The Real Reason the Middle East Hates NGOs

Western promoters of democracy aren’t seen as a threat to individual rulers but as a reminder of colonial history.

By Steven A. Cook, the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz welcomes Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi at Riyadh international airport on November 10, 2015. (FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images)
Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz welcomes Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi at Riyadh international airport on November 10, 2015. (FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images)

In the summer of 2011, a group of Egyptian military officers made their first trip to Washington after President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster. In public and private meetings at various venues around town, including the Egyptian Defense Office and the U.S. Institute of Peace, the delegation emphasized that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which had assumed executive power, was “preparing the country for democracy.”

It wasn’t true, and the tipoff was the way the delegation responded to questions concerning the onerous restrictions on nongovernmental organizations, especially those that sought foreign funding to pursue their work. Out went the friendly and constructive air of the “new Egypt” in favor of the unmovable “old Egypt.” And when pressed, the head of the officers’ delegation became red-faced with anger. Apparently, laying the groundwork for more open and just politics did not include human rights organizations, good-governance groups, environmentalists, private associations that provide aid to people in need, or other NGOs.

The story about the Egyptian officers is telling not because it is unique, but because it is part of a pattern throughout the region. Last month, the Saudi government arrested 11 activists — though some reports indicate as many as 17 — at least one of whom had been part of an NGO that was founded in 2009 and then dissolved in 2013. Others were reportedly intending to set up an NGO intended to support victims of domestic abuse. The Saudi press called them traitors. Meanwhile, in Egypt, employees of NGOs have become virtual enemies of the state. In keeping with its reputation as the lone Arab Spring “success story,” Tunisia has created a more welcoming environment for these groups, but even there, the ability of NGOs to carry out their work can be constrained given that a state of emergency and other laws place restrictions on the right to assemble.

All of which raises an important question: Why do Middle Eastern leaders loathe NGOs? The answer is more complicated than Westerners tend to think.

Nongovernmental organizations are part of what social scientists call “civil society.” And while there is no agreed-upon definition of civil society, the late theorist of democratic transitions Alfred Stepan and his colleague Juan Linz offered one of the best descriptions, identifying it as “that arena of the polity where self-organizing groups, movements, and individuals, relatively autonomous from the state, attempt to articulate values, create associations and solidarities, and advance their interests.” This definition alone is an invitation for the relentless pressure Middle Eastern governments have long applied to NGOs. Leaders in the region do not do well with ideas like “self-organizing,” “relatively autonomous from the state,” and the creation of associations and “solidarities” — and it is hard, without justifying repression, not to see why. Civil society groups have the potential to help people with common interests overcome the considerable obstacles to collective action that many Middle Eastern governments have put in place and, in the process, give greater voice to people’s grievances.

Of course, not all NGOs are always opposed to the state — and even when they are in opposition, they can serve the interests of leaders. In the early 1990s, organizations dedicated to women’s issues sided with the Algerian military when it declared elections that an Islamist party, the Islamic Salvation Front, had won null and void. More recently, civil society organizations were part of the mass outpouring of anger at Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi that helped then-Minister of Defense Abdel Fattah al-Sisi oust him and the Muslim Brotherhood in a 2013 coup. Then there is the general way officials in the region have often boasted of the large number of nongovernmental organizations (even as they were cracking down on them) as a way to both deflect criticism from abroad and embed in the minds of their citizens the idea that reform was underway. It has hardly been believable and has not worked, which is why the default for Middle Eastern governments is to repress such groups.

In their recent article for Foreign Policy, Ronald R. Krebs and James Ron eloquently deconstruct the explanations that nondemocratic governments typically offer for their opposition to NGOs. Yet they overlook a powerful set of ideas that, at least in the Arab world, frame the controversy over nongovernmental organizations. As a result, they miss why there seems to be an unbridgeable gulf between Westerners and Middle Eastern leaders over civil society.

It is a mistake to conclude that only narrowly self-serving authoritarianism explains the thuggish approach to NGOs around the Middle East. After all, the hounding of these groups (including in Israel) seems to be out of proportion to any evidence that they can create significant political change in the region. No doubt many NGOs have helped people in need throughout the Middle East, but those dedicated to governance and human rights, for example, have hardly had an impact. But then why do the Middle East’s commanders of tanks, planes, and missiles treat the Arab hippies who want to defend the freedom of association as such a problem? The threat isn’t about loosening the authoritarians’ grip on power, but something more abstract: the Middle East’s fragile sense of identity and sovereignty.

Arab leaders essentially regard nongovernmental organizations, especially those with foreign funding, as agents of a neocolonial project. The hypocrisy of this position for governments that either receive copious amounts of foreign assistance or that rely on the West for their security is self-evident, but that does not necessarily diminish its effectiveness. The fact is that the history of the region and the nationalist narratives that developed and evolved over the 20th century render civil society groups a natural target for Middle Eastern authoritarians, who are inclined to cast Western-funded human rights campaigners and good-governance activists as the most recent manifestation of the civilizing mission that originally brought European colonialists to North Africa and the Levant.

Although neither activists nor their funders view the world this way, central to Middle Eastern leaders’ freakout over NGOs is the fear that the West is not just assisting people who want to live in more just societies, but rather, through these groups, trying to undermine the region’s ethnic and religious identity by making its societies more Western. Hence the claims by Middle Eastern leaders that Western institutions are inconsistent with predominantly Muslim societies, as Ahmet Davutoglu — the former Turkish prime minister and foreign minister — argued in his doctoral dissertation, before collaborating in attacks on NGOs such as Amnesty International while in office.

The related problem of sovereignty brings the matter into sharp relief. The European penetration of the Middle East in the late 18th and early 19th centuries began a long-term process of intellectual ferment and discovery among Middle Easterners about how best to confront this challenge. Islamic reformism, Arab nationalism, and Islamism, which emphasized identity, were the most politically effective (and enduring) regional responses. The nationalization of the Suez Canal and the Algerian Revolution that kicked the French out after 130 years captured the imagination of Arabs across the region. They were bold and powerful statements that gave life to popular slogans such as “Egypt for the Egyptians” and “Islam is my religion, Arabic is my language, Algeria is my country” — yet questions about identity and sovereignty remained unresolved in both of these countries and elsewhere in North Africa and the Middle East.

For example, Egypt faces constant reminders of its compromised sovereignty. These include not only the fact that it must ask Israel for permission to project military power in its own territory and the Saudis’ blackmailing of the Egyptian government to cede the islands of Tiran and Sanafir (even though it is unclear who actually owns them), but also the U.S. government’s passage of the Brownback Amendment to the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2005, which declared that U.S. democracy and governance programs, along with the groups chosen to carry them out, did not need the prior approval of the Egyptian government. In Washington, this was the reasonable thing to do given then-Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s effort to undermine then-U.S. President George W. Bush’s “Freedom Agenda.” For Egypt’s Ministry of Defense, it was an egregious violation of the country’s sovereignty.

Saudi Arabia has its own problems related to sovereignty. The country was united through force and is still held together through a complex set of relationships and the distribution of resources. The work of civil society organizations and foreign funders has no direct bearing on these issues. But for Saudi leaders, they nevertheless have the potential to upset the delicate political balance that unifies their country, thus undermining stability and jeopardizing sovereignty.

There isn’t a policy prescription that can change the disconnect between the way Americans and Europeans regard their support for NGOs in the Middle East — as a way to help the region politically and morally — and the often ferocious response from Arab leaders. But Western observers could at least gain a better appreciation for why sincere do-gooders might nevertheless be viewed by U.S. allies as a sincere threat.

Steven A. Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East. Twitter: @stevenacook