Deconstructing the Foreign Funding Debate

This section will attempt to deconstruct the arguments on all sides of

the foreign funding debate in order to demonstrate the dangers that the

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current parameters of the debate pose to the future of human rights activism in Egypt and also to clear a space in which a counterdiscourse may emerge. As we noted above, there are three principle assumptions underpinning the anti-foreign funding position. These three assumptions are constructed on the basis of two binary divisions: first, that of the Orient/Occident or Egypt/the West, and second, the state/civil society. Each part of the binary division is constructed as a homogeneous unit. Historical references are often used to establish the unchanging essence of each of these homogeneous units. Each part of the binary opposition is represented as a mirror image of the other part, thereby demonstrating their absolute dichotomy.

These binary divisions are historically rooted within Egypt’s encounters with the West, particularly its experience of colonialism. The colonizers constructed the colonized as the opposite of everything they, the colonizers, purported to be. The colonized were ahistorical, irrational, morally inferior, lazy, cunning, weak, feminine, sexually degenerate, traditional, and passive.23 This ‘‘Manicheanism’’ was constructed as the justification for colonialism and it was at the core of the violence perpetrated against the colonized.24 As a means of reclaiming their agency to resist the colonizers, nationalist leaders and intellectuals reversed these binary divisions. It was not they who were morally inferior but the colonizers. The ‘‘traditional’’ was not a negative feature of their culture but a positive thing. They were not feminine and passive but displayed the traits of masculinity by fighting for their nation.25

The debate over foreign funding demonstrates the extent to which these binary oppositions continue to operate within Egyptian civil society. In both the dependency and moral essentialist paradigms, the West (as a homogeneous bloc of interests) is represented as a danger to the Egyptian nation. Within the dependency paradigm, the West seeks to exploit Egypt through the economic structures of the (global) capitalist system. Within the moral essentialist paradigm, the West necessarily seeks to dominate Egypt (and the Arab world) because it is morally corrupt and has no respect for the rights of Arab people. Consequently, it is in Egyptian national interests to rid the country of foreign economic exploitation and/or political domination. Those that have linkages with the West, such as businesspeople or NGOs that accept funds from abroad, are considered to be aiding the economic exploitation or domination of Egypt by the West and, therefore, pose a danger to the Egyptian nation.

The dependency and moral essentialist paradigms, on the surface, appear to differ in their interpretations of the role of Egyptian civil society. Those who adhere to the dependency paradigm argue that it is the

role of civil society to resist exploitation by the West by resisting all inter-

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actions with it.26 Meanwhile, those who adhere to the moral essentialist paradigm believe that civil society represents the nation’s weak spot that must be closely monitored and guarded by the state. However, if one analyzes the two different representations of civil society in terms of a gendered discourse about the Egyptian nation and its relationship with the West, we find that both representations constitute two sides of the same coin.

In the dependency paradigm, the representation of civil society as the last line of defense against the West can be seen as similar to the representations, during anticolonial struggles in many countries, of the private sphere (of culture, religion, and family life) as the last line of defense against colonialism. Partha Chatterjee has described how nationalist leaders in India portrayed the private sphere as the ‘‘inner domain of national life’’ over which they could proclaim their sovereignty.27 Women, who have historically been associated with the private sphere in the majority of countries of the world, were represented in Indian nationalist discourse as the guardians of the national culture.28 Since women, as guardians of the ‘‘inner domain,’’ represent an essential foundation of the nation, the argument follows that they must be protected from Western corruption.

The representation of civil society as a weak spot in Egypt’s resistance against the West is the other side of the coin of the dependency paradigm’s representation of civil society as the last line of defense. Civil society’s strength and weakness lie in the fact that it represents the inner essence of the nation. This inner essence is a weapon against the moral corruption of the West. However, because the West is morally corrupt, the inner essence of the nation also becomes a target for Western influence. Therefore, civil society also represents a potential danger to the integrity of the nation. The logic of both sets of arguments is that civil society must resist any links with the West and that the Egyptian nation (state and society) must take measures to protect civil society from the West in order to protect the nation.

