opinionBy Kenneth Roth
Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are essential to democracy and a key way for people of all political views to band together to influence public debate. But once more, the Egyptian government is threatening to restrict NGOs that receive foreign funds. Exercised about criticism from some of these groups, the ruling party is pushing a bill that would empower the government to decide which groups are allowed to receive foreign funding. That would invite the government to pick favorites, approving foreign funds for lapdogs while rejecting them for critics, particularly human rights groups.
But why are foreign funds so nefarious when received by NGOs yet apparently uncontroversial when received by others? The Egyptian military receives billions of dollars in aid from the United States; does that make it a subversive organization? The Egyptian government is desperately seeking foreign funds from the International Monetary Fund (IMF); is that an act of treason? Egyptian businesses are clamoring for foreign direct investment and the spending of foreign tourists; are these acts of disloyalty?
Of course not. So why is it any more wrongful for NGOs to solicit financial support from foreign friends? Bolstered by foreign funds, the army, the government, and the business community all seek to advance their political agendas; why should only NGOs be singled out for restriction? It leaves the impression that their real sin is not accepting foreign contributions but criticizing the government and ruling party.
For decades under former President Hosni Mubarak and his predecessors, the Muslim Brotherhood, the movement behind the ruling Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), faced severe persecution. The human rights groups that came to their defense were almost all foreign funded, given the reluctance of Egyptians to risk government retaliation by donating funds themselves.
Today, with the tables turned, the newly empowered Brotherhood is the subject of much human rights scrutiny. Because it has not yet shown itself willing to tolerate criticism, would-be local funders of human rights work still fear retaliation, so external funding remains an essential source. But seemingly inspired by the likes of Ethiopia and Russia, the ruling party would like to turn off the spigot.
Beyond the ruling party's remarkable lack of memory and principle lies a misconception about the role of NGOs in a democratic society. Victory at the polls does not entitle President Mohamed Morsi or the ruling party to sideline these groups because even elected governments must abide by international human rights law. Just as majority endorsement is no justification for, say, torturing a suspect, that a government is elected is no justification for restricting the right to freedom of association.
Moreover, like an independent press, a vigorous NGO sector is an indispensable part of democracy. That is because elections alone provide insufficient opportunity for the public to influence the decisions of government. The mere act of voting, important as it is, is too blunt an instrument for citizens to express their views. At best people vote for a political party -- a tendency or orientation -- but that periodic vote does not mean uncritical endorsement of every decision the party might make about the broad range of issues, some foreseeable some not, that arise in day-to-day governance.
That's where the rights of free speech and association come in. People need the freedom to speak out on issues whenever they arise, not only on election day. And the way to increase the reach of each person's voice is through such megaphones as social media, the press, and the ability to join together with like-minded people through an NGO.
It should be no surprise that NGOs -- like the media -- sometimes criticize government decisions. That is not subversion. It is the essence of democracy. Government and ruling-party officials should not see it as a threat. Any government effort to steer funding only to groups that parrot official views undermines this essential democratic role.
That is not to say that anything goes for NGOs. Like everyone else, they should be transparent about their funding and activities and refrain from criminality. If an NGO worker really is plotting to violently overthrow the state or to commit some other legitimately proscribed act, he or she should be prosecuted under the regular criminal code. There is no need for new prohibitions under the NGO law.
Any regulation of NGOs should focus on their conduct, not their source of funds. So long as an organization is engaged in peaceful advocacy, even if that is critical dissent, it should be entitled to do so as a matter of right, regardless of who funds it. Otherwise the Muslim Brotherhood will only fuel the view that little has changed since Mubarak's fall.
Kenneth Roth is executive director of Human Rights Watch. Follow him on Twitter @KenRoth.