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In Egypt, NGOs See Funding Dry Up as Donors Grow Scared

Posted: Jun 10, 2012

No sooner had Ibrahim Mamdouh, the international relations director at Humanitarian Relief and Rehabilitation, an Egyptian NGO, seen a call for proposals on the website of an international donor agency than he sent the agency a list of humanitarian projects that needed funding.

But his NGO, which supports vulnerable individuals recovering from human and natural disasters, was turned down.

“The agency said it had already stopped offering financial support for Egypt’s NGOs,” Mamdouh said. “They declined to give reasons for this, but I think this agency and others are afraid to be accused of offering illegal support for NGOs in this country.”

Mamdouth and other Egyptian NGO directors say a government crackdown last year on several Western pro-democracy groups on charges that they had received foreign funding to stir up chaos in Egypt is has had a disastrous impact on all NGO funding, even for humanitarian and other non-political organizations.

“There is a funding crisis inside humanitarian organizations, and this crisis started when the government began clamping down on the democracy promotion groups,” said Nehal Fahmy, a leading expert on Egypt’s civil society. “A large number of humanitarian NGOs have already stopped working because of this.”

Al Gora Community Development Association, an NGO that offered services to thousands of Bedouin in the Sinai Peninsula, is one of them. Its head, Bakr Suweilam, said his organization shut down because of government restrictions on NGO funding.

“The government should know that we have nothing to do with politics,” Suweilam said. “We only help the needy, the deprived, and the people (forgotten by) the government.”

Suweilam submitted documents to get official government approval to dig wells in the desert for Bedouin farmers, who were dire need of drinking and irrigaiton water. An international donor agency had funded the project before the government raided the American and European pro-democracy groups in December.

“The project did not see the light of day, because the government has not approved it yet,” Suweilam says. “It treats us as it does pro-democracy organizations.”

Other activists say the government has placed other restrictions on the work of humanitarian organizations.

“So, when humanitarian organizations submit a request for approving project funds, the approval never comes, regardless of whether the funds come from licensed agencies with officially approved objectives,” said Maged Al Rabiey, executive director of the Friends of Life Society, an NGO in Alexandria that offers medical assistance to AIDS patients. “This means that these organizations have either to work illegally or stop working altogether.”

The government denies what it calls the “unfounded claims” made by activists against them. It says when NGOs request funding, it is given quickly.

“We only put control on funding coming from outside,” said Aziza Youssef, the assistant social insurance minister. “Other than this, we help NGOs do their work effectively.”

Youssef said her ministry had given 50 million Egyptian pounds (US $8.3 million) to NGOs last year.

United Nations officials say the restrictions on NGOs will increase if the the government passes proposed legislation to give it more control over the work of NGOs.

“If implemented, it would be a potentially serious blow to the human rights aspirations of fundamental freedoms for which so many Egyptians have struggled for so long,” U.N human rights chief Navi Pillay said.

Humanitarian workers say they're frutrated. Suweilam, of the Sinai-based Al Gora Community Development Association, says people come to his office to ask about the wells he promised them months ago.

“I do not really know what to say to them,” Suweilam said. “I only ask them to be patient.”

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