First They Come for the Nonprofits

On 21 July 2014, the Ministry of Justice of the Russian Federation registered five prominent Russian non-governmental organisations (NGOs) on the 'Foreign Agents' list. - See more at:

On 21 July 2014, the Ministry of Justice of the Russian Federation registered five prominent Russian non-governmental organisations (NGOs) on the ‘Foreign Agents’ list. – See more at:

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.

Unions, the First and Last Hope for Egyptian Revolution

0,,15498914_4,00New Orleans   When more than 20 organizers from labor unions and community organizations as part of the Organizers’ Forum delegation visited Egypt in 2011 after the revolution several years ago scores of meetings with political parties, activists, community and labor organizers, proved the one clear reality-tested conclusion that cut through all of the hype was that this was no Facebook revolution whatsoever.  If there was one clear, unheralded hero in the drama whose relentless pressure broke the Mubarak government it was the labor movement.   Their continuing strikes kept the pressure on the government no matter how much repression and press coverage occurred in the Square.  The events leading to Tahir Square and the surge of hope for change in Egypt that many called the Arab Spring were the classic case of something that seemed like a victory having a thousand fathers while a defeat is a bastard child.

            We were also convinced even in the fall of 2011 that the revolution was slipping away.  Now three years later so many of the hopes and aspirations of that time are mired in disappointment.  The elected government, dominated by the best organized, which in that case was the Muslim Brotherhood, failed to right the economy or open government to the array of voices that had made the revolution so vibrant.  In fact repression grew and for those of us who had been there it was not a surprise to see the government go after the leadership of independent trade union federations, often with minor or trumped up charges.  Labor unions were not silent during this period largely because they felt that one of the promises of the revolution were breeched when the new government continued to prop up the state controlled labor apparatus and hold down the ability of emerging, autonomous unions to bargain or even collect dues.  The alienation of some of the independent worker advocates was so extreme that some of them heralded the military coup that displaced the elected government as a relief, hoping that they would finally be able to appropriately establish their unions.

            I often wondered whether we were the only ones stumbling through the hype to the real story until I stumbled on a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal of all places finally giving some credit to workers as the last line of protest and defense threatening “to disrupt the widespread public adulation expected to propel Abdel Fattah al Sisi into the presidential palace….”   In a piece by Matt Bradley and Leila Elmergawi they not only gave credit to workers and trade union activists for their role in ousting Mubarak finally but also noted the price the labor movement is paying by continuing to put on the pressure for rights and wages, including the fact that leaders of the Post Office Union have been taken away and accused of creating a “terrorist” cell and a suit by against 11 strike leaders.  Teachers, doctors, police, and transport workers have also created independent unions and struck the government.  The Journal points out that only about one million of Egypt’s 23 million workers belong to independent unions, and that the government will obviously try to cut separate deals, but the unionization numbers are higher when state unions are counted and workers are still voting with their feet to hit the street in wildcat actions even from these more tightly controlled unions. 

            Unfortunately, unions by themselves can’t restore democracy in Egypt, but their continued pressure will eventually win wage relief from the government and will continue to speak to the courage and the aspirations of people.  You can’t tweet that or post it on Facebook easily, but workers are still proving that it’s strength at the base that counts more than Hail Mary shots at the powers that be through the internet’s social media channels.  It’s got to be feet on the ground, not just fingers on a key board to make real change.

Looking at Occupy and the Arab Spring

AADERT Conference

Springfield   Looking at the connections and contrasts between the revolutionary upheavals of the Arab Spring in the Middle East and the Occupy Movement was an irresistible topic for the 20th conference of AADERT (African and African-American Development, Education, Research, and Training) at Springfield College.  In fact anything that seeks to look deeply at social movements and learn from them counts as irresistible in my book, so I’m clearly not an unbiased guide.  Nonetheless 150 students, professors, activists, and men and women of the African diaspora assembled in the rain at the newish Flynn Union Center for the discussion all day on Saturday.

Listening to others from the diaspora, it did not seem to hold that distance had made hearts go fonder or certainly more secure.  Long time expatriates and exiles from Somolia, the civil wars of Liberia and Ethiopia, and elsewhere had to be judged from their remarks as highly skeptical of the real likelihood for reform and democracy arising from the Arab Spring.  Even less controversial issues like using the internet still reverberated with fears of security and surveillance 7000 miles away and in another world.

