a losing fight. Similarly, some of the young organizers we met in Egypt who were in the middle of the action in Tahir Square during the revolution have now scattered to the winds after arrests and constant harassment.
Nonetheless, autocratic governments don’t feel secure enough just going after these courageous activists and organizers, so they push to curtail nonprofit activity is an attempt to cut off all of the supply lines that support such work. The new application of such laws in Egypt seems especially chilling. According to the Times:
The new law imposes a potential life sentence for the crime of intending to “harm the national interest,” “compromise national unity” or “breach security or public peace,” if it involves receiving money from abroad. Foreign funding is how virtually every credible human rights group here has subsisted for decades because of the legal and practical obstacles to domestic fund-raising under Egypt’s authoritarian governments.
Ghada Waly, the Egyptian minister of social solidarity, in charge of administering the program is ironically a veteran of some of the same international NGOs that are fleeing the country, having worked for CARE and the United Nations Development Program. She likens the laws to anti-smoking regulations in hospitals in the US, saying simply that the new law “… is a rule and you have to respect it.” Meanwhile the Carter Center has closed its office in the wake of the new rule and the Cairo Center for Human Rights Studies after 20 years is moving to Tunisia.
No matter what these governments say, when they ask for the ability to approve every single grant to a nonprofit, seize staff and hold them for months during “investigations,” the nonprofit community is clear that they can hear the feet coming up behind them and the knock of the door to take them away. No matter what these governments say, if it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck.