Top PPSC blog posts in 2013


Susanne SchirmerSue_Schirmer200

As we’re approaching the end of 2013 I would like to use the opportunity to highlight the top ten posts of the Participation, Power and Social Change blog, as well as some other interesting posts, that you might have missed.

This year we had an interesting array of posts providing commentary on events around the world, such as political change in Egypt, riots in Brazil, tragedies and revolts in Bangladesh, as well as presentations of outputs from some of our main research programmes and initiatives. Bloggers included researchers from the IDS Participation, Power and Social Change team, some of our partners, working with us on a variety of projects and some students associated with the team through our MA course in Participation, Power and Social Change and through our PhD programme.

Welcome to all those that joined our follower-list in 2013. We now have over 450 people following our blog and compared to 2012, we have more than doubled our views, which is excellent news. We hope you have found our posts interesting and even enjoyable. Please feel free to invite others to join our follower-group and find out what we’re up to.

Top 10 blog posts:

1. Participation for Development: Why is this a good time to be alive? By Robert Chambers

2. Bangladesh: Rana Plaza is a parable of globalisation by Naomi Hossain

3. From making us cry to making us act: five ways of communicating ‘development’ in Europe by Maria Cascant

4. The Marriage Trap: the pleasures and perils of same-sex equality by Stephen Wood

5. Bangladesh is revolting, again by Naomi Hossain

6. Storytelling in Development Practice by Hamsini Ravi

7. Missing the pulse of Egypt’s citizens? by Mariz Tadros

8. I’m (still) hungry, mum: the return of Care by Naomi Hossain

9. The crisis of Brazilian democracy, as seen from Mozambique by Alex Shankland

10. Heteronormativity: why demystifying development’s unspoken assumptions benefits us all by Stephen Wood

Other interesting blogs that you might have missed:

To give a different nuance to our commentary and research, we’ve also introduced some visual blog posts this year, showing videos, photographs and cartoons. Have a look:

Finally, on behalf of the Power, Participation and Social Change Team at IDS, we wish all our readers happy holidays (if you’re celebrating) and a good start into 2014. We will be back with more blog posts in early January.

Sue Schirmer works as Communications Coordinator for the Participation, Power and Social Change (PPSC) team at IDS.


Why does the world ignore violence against Arab women in public spaces?


Mariz TadrosMariz_Tadros200

In an article in the Guardian newspaper this week I argue that the current campaign 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence overlooks the lax security that leaves Arab women at risk from militias and police unable to protect them. The theme of this year’s campaign is ‘let’s challenge militarism and end violence against women’. Yet neither the theme nor narratives come close to recognising the way in which the absence of human security and rule of law is creating a perfect environment for the perpetuation of violence against women in Arab countries that have experienced tumultuous change.

Read the full article on the Guardian Poverty Matters blog and visit the Interactions website for more background, news and research on gender-based violence. You can read more about the disconnect between the current international discourse on gender based violence and women’s realities on the ground in ‘Arab transition’ countries in the two articles on the OpenDemocracy website: Women’s human security rights in the Arab world: on nobody’s agenda and The invisible men with arms.

Mariz Tadros is a Research Fellow in the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS.

Read other recent blogs by Mariz Tadros:

Resilient autocrats, networked movements and the digital beachheads of enduring activism


Hani MorsiHani Morsi photo mini

This blog post previously appeared on ‘The Side Room’, a blog written by PhD students currently studying and researching at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS).

In a previous blog post, I cautioned against the perils of rushing to conclusions about the implications of the political use of networks in recent global outbreaks of mass dissent, especially the Arab uprisings. Not only because we are just beginning to untangle the new complexities of political engagement in a hyper-connected world, but for a much more fundamental reason.

Before thinking about the implications of the new technological tools, platforms and networks appropriated by individuals, social movements as well as governments for political ends, a key fact should be contemplated: There is nothing new about the ‘why’ of activism. That is, the historical universalism of the triggers of such movements warrants more attention to the technological catalysts, or the “how”, of an increasingly accelerating pace of global social and political change. To explain further, the reasons why people protest, organize and rally to challenge authoritarianism, oppression and injustice have undergone much less change – if at all – compared to the ways by which they go about staging such acts of rebellion. While this might seem like a rather elementary observation, I do believe it is central to understanding complex dynamics at the intersection of power, citizen participation and emerging communication technologies.  Considering how the technologies in question can be used for both well-intentioned and nefarious ends (by both individuals or governments) an important question to pose becomes: How effective is the use of networked technologies for challenging oppression in contexts where authoritarianism is deeply rooted and state violence is continuously deployed to silence dissent? Can technologically-savvy social movements play the ‘long game’ against deeply entrenched structures of control and hierarchies of power?