I had to heed the perspective since the Organizers’ Forum delegation’s visit to Cairo has been both inspiring and depressing as we both joined friends in hope for the future and the excitement of Tahrir Square and tried last fall to parse the views of mostly secular presidential candidates, none of whom have now survived to the runoff in recent Egyptian voting.  Were I talking to our friends on the Young Revolutionary Council now, I would imagine they are disaffected and uncertain whether to boycott the election completely with a choice between a member of the old Mubarak regime and the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, or hold their eyes and vote for the Brotherhood in hopes they can make a difference.

My own remarks focused on the elements of movements and how they could be identified in each of the movements by shining a light that revealed the hands behind the curtain.  I also tried to look at the contributions of each.  Interestingly, asking people to raise their hands less than a handful had any real knowledge or involvement with Occupy, further making my point about the somewhat elite nature of the movement attacking elites.  [See my remarks soon in Social Policy).  It was fun to be challenged to look at both of these major events together, even though the results are also still out in the jury on both of them.   The highlight for me was a woman at the end of the questions & answers, who said she just had to say something and then told a story of being doorknocked in Springfield by an ACORN organizer a couple of years ago, then getting together with her neighbors and winning – it was magical!

Almost as interesting to me was visiting with a class of Human Services graduate students and their professor, Dan Russell, in between sessions.  These were hardened veterans of real work in the trenches of the caregivers with experience  in unions from SEIU to Steel, and real cynicism and trepidation about whether their voices mattered and whether it was worth them speaking up and raising them when they saw injustice.  It goes without saying that I made my best, impassioned plea.  Their assignment had been to read some of my recent blogs, so it was fun to find some real traction with my remarks about the need for even the lonely voices in the jury box to speak truth to justice about the erosion of both mercy and justice in our criminal system.

Hope is not a plan, as I reminded the AADERT crowd, but persistent and committed work and events like these and the dialogues they produce still keep the heart light with expectation.   After my remarks a young man came up, stood in line to speak with me when it came to his turn, said he was from Monrovia, Liberia, and he wanted to know how he could join ACORN and help.  Now that’s a plan!

How Can Kamal Abbas be Sentenced to Jail Now in Egypt?

Here is a picture of Kamal Abbas that I took at his office in Cairo

New Orleans   When the Organizers’ Forum visited Cairo in the fall of 2011 one of the most impressive people we met was Kamal Abbas, the long time director of the Center for Trade Union and Worker Services (CTUWS), based in Cairo.  We visited him in his offices and were intrigued and inspired by the accounts of the struggle, hardship, and constant pressure  that he and other advocates of an independent, non-state controlled labor movement shared with us.

In the aftermath of what so many of us continue to hope still promises a future of revolutionary change I couldn’t believe when I received a message yesterday from Constanza La Mantia, one of our delegation from Palermo, Italy, forwarding to me the fact that Eric Lee and Labour Start in the United Kingdom are preparing to launch a petition drive in protest of Abbas being sentenced to 6 months in jail.   Her message this morning and a check on the Internet confirmed that even in the post-Mubarak period the effort to silence genuine voices of dissent and independence continues.

One of the clearest lessons we learned in Egypt was that this was not a Facebook revolution, but was a social upheaval triggered in no small part by workers desperate for change and living wages and initiating waves of strikes that the military could not quell.  This kind of repression helps underscore that point.

To sign the petition click here and then spread the word.

More of the story follows below:

Kamal Abbas

A “misdemeanour court” in Helwan, near Cairo, has sentenced Kamal Abbas, general coordinator of the Centre for Trade Union and Workers’ Services (CTUWS), to six months in prison for “insulting a public officer”.

That would be bad enough. But the public officer in question is one of the leaders of Egypt’s pre-revolutionary, government-controlled “unions!”

