Human Rights NGOs and the "Foreign Funding Debate" in Egypt

Nicola Pratt

The “foreign funding debate’’ refers to a set of debates within Egyptian civil society over the advantages and disadvantages of Egyptian NGOs accepting funds from non-Egyptian, particularly Western, organizations (nongovernmental and governmental). These debates have become particularly heated with regard to human rights NGOs because of the more politicized nature of their work and the political activist origins of many human rights advocates.1 Debates over foreign funding take part among and between NGO activists, members of political parties, journalists, and intellectuals in seminars, in informal gatherings, and via the media. In addition, the government adds to the debate by determining the legality of accepting funds from abroad.2 The topic of foreign funding has become so ubiquitous that it is currently impossible to discuss the subject of human rights NGOs in Egypt without someone mentioning the ‘‘F’’ word (funding).

The foreign funding debate is not about NGO financial matters but about the identity of those who provide funds (that is, organizations located in the West) and Egypt’s relationship with them.3 The foreign funding debate constitutes a discourse largely promoted by Egyptian civil society for controlling Egyptian human rights NGOs and regulating their relations with the West. In this sense, the foreign funding debate does not reflect an objective reality about NGOs and foreign funding. It is not based on rigorous, empirical observation of the impact of foreign funding on NGO operations. Rather, it represents a dominant way of thinking about or interpreting Egypt’s relations with the West. Nevertheless, this discourse not only operates in the realm of ideas about Egypt and the West but also shapes the real practices of the state and civil soci?ety toward Egyptian NGOs, thereby illustrating the link between discourse and power.4

Representations of and attitudes toward Egypt’s relations with the West have been shaped by more than two hundred years of encounters between the Occident and Orient, particularly by the experience of the French and British occupation of Egypt. Anticolonial resistance in Egypt (and other colonies) was constructed around an identity that celebrated the supposedly inherent cultural and moral differences between the colonized and the colonizers.5 While the construction of essentialized difference was a tool of empowerment during the struggle against colonialism, today it has become a mechanism of authoritarian politics. The continued desire to maintain the boundaries between ‘‘us’’ and ‘‘them’’ and to perceive everything Western as a threat leads to a situation in which civil society condemns those who transgress the boundaries in the name of protecting the nation-state. Human rights NGOs that have forged links with organizations in the West have become a target of such condemnation, and the foreign funding debate represents a means of disciplining them.

This chapter identifies the principal trends within the foreign funding debate in Egypt. I will demonstrate how, despite the apparent variety of positions, they all adhere to the internal logic of the binary division separating Egypt from the West and the role of Egyptian civil society in maintaining this division in order to resist ‘‘dangerous’’ Western influences. Even those who seek to defend foreign funding, frame their arguments within this logic. In light of the dangers of reproducing essentialized differences between Egypt and the West, in the final section I argue for a deconstruction of the binary oppositions that give meaning to the foreign funding debate.

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