Grafitti in Cairo

Revolution-inspired street art in downtown Cairo. Picture taken by the author in late 2012.

Looking at Egypt
Looking at the Egyptian political arena can yield some insights, but it is too early to be certain of anything seeing how the scene in post-Mubarak Egypt has been one of chaotic and often violent contention since January 2011. The somberness of the national mood is matched by a strong sense of pessimism in predictions about the sociopolitical trajectories the country is taking, notwithstanding analytical errors about several facets of the current power struggle by many western observers (See Mariz Tardos’ blog post from July 2013 for more on this). All indicators seem to evince is that the popular drive for a genuine democratic transformation in Egypt has all but returned to square one: a reproduction of the authoritarian structures of the past several decades.

Resistance still thrives
Yet most of the dismal analyses on Egypt is based on ‘classical’ understandings of power and politics, and as such often seem to miss several subtleties that reveal how resistance to cyclical authoritarianism still thrives in the country, even in the wake of a rapid succession of disappointments. Revolutionary resistance in Egypt is far from dormant. With unrelenting commitment to dispelling the notion of false options Egyptians have been presented with for many decades, networked movements continue to find innovative ways to negotiate and contest power in battlegrounds of political, gender and social rights. Campaigns and groups like MosireenHarassMap and Masmou3, among others, mesh online tools with offline organizing to create new breeds of enduring activism, pump new life into the collective drive for change, and create digital ‘beachheads’ of sure-footed resistance against injustice.

Beyond Egypt, many (if not most) of the episodes of large-scale collective action around the world in the past three years have demonstrated that it is not beyond reason to say that these ripples of technologically-accelerated change will not only affect how citizens everywhere go about claiming their rights and engaging their governments, but – from a long-term perspective and by consequence – they will also shift how structures of governance and authority are constructed. The period of metamorphosis that comes between challenging political orthodoxy and the creation of new modalities of participation comes with its own risks, as evident in chaotic transformation processes witnessed beyond the Arab citizen uprisings, largely due to vacuums in the political arenas appropriated by new hegemonic projects. Yet such messy transitions do not come as a surprise, being the direct result of long-standing political exclusion and stifled freedoms.

What will be indeed surprising, to end with a bold prediction, is how quickly established political systems will lose their self-evidence and fail to maintain a non-contested legitimacy, faced with a persevering and technologically-empowered popular drives for change that creatively remain one step ahead of renewed authoritarian aspirations.

Hani Morsi is a PhD candidate within the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS.

Read previous blogs by Hani Morsi:

  • Digital activism in post-revolution Egypt: How relevant is online dissidence in the marathon for democracy?

Egypt: Growing anger with western opinion


Mariz TadrosMariz Tadros photo mini

This blog has previously been posted on Open Democracy.

Selective reporting by the western media, and expert opinion predicting Egypt’s future based on the familiar pattern of drawing blueprints that are disconnected from the pulse on the street, are producing strong anti-western sentiment.

Which ever camp you talk to in Egypt right now, the pro or anti 30th of June revolution, there is a very strong anti-western sentiment being expressed. The supporters of former President Morsi feel betrayed by the West, who did not insist on reinstating the ‘democratically elected’ leader, and for not sufficiently defending the idea of electoral legitimacy. On Sunday pro-Morsi protestors organized marches to the US, German and other Western embassies to denounce the ‘shameful role of their countries facing the military coup’.  The supporters of the uprising against Morsi believe that the reference to the uprisings that led to the ousting of President Morsi on the 3rd of July as a ‘coup’ is an insult to the Egyptian people who rose in their millions. There is now a campaign to press for the removal of Ann Patterson, the American ambassador to Egypt.

The initial response of policy-makers, the media and analysts, to the events in Egypt and their aftermath, has galvanized large sections of the population to take a strong stance against those who work in policy influencing spaces in the west. During the past two weeks, I have been receiving commiserations from people around me in the UK regarding the state of my country, Egypt. And no wonder, western policy makers have us believe that the country is on the brink of a civil war, the media tell us that there is a backlash against democracy, and academics insist that this is déjà vu: coups ousting democratically elected governments are bound to produce the most virulent strands of dictatorships.

That the initial American response to the ousting of President Morsi was to use all measures to try and reinstate the status quo is no secret. According to El Watan newspaper a meeting was held between Ann Patterson, the US ambassador in Cairo, and some Salafi groups, shortly after the uprisings of  30th June, 2013. According to the article, Anne Patterson asked the Salafis to obstruct the moves towards forming a new government until the Muslim Brotherhood were better positioned to negotiate, assuring them that in a matter of days Morsi would be reinstated. The Watan article also mentioned a conversation between Ann Patterson and Abdul Fattah el Sissi, Commander in Chief of the Egyptian Armed Forces, in which she asked him to hold negotiation talks with the Brothers. He objected and told her that she was just an ambassador, and neither she nor her country had any right to intervene in the internal affairs of the country. Patterson answered that ‘this puts us closer to the Syrian scenario’.

Egypt on the brink of a civil war has been one of the main messages conveyed by the western media.  The country is portrayed as divided into the pro and anti factions, as if they have roughly equal followers and are of the same political weight. However, this is a distortion of the situation on the ground. The fact that is that the spatial quarters in which the Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers protested (Rab’a el Adaweya and Midan el Nahda) can at best hold no more than a few hundred thousand people.

This cannot be compared to the millions who took to the streets on 30th June. This should not be a numbers game, because its outcome can only be a majoritarian mentality, and democracy should be inclusive of all political forces, including the Muslim Brotherhood.  However, one must be cautious not to exaggerate the political weight or constituency of a political force in order to justify why a civil war is likely.

The signals from western policy makers have not only been threatening, but punitive as well. The EU has decided this week to cancel a number of grants and loans to Egypt of more than five billion euros because of its current political scene.

The selective reporting by the western media on human rights violations in Egypt amounts to a deliberate misrepresentation of the truth. There has been a popular backlash on some of the streets of Egypt against the Muslim Brotherhood which has sometimes been quite violent. The murder of 51 protestors at the Presidential Guards has been condemned by human rights organizations as being a case of security use of excessive force. The shooting of three Muslim Brothers female protestors in Mansoura by so-called thugs is a horrendous crime that has received widespread condemnation. It is also true that the security clampdowns have been sometimes ruthless and this is categorically unacceptable.

However, what the media has chosen to leave out of the equation are the human rights abuses perpetrated by the Muslim Brotherhood and their sympathizers since the 30th of June. There have been frequent assaults by militant groups on army barricades in Sinai-which have left several soldiers dead. While some may argue that this has nothing to do with the Brothers, it may be too much of a coincidence that Mohamed el Beltagui is recorded on television as saying that ‘what is happening in Sinai is a response to the military coup and will stop the minute that the…President’s powers are reinstated’

Moreover, while the Western media regularly reports on the assaults on the Brothers, there has been minimal coverage of the reprisals by pro-Morsi constituencies against the youth revolutionaries and the Copts. While sectarian violence against religious minorities increased under Mubarak and had reached new levels under Morsi, part of the targeted violence after the 30th of June was a reprisal from Muslim Brotherhood sympathsizers. In Minya on the night of 3rd July after the military had declared the ousting of President Morsi, guns were fired in the city centre of Minya by members of radical groups chanting ‘Oh what shame, the Copts have become revolutionaries‘ (ya lel ‘ar, al aqbat ba’ou thouwar). This was in reference to the role that the Copts had played as Egyptian citizens in joining in the protests calling for President Morsi’s ousting. A few days later, their properties in downtown Minya were also marked with a special sign – and threats were made that any protests in favour of the new government would  be met with attacks on the Copts.

The skewed representation of what is going on is a political act of omission. Mohamed Salmawy, one of Egypt’s most prolific writers and renowned member of the country’s intelligentsia, recently wrote in his column that he was approached by a writer for the New York Times who suggested he contribute a story with a human face about the uprising. When she received his article, she turned it down: his story of the death of a member of Tamarod did not meet the newspaper’s criteria for objectivity – yet the stories of the Brothers’ fear of persecution met the criteria.

And in the UK, it is not much better. The Guardian published a stream of articles sympathetic to the argument that with the ousting of the Brothers, the country no longer has a future. In the first two weeks, there was but one single article written from the perspective of Egyptians who have endorsed the uprising.

The same bias has been reflected in Western academic and expert opinion analysis. The argument goes that ‘political scientists are familiar with a pattern: when elected institutions with some support on the ground are removed by force, the outcome is almost never friendly to democracy. Outright military dictatorship, military domination of politics, civil war or a mix of all are all possibilities.’

Certainly one cannot rule out the possibility of all kinds of non-democratic scenarios unfolding in Egypt, but to predict that there is only a doomsday scenario awaiting the country is to fall into the trap of teleological pathways of change that political scientists seem so often to get wrong. The construction of this thesis implicitly implies equating elections with democracy. Historically this has not consistently been so, and neither has the world’s response been consistently to adopt such a stance.

The insistence on the overthrow of a democracy in Egypt omits one small fact: the same features of authoritarianism characterizing the Mubarak regime were very much reproduced during the reign of Morsi. In November 2012, President Morsi issued a presidential decree which essentially monopolized executive, legislative, judiciary powers in his hands –  which even his predecessor Mubarak had not dared issue. Even President Morsi expressed his regrets for the impact this declaration had, in his interview with the Guardian on the 29th June, 2013.  It is true he later revoked some of its articles, but only after he had managed to force through a constitution that has the support of his movement, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis, but which was rejected by almost every single other political force in the country.

Morsi’s year in office does not exactly boast of a respect for the basic tenets of democratic rule: press and media freedoms were constrained, women’s rights severely restricted, the country’s religious minorities saw the worst assaults on them ever, and there were highly disturbing encroachments on the independence of the judiciary. The same precursors to the January 2011 revolution could be identified in the period up to June 2013.

Further, the ‘overthrow of the people’s will’ argument is also difficult to swallow if one does basic arithmetic. According to official estimates, 13.2 million voted for Morsi, representing 51.73% of the total number of voters (though there have been serious questioning of the extent to which the elections were free and fair). This hardly amounts to a sweeping majority vote. While there is no agreed figure regarding the number of people who went out on the streets on 30th June, the fact is that the squares were packed with people across the country and not only in Cairo, suggesting perhaps that the numbers may have surpassed those who voted for Morsi in the presidential elections of 2012.

Another problem with the experts’ prediction that Egypt is inevitably headed for a gloomy political predicament, has to do with the discipline of political science’s ability to make futuristic projections. Political scientists have not always got it right, in fact, many a time in history, they have got it categorically wrong. Let’s take the Egyptian revolution of 2011. Conventional political science told us for many years that the political culture in Egypt had become so depoliticized by the forces of authoritarian rule that there was no way for us to expect people to rise against the regime, and then the 25th January uprising happened. This should have been sufficient to humble the entire discipline into rethinking its methods of capturing the pulse of the citizens -yet instead we are back again to the same pattern of drawing blueprints that are disconnected from the pulse on the street.

The anger with the west’s media, policy-makers, and some scholars (in particular towards those associated with the US, the UK and other European countries and Turkey) may seem irrational to some, but ultimately, it raises alarm bells as to the deep rifts that are created when people practice democracy in a way incommensurate with a western transition blueprint, and are then told they are in the wrong. In this globalized world, they can hear you.

Mariz Tadros is a Research Fellow in the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS

Read other recent blogs by Mariz Tadros:

Missing the pulse of Egypt’s citizens?


Mariz TadrosMariz Tadros photo mini

The representation of the revolution in Egypt as simply a military coup shows how disconnected western media and political analysts are from the citizens’ pulse- after all this was the largest ever political gathering in human history.

Up to the 30th of June, 2013, the prevalent story was that the Islamists ‘owned’ the streets – they were considered most capable of mobilizing the masses through their mosques, welfare providing associations and charismatic religious leaders. However, when an estimated 17 million out of a 90 million population took to the street to press the Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi to step down, this signalled that the people are revolting against their system of governance and their leaders. It is a fact that the Egyptian regime and the West refuse to come to grips with how citizens – en masse- have rejected the Brotherhood, whose supporters are now a minority of the demonstrators. The Muslim Brotherhood sought to vilify the protestors as remnants of the former regime, thugs and Christians. However, a cross-section of the protests suggests that the millions of demonstrators come from a broad cross-section of Egyptian society, far broader even than the citizens who participated in the 25th of January revolts in 2011.

The instigators of the 25th of January revolution were a relatively small number of citizens who belonged to youth networks and coalitions and who co-ordinated with some political forces and parties. Yet on the 30th of June, citizens – en masse took to the streets – even though many had no prior political affiliation nor party membership. The fear barrier was broken in the 25th of January revolution, releasing political energy that has been vent up for fifty years. Also, in the aftermath of the ousting of Mubarak there emerged a citizenry who gave up watching soap operas and movies for political talk shows and news programmes.

Conventional wisdom had it that the Muslim Brotherhood ‘spoke’ the language of the people, worked on a grassroots level and were the most connected with the masses. However, as the Muslim Brotherhood assumed political power and its leaders became immersed in political processes, they too became disconnected from the citizenry. According to the Egyptian Center for economic and social rights, there were no less than 3814 protests in 2012 alone, most around bread and butter issues and many of these protests were led by civil servants, government employees and ordinary citizens suffering from the absence of security, the increase in the prices of basic goods and the dwindling quality of life. The severe shortage of petrol, electricity and water shut-outs did not help either.

During the 18 days of revolt against Mubarak in 2011, the protests were by and large encapsulated in Cairo, Suez and Alexandria. This time, citizens have gone out in their thousands in at least 15 of the major governorates of Egypt. Citizens living in the  governorates of Upper Egypt (with the highest levels of poverty and political exclusion) had minimal participation in the 2011 revolution. Yet on the 30th of June, the squares of Asiut, Minya, Sohag, Qena and Aswan were packed with ordinary citizens. The better off governorates of the Delta that had not participated in the 2011 revolts had joined in the protests in their hundreds of thousands.

Moreover, rural populations that have historically not participated in uprisings and who represented the core constituency for the Muslim Brotherhood rose against the regime this time, women and men from all backgrounds, all pouring into the urban squares to join in the chants of ‘leave’. A year after President Morsi came to power, the farmers have become deprived of fuel to work their machinery, water to irrigate the land. As crops have failed, their basic livelihoods and that of their families has been devastated.

The revolt this time round is not only political- against the authoritarian status quo, it is also ideological, against the way in which the Muslim Brotherhood have sought to use religion to demonize and vilify citizens who dared hold them accountable for poor economic performance and infringements on basic rights. One of the slogans of this revolt has been ‘We are revolutionaries, not infidels’ (‘Ehna Thouwar mesh koufar’). It is noteworthy however,  that this is not a political struggle between Islamism and secularism. The majority of millions who rose against the regime are deeply religious Muslims and they are demonstrating not against their religion but against the Brotherhood as the guardians of Islam. For many, it is a revolt against the Muslim Brotherhood imams, sheikhs and political leaders who sought to represent any expression of dissent against the President as a rejection of Islam.

The police who was the arch enemy of the revolutionaries in the 25th of January revolt was reconciled with the people in this round of revolts. Whole batches of police officers in official uniform joined the revolutionaries on the streets (in particular in Alexandria) to express their endorsement of the people against the regime. For the past month, there have been several police revolts against the regime, in particular against what they saw as the ‘Brotherhoodization’ of the apparatus by instating loyalists in positions of power over the apparatus, and the deployment of security personnel to attack the anti-regime protestors.

What is happening on the ground in Egypt is turning upside down the deeply entrenched idea that the Muslim Brotherhood represent the majority of the people and everyone else is a minority. Yet some of the coverage of these events speaks of western media bias and a disconnect with the pulse of Egypt’s citizens. This is not to suggest that this revolution will necessarily pave the way to a smooth democracy, there is still a possibility of its hijack by the ultra-radical Islamists, the Salafis. However, to represent this as simply a military coup is to be blind to the voices of the millions who dared dream of bread, freedom and dignity.

Mariz Tadros is a Research Fellow in the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS.

Read other recent blogs by Mariz Tadros:

Shaming the shameless: the politics of sexual assault in post-Mubarak’s Egypt exposed


Mariz Tadros photo miniMariz Tadros

In preparation for the 30th of June millioniyya [one million person protest] against the current Muslim Brotherhood-led regime, youth coalitions, women’s organizations and human rights activists are bracing themselves for a wave of politically motivated sexual assaults. Groups like ShoftTa7rosh are co-ordinating monitoring, ensuring women are equipped with self-defence measures and that volunteer men are well prepared to pull women targets of assault out from the crowds. These collective actors have not mobilized in a vacuum, but in response to the organized operations of sexual violence targeting them in public spaces over the last two years. A pattern has emerged which suggests that these were politically motivated assaults, aimed at discouraging women from participating in protest action against the powers that be.

One of the most powerful images of the Arab revolts has been that of Egyptian women standing side by side with men in revolt in the densely crowded Tahrir Square. Since Mubarak was ousted in March 2011, there have been almost daily protests against new forms of authoritarian rule, economic hardship and citizen repression. One of the biggest was in December, after President Morsi issued a presidential decree granting himself executive, legislative, and judicial powers that even his predecessor never dared appropriate. Hundreds of thousands of citizens marched to the Presidential palace (El Ettehadeyah) to express their anger at this coup of usurped power. In response, the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis organized a counter-protest.

Ola Shahba, a young political leader in the Populist Socialist Front, was there on the 5th of December when she was captured by followers of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis. She recounts that she was wearing a loose jacket and trousers, had her face covered [to protect against tear gas] and had a helmet on [to protect against attacks]. “I realized they could not see I am a woman. They started sexually harassing me from behind when they were thinking I am a man.” When they removed Ola’s helmet and realized she was a woman, “another wave of sexual harassment continued… grabbing me from the front”. She was taken to a military cubicle/kiosk. “The officer in charge asked them ‘would you like to beat her yourself or would you like me to do it?’” Ola was not the only one who was kidnapped – 140 men were too. She could see them from where she was being detained – and they had all been stripped to their underwear, a tactic that was understood as a form of humiliation.

Ola had used her phone, before it was taken from her, to call her friends. They called journalists who began to publicize on Twitter the names of leading Muslim brotherhood figures who were involved in her detention. They accused her of working for foreigners, and being part of the old regime. As pressure grew for her release, fuelled by Twitter, Muslim Brotherhood leaders tried to set her free but the Salafis wouldn’t let her go. One of them grabbed her by her hair, and bluntly told them, “you are not taking her, she is our booty”. After hours of being held in captivity, she was eventually released and rushed to hospital to deal with the severe blows that she had sustained.

From the accounts given by Ola and a number of other survivors of sexual violence on the 5th of December, some worrying dynamics emerge. It is evident that these are not just random acts of violence. The perpetrators were clearly identifiable as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis, the security apparatus was complicit in the assaults and they expected impunity. And yet within Muslim brotherhood mobs, Salafi members and sympathizers, there were men who stood up against what was happening. From the narratives of the women who witnessed this, it became clear that these men genuinely empathized, recognising something morally abhorrent with the behaviour of the mobs.

December’s violence was repeated on the 25th of January 2013, when one of the worst ever organized wave of politically motivated sexual assault occurred, as protestors commemorated the memory of the Egyptian revolution by rising against the current Muslim Brotherhood regime.

The prevalent Islamist narrative on sexual assault presents a very different version of reality: Women who go out to protest in Tahrir Square and other public spaces are not virtuous but deviant, they “ask for it”. Sexual assault is the work of protestors who harass female protestors because they can’t control their urges. Women who go out to protest are in the wrong, they should never have left their homes in the first place. This narrative is congruent with that of Islamist satellite television stations; it is also the natural outcome of the impunity the perpetrators enjoy, with legal suits against them seeing very little advancement in the judicial system.

Egyptian political activists have announced that they will claim public protest spaces on the 30th June to make them assault-free in an attempt to send out a message to women and their families that they should not be terrorized from exercising their right to protest. It may not be a war setting, but for many, it feels like it.

Mariz Tadros is a Research Fellow in the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS.

