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The Untold Story of the Future of Civil Society Work


Analysis of the challenges and hopes of freedom of association in Egypt

Translated from the Arabic by Philipp Liegmann / Translation revised by Hend Shaheen


  •  The beginnings… the relationship with the State Security

By the end of 2006, some of my friends and I decided to start an initiative, which at the time did not yet dispose of any specific or concrete outlines. As far as I was concerned, there were different reasons for my engagement in this project; it was mostly a subconscious decision, as far as I remember I went along, just as a boat adrift is directed by the wind without its consent or objection. At the time, as far as I could see and with the natural optimism of any human being, I saw that the best was yet to come and had high hopes as with everything new – alas, the path was not to be quite that easy.

A year after that date, a number of my partners and I at the time received a paper that seemed to have been ripped out of a children’s sketchbook – saying “Call to the headquarters of State Security … on October 6 at 7pm.”

That was the first time that I had to go to any of the offices of the State Security. I had to resist all my fears, toughen up mentally and try to ignore the images in my mind from all the stories that I had been told about the State Security and its notoriety in exerting torture.

I still remember the layout of the office, the verses from the Quran on the wall behind the officer, some of his features and his way of speaking, most of our conversation, and the long hallways that you are not allowed to walk alone.

During the years following this encounter, I would frequently get calls from a number that appeared as unknown on the screen of my mobile phone, and I was aware that those calls were from the State Security. This suddenly ended in the beginning of 2010, when our organization more or less stopped working. The situation changed for a year or two, but soon it returned to the status quo ante.

Despite all this, I still believe it’s natural and healthy for there to be a good relationship between the government, including the State Security, on the one hand, and all other state sectors, including civil society organizations, on the other. However, I have honestly never known and seen this relationship to be based on the protection of individual freedoms of citizens and their right to organize themselves in the form of institutions, political parties, groups or associations, which would encourage individuals in all their diversity to support the government in fulfilling its part in protecting lives and property.

In contrast, this relationship has always been and continues to be built on the superiority of the State Security over all other state sectors, as well as on their distrust towards those other parts, including civil society organizations, and subjecting them to the State Security’s command. This brings the Egyptian political system closer to the images of political systems found in the writings of Mario Vargas llosa.


  • November 2014 – Time of closure and /or imprisonment

On July 18th this year, the Egyptian government, represented by the Ministry of Solidarity, published an announcement in the Al-Ahram and Al-Akhbar government-affiliated newspapers stating that all organizations were requested to register under Law 84 of 2002, and that the deadline for this would be November 10, 2014. The government would then, as reported in a statement by the Ministry, start to take action and hold those organizations accountable under the relevant laws and legislation.

The government, as it had frequently done during the past few months, used the State Security to deliver several messages to us independent organizations which operate transparently and declare all our businesses and finances, but do not fall within the framework of the Ministry of Solidarity and of Law no. 84 of 2002. As everyone knows, as soon as an organization registers under this framework, it dies, as it then actually becomes a part of the government apparatus. .

The hidden message of this announcement has been explained to us in the following way: “… register or close the place, we won’t be able to help you in anything, it’s a sovereign decree, and it’s out of our hands”; meanwhile, others said to us, “if you need my advice, you’d better register”, or even: “enough is enough! We can’t have any more companies like this, funds coming in and going out of the country… There can’t be companies like this anymore, they’ll all get closed.”

These statements complement the messages that had been diffused through various media, such as the numerous articles and reports which speak about the ‘invisible and destructive role of civil society organizations’, as well as many of the conspiracy theories that have been prevalent in the Egyptian mind since the 1940s, which describe us as foreign agents. In this respect, we also cannot ignore the statement made by the Minister of Solidarity herself that “the Ministry will not give up control over foreign funds.”

My colleagues and I at the Egyptian Center for Public Policy Studies (ECPPS) often talk about our questions and doubts as to the legitimacy of these decisions and our future in general, and usually these questions become more frequent in times of distress. Thus, under the pressure of people they know us and sometimes relatives of these uncertainties, of those who not only disapprove of what we do, but sometimes even affront and attack us on account of what we are doing, or at least make fun of us saying that we are stupid or pretentious, The financial obligations, and the general daily pressure, little patience only remains. I often recall the words of Ali bin Abi Talib, which have always been stuck in my mind: “there are two kinds of patience… being patient with what you hate and being patient with what you love”.


