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Civil Society

Demonstration, Cairo, 2011 / Photo Shutterstock

Despite the discouraging authoritarian restrictions enacted by the regime, there are about 21,000 active civil-society organizations in Egypt. Of these, 15,154 were registered in 2010 as non-governmental organizations (NGOs), including service-delivery and welfare organizations, development organizations, and advocacy organizations (advocating for human rights, consumer protection, gender issues, and environmental protection). NGOs need a licence from the Ministry of Social Affairs, but it is the Ministry of Interior that is actually given the power to grant permissions, on the pretext of maintaining internal security. Many organizations focusing on human rights are therefore rejected. The NGOs that are officially recognized are allowed to receive funding from abroad. Several NGOs were allowed to operate in the country without the proper licensing, which, for example, gave the SCAF the opportunity to intervene in 2011, after the revolution. Led by Minister of International Cooperation Fayza Abou al-Naga, numerous NGOs were raided, their computers and files confiscated, and 43 employees, among them 19 American citizens, arrested. They were accused of illegal operations and receiving foreign funding that was portrayed in the media as a means of exerting foreign influence on Egyptian national affairs.

The Constitution grants the right to create trade unions or professional associations, known as syndicates, for professions such as lawyers, judges, doctors, teachers, engineers, and journalists. In reality, however, the Mubarak government limited their independence, especially when it became clear in the 1990s that many of the boards were dominated by Islamists. Most unions and syndicates were prohibited from holding board elections. All trade unions fell under the authority of the Egyptian Trade Union Federation, which is controlled by the government.

The 2008 Egypt Human Development Report of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) focused specifically on the role of civil-society organizations in Egypt and stressed their importance as a ‘third pillar alongside the state and the private sector’ for sustainable development. It referred to the often hostile attitude of the state towards civil society: ‘The continued existence of Egypt’s Emergency Law, and the application of the penal code to infringements of the Association Law are significant legislative barriers to effective civil society activity.’

During the protests against Mubarak, a meeting was held on 30 January 2011 in Tahrir Square between representatives of various trade unions. The meeting resulted in the formation of the first independent trade union, the Egyptian Federation for Independent Trade Unions. The federation called for a general strike and published a list of demands for wage reform, welfare reform, workers’ rights, and the release of opposition detainees. Immediately after the revolution, the Real Estate Tax Workers Union, an independent trade union, was established. The Revolutionary Socialists Movement is active in developing the trade unions of Egypt. Since the lifting of the Emergency Law, progress in this field appears possible.

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