As argued above, the construction of a binary opposition between Egypt and the West is rooted in Egypt’s experience of colonialism. This binary opposition continues to operate in discourses about Egypt’s relations with the West because of the continuing injustices that occur today at the hands of the United States, Britain, France, and other Western nations. These injustices range from glaring economic inequalities to Western governments’ continued support for Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians and the invasion and occupation of Iraq. In other words, representations of the West as morally corrupt and dangerous to Egyp- tian/Arab interests resonate with many people in Egypt because of how

they see international political and economic realities. This explains why

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defenders of foreign funding find it so difficult to put forward their case.29

While the reversal of the binary oppositions constructed during the colonial encounter acted as away of resisting colonialism, it is important that human rights activists and all those seeking to promote democracy stress that the continued existence of these binary oppositions is implicated in the creation and reproduction of domestic mechanisms of authoritarianism that oppress ordinary Egyptian people. The construction of a homogeneous bloc of Western interests seeking to dominate Egypt creates a ‘‘siege mentality’’ where the violation of human rights may be justified in light of protecting Egyptian national interests. A distressingly large number of members of Egyptian civil society believe that Saad Eddin Ibrahim and other human rights activists represent a real danger to Egypt through their insistence on publicizing Egypt’s human rights record internationally and thereby providing a pretext for Western intervention in Egyptian affairs. However, depriving human rights activists of fundamental political and civil rights sets a precedent and empowers the government to further limit the public sphere. Indeed, the government has already substantially reduced the public sphere over the last decade on the pretext of protecting Egypt from Islamist terrorism, ranging from the sequestration of the bar association in 1994 to the closure of Al-Sha‘b newspaper in 2000.

As Frantz Fanon has argued, it is not sufficient to merely replace the colonizers by the colonized once independence comes. The colonial system must be destroyed.30 If the continued basis for authoritarian politics in the postcolonial era is the reproduction of binary oppositions, then in order to undermine authoritarianism and clear the way for democracy it is necessary to destroy, and not merely reverse, the binary oppositions. In order to overturn the binary oppositions it is necessary to directly address the three assumptions underpinning the anti-foreign funding arguments and many of the defenses of foreign funding.

First, the West is not a homogeneous bloc of interests. To begin with, there are differences between national governments and their civil societies. While it is true that the U.S., British, and other Western governments are implicated in many human rights tragedies, not only in the Arab region but throughout the world, including in their own countries, it is even truer that some of the most fervent opposition to their policies has come from their own civil societies. On the other hand, Arab governments have often been the last to act to oppose human rights atrocities against the Iraqi and Palestinian people. For example, Egypt was one of the last countries to break the sanctions on Iraq—four years after Voices in the Wilderness mobilized their first sanctions-busting mission.31

Second, Egypt is not a homogeneous bloc of interests. It is important to stress that Egypt is constituted of a plurality of people with different interests and opinions that cannot be determined on the basis of their nationality. These interests and opinions may be influenced by their class, geographical location, educational background, gender, age, or religion. Therefore, it is impossible to define objectively what constitutes national interests. Any attempt to do so involves the imposition of the interests and opinions of the dominant group in society on the less powerful, usually to the detriment of the latter. Rather, it is more democratic to eschew the terminology of national interests and to create criteria for evaluating NGO work centered on the dignity of the Egyptian citizen and the standards of human rights. Only in this way can we avoid the practices of exclusion and harassment that befall individuals who accept funding from abroad for NGO work.

Third, the process of globalization provides new challenges, such as multinational corporations, environmental degradation, and human trafficking, that do not subscribe to the paradigm of Western domination over Third World or periphery countries. On the contrary, individuals and organizations in the Occident and the Orient are affected by or implicated in these problems. The cross-border nature of these challenges makes it necessary to build a resistance movement that is also transnational. Such a movement empowers ordinary people everywhere, rather than subjecting one section of people to foreign domination. The universality of human rights provides a framework for creating new solidarities across borders that override the exclusiveness of nationalist paradigms while recognizing that individuals need protection against the excesses of global capital markets and other dangers associated with the processes of globalization.

In personal interviews, almost all the human rights activists I spoke with criticized the assumptions underpinning the foreign funding argument. Yet many have also simultaneously subscribed to some definition of national interests in justifying their actions. Moreover, in their public writings and conversations, the overwhelming majority of human rights activists fail to deconstruct the dominant representations of the West and Egyptian national interests, stressing instead the contribution of their work to Egyptian national interests. It is important that human rights activists attempt to overturn the binary oppositions that give meaning to the foreign funding debate, rather than reframe these oppositions or avoid them. These binary oppositions are at the heart of the discrediting of human rights work and the harassment of activists by the authorities.

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