  •  The most you will get is  #Hashtag and Retweet

In a country like ours, “struggling” – or, in other more rational and mature word: “reforming” – means sitting in front of your computer for as long as possible, using twitter or Facebook, complaining or just analyzing and pretending to be deep or cultivated, claiming grief over those who died, lost or imprisoned, so as to appear responsive to those around oneself, whilst actually sitting behind the screen and in complete isolation from anything in the universe. Ultimately, this “struggle” quickly comes to an end after a few minutes or hours at most.

In this context, where problems are so intertwined that it sometimes seems impossible to solve them, I  find myself confronted with the choice of whether to proceed in the way of Bassem Yusuf or of Ahmed Seif al-Islam: the first realized clearly, upon logical analysis of all these problems, that the chances of resolving them are extremely slim, and that any attempt would be pointless, as one would finally lose any patience to endure such pressure. The latter, on the other hand, decided to devote his life trying to fix what he could fix, and died alone in a hospital while his sons were in prison calling for the compassion of those in charge and asking to be released to take care of his family after their father.

As plenty of choices are available, and as there have been hundreds of similar cases before ours, we will not be the first ones to make these choices. A friend told me, “if some know-it-all comes along and mocks your ideas and what you do, go and kick their …, because by the end of the day they won’t be the ones to go to jail or get tortured.”


  • The Question of staying or leaving

Analyzing the decision-making processes in Egypt, trying to understand the motives, principles and the background of the current system and its goals, trying to read between the lines of Egypt’s contemporary history and its current economic challenges, its international relations and regional challenges, the fact that the West prioritizes the question of ISIS and of its citizens who are fighting within its ranks – such considerations make the chances of having a real and effective civil society in Egypt in the future appear extremely meager.


A call happened today (26/09/2013) between a national security officer and me


Individual freedoms between state security and national security


Between 8 and 9 in the morning in 26/09/2013, I woke up, unusually my apartment was clean, I took a walk to enjoy the touching the clean ground. I found my dog (Plato) sleeping under the windy window, he didn’t standup, he just takes his head up and keep his eyes on me to see me whenever I move. With closed eyes I said: good morning Plato.

I moved with a mechanical way to the other room, and lie down on my sofa with a plate of fruits, I catch the remote control and open the TV on National Geographic, after a while I slept again and I woke-up on a call from one of my colleagues at work, and after he reassured on me, told me that an officer from the National security call him and ask him about my number and he give to him.

I didn’t believe my colleague, especially that he is famous among us with his joking and tricks.

I closed the call while he is insisting that the national security will call me, and with a confident smile I knew that there are no officer or anyone will call me, by the end of the call my colleague said “please reassured me after they call you” I answered, “Alright I’ll if they call”.

After a while I found the screen of phone telling me that the “27915400” number is calling me.  A voice from the other said: “Mr. Mahmoud Farouk” I answered “Yes I am”, the voice said “This is Colonel: Amr from the national security”, at that moment I just knew that my colleague was serous in his talking.

Colonel: Amr said “I used to call you when the organization name is –Egyptian Union of Liberal Youth- and I knew that you change the organization name to Egyptian Center for public Policy Studies (ECPPS) and am calling you to ask about your activities and some information about the organization”

Between 2007-2009 I used to receive calls or even requisition to go to them from the National security -State Security at that time- in many of their offices (Gaber Ben Hayan – 6 of October – Warak) they used to ask me about our activities and the goal of the organization,  also they used to call me when we make a reservation for training or conference in a hotel when they receive the information from the hotel, at that time they try many times to stop some of our activities but I refuse, and also they try many times to know through me information about participants and there ideas but I also refuse, and I used to tell them I’ll not say anything more then what we have on our website.