At a session of the International Labour Organization last June, representatives of the CTUWS and the new independent unions clashed with representatives of the state-run “Egyptian Trade Union Federation.”  Abbas is supposed to have “insulted” the ETUF’s acting president Ismail Ibrahim Fahmy, because he criticised the role of the ETUF and rejected the idea it represents or can represent Egyptian workers. (See here for the CTUWS’s report.)

Hard Choices, Right Process: Deal Making in Paterno, Cairo, & New Orleans

Everyone is Happy with the Decision and Crowds around Candidate Vittorio Lo Presti (middle/blue sweater)

Paterno     After days of discussion sometimes heated and dramatic, the leadership of the La Citta civic movement in Paterno had come to the crossroads where they had to make decisions.  The right-leaning party had chosen a candidate for mayor and attracted some support from the center as well.  This meant that if La Citta could come up with a choice that was attractive, then there was a viable coalition that was possible with the left-party.  Other movements were beginning to announce their lists of candidates for councilors.  A newly organized movement like La Citta needed time to work through its program and get its people organized, but time was now the last thing it had.  The right steps might propel the movement from nowhere to the top, if they could figure out a way to reach consensus.

The leadership assembled in the campaign office and for two hours I listened to what I knew was a serious, well reasoned debate even with my marginal understanding of Italian and an occasional word of translation from my friend and comrade, Paolo Guarnicca, who had invited me to Paterno to help on technical questions and organizational development.  The debate involved classic questions.  Is it important to win or to make a point?  Is the process more important for the organization than choosing the right candidate?  How would any choice be received by the movement’s emerging constituency that wanted change and something different, if an existing politician was supported and the endorsement was not transparent?  Order was required and the speakers went around the room, one after another, sometimes at length and sometimes loudly, but always yielding to the next turn.  Some were adamant for someone new.  Others felt that they had someone who could win in the head of the water society, a lawyer who had joined their movement.  Others worried that he had previously been involved in the right party and the message would look expedient, rather than principled and kill the movement.  Paolo was even suggested as a possible candidate.

Team La Citta: President Biaggio Di Caro, Vittorio Lo Prestion, Paolo Guarnaccia

Finally, Paolo offered a compromise.  Vittorio should be supported but the president of La Citta should be the official bridge to the movement and Paolo should be part of the team as a consultant to the future mayor’s government to implement needed reforms, if he was victorious in the election.  Quickly, it was clear that there was now something for everyone.  A candidate would be on top of the ticket that might be able to win and a sense of a team guaranteeing change that would also be a signal to the left.   The men were ecstatic.  Bonds were formed.  Handshakes and hugs were everywhere, and pictures were taken.  It was the right decision for the organization.  Who knows if they can now do the work to win, but finally they are in position to do so.

Making deals is so difficult after long struggles, when even victory can seem bittersweet and not quite enough to settle the stomach.  Certainly this was true here in the small city of Paterno, but I had the same thought reading the story in the Times of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt now preparing to finally call for the military to step out of power on the eve of Mubarak’s resignation as they realize their base is now all of Egypt and not simply their members, long cloistered in secrecy and silence.  If reporter David Kirkpatrick is right, the liberal parties seem to still not be willing to join the Brotherhood on even a call they support, but rather seem to want the Brotherhood to rise and fall on their own steam.  A deal is hard in the middle of a revolution half-won and half-lost.

I looked at a picture sent to me from New Orleans.  Vanessa Gueringer of A Community Voice, formerly New Orleans ACORN, was wearing her ACV button as she put her foot on a shovel along with Mayor Mitch Landrieu and other city dignitaries as they broke ground for a park in the Lower 9th Ward.  Vanessa has been a constant advocate and thorn in the side of the city officials for years about how little is done to rebuild the Lower 9th and she is constantly showing them how half-full the glass is from the residents’ perspective.  Nonetheless, as a great leader, she knows when the situation requires grace and it’s time to put the shovel in the dirt and celebrate a true victory no matter how many times she might have wanted to swing that tool at the nearest city official!

ACV Leader Vanessa Gueringer, Councilman Jon Johnson, and Mayor Mitch Landrieu at Ground Breaking of Oliver Bush Park in Lower 9th Ward

We are often so long out of power that when we win, it is hard to make the deal, no matter how badly we want it.  If the process is right, then the hard choices will be right, too.