No sooner did Ibrahim Mamdouh, the international relations director at the local NGO, Humanitarian Relief and Rehabilitation, seen a call for proposals on the website of an international donor agency than he sent the agency a list of humanitarian projects that needed funding.
But his NGO, which supports vulnerable individuals reeling from human and natural disasters, was turned down.
“The agency said it had already stopped offering financial support for Egypt’s NGOs,” Mamdouh said. “They declined to give reasons for this, but I think this agency and others are afraid to be accused of offering illegal support for NGOs in this country.”
A crackdown last year on several western pro-democracy groups (https://www.reuters.com/article/2011/12/29/us-egypt-groups-idUSTRE7BS0PT20111229) on charges that they had received funding from foreign governments and agencies to stir up chaos in Egypt is strongly affecting the ability of local humanitarian NGOs to receive funding for their activities and keep going.
Sadly, needy Egyptians, living in areas the government considers low priority, have been turning to these NGOs for support.
“There is a funding crisis inside humanitarian organizations and this crisis has started to appear when the government began clamping down on the democracy promotion groups,” said Nehal Fahmy, a leading expert on Egypt’s civil society. “A large number of humanitarian NGOs have already stopped working because of this.”
Al Gora Community Development Association, is one of them. Its head, Bakr Suweilam, says his organization, which does humanitarian work in the Sinai Peninsula, northeast of Egypt, and offers services to thousands of deprived Bedouin, has already stopped working because the government puts what he describes as “invincible” restrictions on funding to local NGOs.
“The government should know that we have nothing to do with politics,” Suweilam said. “We only help the needy, the deprived, and the people victimised by the failure of the government to cater for their needs.”
Suweilam submitted documents to get official government approval to dig wells in the desert for Bedouin farmers, who were dire need of water for drinking and to irrigate their farmland. An international donor agency had funded the project before the government raided the American and European pro-democracy groups in December.
“The project did not see the light of day, because the government has not approved it yet,” Suweilam says. “It treats us as it does pro-democracy organizations, which is totally miscalculated.”
Humanitarian activists say when the crack down on pro-democracy groups started, foreign donor agencies, which offer the bulk of funding for local NGOs and do not get involved in the local politics, were scared away. That, coupled with defamation campaigns by the media against civil society, is forcing some NGOs to work illegally, or stop working altogether, noted Maged Al Rabiey, executive director of the Friends of Life Society, a local NGO from the coastal city of Alexandria, that offers medical assistance to AIDS patients.
Other activists say apart from the defamation campaigns launched by media against civil society in general, the government placed more restrictions on the work of humanitarian organisations, giving them even a hard time.
“So, when humanitarian organizations submit a request for approving project funds, the approval never comes, regardless of whether the funds come from licensed agencies with officially approved objectives,” said Maged Al Rabiey, executive director of the Friends of Life Society, a local NGO from the coastal city of Alexandria that offers medical assistance to AIDS patients. “This means that these organizations have either to work illegally or stop working altogether.”
The government denies what it calls the “unfounded claims” made by activists against them. It says when NGOs request funding, it is given quickly.
“We only put control on funding coming from outside,” said Aziza Youssef, the assistant social insurance minister. “Other than this, we help NGOs do their work effectively.”
Youssef said her ministry had given 50 million Egyptian pounds (US$8.3 million) to NGOs last year.
United Nations officials say the restrictions on NGOs will increase in the future with the government proposing a law that gives it more control on the work of NGOs.
“If implemented, it would be a potentially serious blow to the human rights aspirations of fundamental freedoms for which so many Egyptians have struggled for so long,” said U.N human rights chief Navi Pillay (https://www.reuters.com/article/2012/04/25/us-egypt-n-idUSBRE83O18J20120425).
Humanitarian workers like Suweilam of the Sinai-based Al Gora Community Development Association, are frustrated about what’s happening. He says people come to his office to ask about the wells he promised them months ago.
“I do not really know what to say to them,” Suweilam said. “I only ask them to be patient.”