On one occasion, there was an international organization having a training for some Egyptian organizations, and the state security canceled there hotel reservation, and they didn’t find a place to hold the training, and I offer them to do the training in our office, and I remember that day the state security officer was very angry and he didn’t like giving them a place to do the training, and since that time they use to send undercover security persons to attend our activities after I refuse to give him any information about the training.

I said to the Colonel Amr about ECPPS activities: “Why you asking me? and you can find everything we do on our website.”

He said: “your organization (ECPPS) is contacting some ministries, and asking to cooperate with them in some activities exactly “the ministry of Petroleum and ministry of electricity“ and his work to ask about us and know the real of the organization that contacting the government.”

I answered: but we notify everyone and every institutions and ministry, who we are and what we do and why we contact them, so why you asking me “What we do and why we doing it?”

I said to Colonel Amr: I have no problem to answer any of your questions if you just answer two questions “which law that give you the power to call me and ask me for information about my work and my organization and why you want to know such information? ”

He didn’t answer with clear words: he just reiterated his previous sentence, and said, “Your organization is address some ministries and I am calling you to get to know about your organization”

I reiterated my question many times, and every time I repeat my question there was a long talk from me to explain my point of view, I told him that we meet with many ministries and we even meet with the ministry of interior and with the human rights section in the ministry of interior, and we meet with officers still working with the ministry and officers leave the ministry and people from the police academy, and all of this because we working on police reform.

Then he ask me: “Mr. Mahmoud is your organization registered” I answered: “No we established as Non-Profit Company”. I filet from his time that he threat me in this question  

Then he said: “Mr. Mahmoud, are you married?” I answered: “No I am not”

He said: “when you marry and have a cute daughter and someone like me come to you to ask to marry her, are you going to ask about him?”

I said: “It depends ….. But in general when someone want to marry he go to the woman family and tell who is he and what he doing for living …  and then they ask about him”

He said: “This is exactly what am doing, I am calling you to ask about you because your organization is talk and contacting the government”

I answer with my the first sentence and said: “but we inform every one who we are” and I told him once again “if you just tell me why you want this information and under which law he call me I’ll be very happy to answer your questions.”

In more then 17 minutes which is the time of the call, he keep repeating: what is the kind of your organization work?.  Are you doing reports and research’s  or what you do exactly?. Don’t worry we’re not going to arrest you?.  Am just calling to cut the space and talk to you directly. and if you doing training or something like that he will not call you I am  just calling you because your kind of work, and because you contact ministries.

And I keep repeating: I want to know under which law you call me and ask for this information, and why you want to know.

Sometimes during the call I told him: “We are a research based organization, and our goal is the legal and economic reform in Egypt, and we work with ministries and political parties and many others to talk with them about our research papers”

I knew when I was telling him that any information about me or about the organization that he is writing it, although all of this information can be found by one click on our website, but I knew it wasn’t about what the organization do.

It was about breeding to obey the security and sow fear and awe and self-contempt, and flimsy authority that makes you feel that they watching you every and anywhere.

By the end of the call, I think the call was not so happy for me and for Colonel: Amr as well, he didn’t found a welcome an hopefully cooperation, and I felt bitterness in my throat from a call that makes the man ask himself hundreds of questions about the personal, practical and the country future.

Colonel Amr closed the call while he telling me: “I’ll search under which law I should call you and then I’ll call you to tell you about it and ask my questions”

I don’t say that the ministry of interior and the National security or the State security or whatever they want to name it, want to get back to the old times, as I do believe that they never change for a moment.

They as they used to be, and nothing going to change them unless we keep pushing them and make a pressure on them and make them change work under the law and change the authoritarian laws that give them the rights to violate the personal freedoms.

This is my witness for what happened with me in 26/9/2013, and we will keep working on ECPPS and will write a statement and send it to everyone and to all our friends to stop the National security from interfering and violating the personal freedoms.