Read other recent blogs by Mariz Tadros:

A Post-Revolutionary Egyptian Tragedy: Nancy Okail and the Case of NGOs vs. the People of Egypt


Naysan Adlparvarnaysan_adlparvar200

This post first appeared on ‘The Side Room’, a blog written by PhD students at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS).

For most doctoral students in International Development the three or four years spent undertaking a PhD can feel like a prison sentence. I, and my fellow PhD colleagues at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), spend the majority of our time confined to a desk and only get ‘let out’ for a period of intensive fieldwork. As we finally begin to throw off the shackles of the PhD, submitting the draft of our thesis, we ask ourselves what impact our work has had, if any, in the wider world. We ask ourselves, ‘what next?’ I’m sure when Nancy Okail, a recent IDS doctoral graduate, asked herself these questions she didn’t expect to be facing a real prison sentence while standing inside a cage in an Egyptian courtroom.

I first met Nancy when I started my PhD in the autumn of 2008. Already halfway through her own PhD, she struck me as intelligent, reflective and deeply committed. When she finished her doctorate Nancy chose not to follow the usual route into academia but wanted to return home to Egypt to contribute to the post-Mubarak efforts to strengthen democracy.

In August 2011 Nancy took up a post as Freedom House’s Egypt Country Director to oversee a programme aimed at promoting democracy, human rights and a free media. Yet, shortly after arriving in Egypt she and other colleagues at Freedom House faced harassment and intimidation from the interim military-led authorities. At the same time a smear campaign was spread by the state-run media, suggesting that foreign funded non-government organisations (NGOs) were working to destabilise the country. Then in December the Egyptian authorities raided the offices of a number of foreign-funded NGOs involved in democratisation, including that of Freedom House. Nancy and 42 other staff members, including 17 Americans, from a number of NGOs were arrested. They were charged with working with funds received from a foreign government without a license. This charge carries a sentence of five years incarceration and such a ruling can only be given with evidence of intent to ‘overthrow the status quo’. Bearing in mind that numerous civil society organisations operate without a license in Egypt and that these laws are used by the Egyptian authorities to manipulate the NGOs working in Egypt, the case is clearly highly political in nature. Follow this link to read Mariz Tadros’s well-informed analysis of the background and questionable nature of the sentencing.

In March of the following year the Egyptian authorities permitted the 17 American NGO staff members to return home. Following their release the case received significantly less coverage in the international media. For those left behind the situation became increasingly dire. As a result, Nancy and a number of the other Egyptians who had been arrested fled the country. Yet, with the election of the Muslim Brotherhood, led by Mohammed Morsi, in June 2012 hopes were momentarily revived. It was thought this government would pursue a more even-handed line. However, little changed. The case continued in a manner that demonstrated the continued stifling of political freedoms. Last week, after a long and emotional wait, the verdict was finally delivered. Nancy was sentenced in absentia and received a maximum five-year prison term. Listen to her response to the ruling and what it suggests for Egypt’s political transition here.

Nancy’s case (and that of her 25 Egyptian NGO colleagues) demonstrates the risks for those who choose to support political freedoms and democratisation in the face of state opposition. Moreover, it exemplifies the serious resistance to, if not, lack of positive reform in Egypt’s post-revolutionary political system. There is mounting evidence that the Egyptian government is taking steps to exclude minority groups, to restrict political dissent, and to concentrate power in the hands of the executive branch of government. As I type these words I ask myself, has democracy been served in the wake of the monumental demonstrations seen in Tahrir Square? And, what kinds of political change have these demonstrations stimulated?

I wrote this blog with a simple desire to show solidarity for a previous PhD colleague and to raise awareness about the tragic circumstances she and her fellow Egyptians find themselves in. When I began writing, ‘fellow Egyptians’ referred to the 25 Egyptians charged alongside Nancy in this NGO crackdown. Yet, now, as I reach the end of this blog I realise that the tragedy not only relates to Nancy and her 25 colleagues, but also extends to the hundreds of thousands of Egyptians who demonstrated in Tahrir Square for a more democratic future for their country.

Naysan Adlparvar is a PhD candidate within the IDS Participation, Power and Social Change research team. His research investigates the changing pattern of identity and relations between ethno-sectarian groups in Bamyan, in the Central Highlands of Afghanistan, and assesses how these relations were formed from 1890s to the present day.