Up a car-choked Cairo street just ten kilometers from the site where thousands of Egyptians danced in jubilation on February 11 after President Mubarak agreed to step down, sits an inconspicuous, worn, office building. Inside, casually dressed workers stoop over desks, eyes glued to glaring computer screens. Chatter reverberates through the sparse office. Faded photos of gleaming faces from around the world are pinned to the wall. Files are piled high on desks. It is an unremarkable scene. But what makes this office noteworthy, is its mandate. This is the home of the Egyptian Association for Community Participation Enhancement, or EACPE, a non-government and non-profit organisation dedicated to building capacity within Egyptian civil society.
At its core is the Belal family: mother, father, son and daughter, all working side by side in their quest to ensure Egyptian citizens can play a part in the democratisation and political reform of Egypt. Pre-February this year, it was a team dedicated to scratching out a space in Egypt’s largely impenetrable political landscape – a landscape so dictatorial that Egyptian citizens could only imagine what it might be like to have the right to be involved in meaningful political discussion.
But now with the 30-year long iron-fisted rule of Hosni Mubarak over, suddenly the EACPE team is facing an agenda as big as it can get: ensuring and educating for democracy. Political commentators largely agree that the issues Egypt faces now are as big as that of a country newly liberated from colonial rule: self government, social equality, economic consolidation and cultural regeneration. This is all in a country that is burdened with having nearly half of its population attempting to get by on less than $2 a day.
Already some 40 million Egyptian people have voted in the country’s first fully-free ballot. The majority sided with bringing in a number of constitutional amendments and said yes to holding a presidential election this September. The arguments for and against amending the constitution were long and intense, the debate spilling over into the streets, cafes and homes of a people long denied the right to have a say in the way their country is run.
For Nawara Belal, EACPE’s spokesperson, the decisions that are needed to bring about the free democracy the Egyptian people fought for extend far beyond the vote. “The reality is that we do not even know the intentions of the army and how they are going to handle the government position,” Belal says. As for the election happening in four months, “There has not been enough time.” People simply need more time, she thinks, to recover from the decades of oppression. Systems to monitor whatever the newly formed political landscape will look like need to be invented, tracked and approved. Civil society, essentially, needs to be mobile and equipped or it will not be capable of being objective or engaging politically. While Mubarak might be gone, Belal says a free civil society that can monitor its government is a long way off.
The threats to civil society are still stark. At the top is the governance structure of the Peoples’ Assembly, the Shura Council and local councils. “A product of the most fraudulent elections in Egypt’s history,” Belal says. The other hot agenda items include: an NGO law (Law 84.2002) which empowers the government to suppress independent civil society; state-owned media; continued prosecutions, arrests and harassment of political activists, journalists and foreign correspondents; legislative and administrative restrictions on the circulation of information and the right of citizens to information; and oppressive laws (Law 174.2005) on the exercising of political rights. Belal says warning bells should also be ringing after women were excluded from both the caretaker government and the new national committee formed to write the new Egyptian constitution.
Crushing as these limitations are, they have been eclipsed for most of the post-Mubarak era by a grim reality of a different sort: that of dollars and cents. Food price inflation has risen to 50 per cent and economists say that with foreign exchange reserves depleting fast and the tourist dollar gone, a draconian IMF bailout is not beyond the realm of possibility. Under pressure, under resourced and immensely under funded, Belal says international support for Egyptian civil society is crucial to avoid a return to yet another autocratic system – and especially needed to ensure a human rights based transition of power. This is not to say that the EACPE crew and their peers are fighting alone. Indeed, Belal says several international actors, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, are working in Egypt, but from “a totally different perspective.” Their mandate is pressuring government from a human rights perspective for the rights of the protestors, detainees and martyrs.
Local civil society, seeking a new constitution, is largely on its own. But while the challenges are many, this is unfortunately an environment in which Egyptian civil society organisations (CSOs) are well versed. To overcome capacity issues, the EACPE team have joined with a dozen Egyptian civil society organisations to create the Forum of Independent Human Rights Organisations, with a mandate to lobby government officers. To date they have reached out to almost 200 CSO’s. As for their key asks, Belal says – dissolution of the People’s Assembly, Shura Council and local councils, establishment of civilian oversight of the Interior Ministry and the dissolution of State Security Investigations (a crucial pillar of the police state) and, of course, the provision of public liberties. To create a free Egypt, the intensity shown by Egyptian and international groups must be redirected into careful planning, balances and checks. People must keep their eye on the freedom prize, and support must continue. “We are right now in the critical stage. If we miss the opportunity to implement these strategies the risks are high.”
Is Belal worried? “Yes”.
*EACAP is a recipient of the CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation Crisis Response Fund (CRF). The CRF fund is available to threatened civil society groups needing to mobilise resources quickly. To learn more about supporting the fund visit: http://www.civicus.org/csw/csw-crisis-response-fund