”هب أن جلبة هائلة نشبت في الشارع حول أمر ما، وليكن عمودًا للإنارة يبتغي جمع من أصحاب النفوذ إزالته. يُسأل في الأمر راهب متسربل باللون الرمادي يحمل روح العصر الوسيط، فإذا هو يقول – بأسلوب الأكاديميين الجاف: ”لننظر بادئ ذي بدء، يا إخوان، في قيمة النور، إذا ما كان النور في ذاته حسنا—“ عندها يطرحه الجمع أرضًا، مبدين شيئا من الاعتذار، فيما يهرع الناس تجاه عمود الإنارة، ليسقطوه في غضون دقائق عشر، ثم يمضون مهنئين بعضهم البعض على واقعيتهم التي لا تمت بصلة للعصر الوسيط. لكن بمرور الوقت، لا تمضي الأمور بذات السهولة. فمن الناس من أسقط عمود الإنارة لأنه يريد المصباح الكهربي، ومنهم من أراد حديد الخردة، ومنهم من أراد الظلمة لأنهم يعملون السوء. منهم من حسب عمود الإنارة أقل من كاف، ومنهم من ظنه أكثر من اللازم، منهم من أراد تحطيم أملاك البلدية، ومنهم من أراد تحطيم شيء ما. لذا، فتدريجيًا وحتميا، اليوم وغدًا وبعد غد، تعود إلى الناس القناعة بأن الراهب كان محقا في النهاية، وأن الأمر برمته يقوم على فلسفة النور. فقط، ما كان بإمكاننا أن نناقش تحت ضوء المصباح، لابد وأن نناقشه الآن في الظلام“

جي كاي تشسترتن – الهراطقة (ترجمة المدون)

“Suppose that a great commotion arises in the street about something, let us say a lamp-post, which many influential persons desire to pull down. A grey-clad monk, who is the spirit of the Middle Ages, is approached upon the matter, and begins to say, in the arid manner of the Schoolmen, “Let us first of all consider, my brethren, the value of Light. If Light be in itself good—” At this point he is somewhat excusably knocked down. All the people make a rush for the lamp-post, the lamp-post is down in ten minutes, and they go about congratulating each other on their unmedieval practicality. But as things go on they do not work out so easily. Some people have pulled the lamp-post down because they wanted the electric light; some because they wanted old iron; some because they wanted darkness, because their deeds were evil. Some thought it not enough of a lamp-post, some too much; some acted because they wanted to smash municipal machinery; some because they wanted to smash something. And there is war in the night, no man knowing whom he strikes. So, gradually and inevitably, to-day, to-morrow, or the next day, there comes back the conviction that the monk was right after all, and that all depends on what is the philosophy of Light. Only what we might have discussed under the gas-lamp, we now must discuss in the dark.”

G.K. Chesterton – Heretics


Helplessness and Nothing Else

Translation: W. Scott Chahanovich


In the operation room one of the revolutionaries was resting. No direct link connected me to him. In front of the hospital there were a number of activists. Among them, I am always overwhelmed with the feeling I do not belong. I sat down on the sidewalk opposite the hospital in a desperate attempt to find some clear space in my mind so that I might rest and think about what is happening.


Questions, both public and personal, rained down upon my mind without answers. One of the activists reminded me that Malek (the blogger who had been injured) would lose one of his eyes; that he will emerge back into the world after a short period of time without one of his eyes. Each detail of each injury or loss of life seems painful. And that day, among those gathered, I was not capable of speaking or even writing about what pain I felt for short amounts of time. In front of the hospital most of the people were consumed by sending information by modern telephones. A pensive veil covered their faces as they thought about the fate of one of their friends, and at times they smiled.


After waiting a while, I asked a man working in the street where the nearest bookshop might be. There was, in the shop, a women and the Egyptian television. A police chief was there too, describing the injustice to which they had been subjected. And there was a young boy at the copy machine who was angry at all of those people in Tahrir Square. All three kept repeating one thing: “We want the country to get moving…we’re fed up”.


“Helplessness” is the first word I wrote after I found a paper and a pen in the bookshop. It was the only word that kept turning in my mind. A girlfriend of mine said it to me once when I explained to her my feelings about these conditions. I have written about this feeling earlier, yet I still have not found an exit from it: “indifference and spiritual remorse for this feeling”. One of the activists brought me back to Tahrir after the surgical operation had finished. Again, on the way to Downtown, I told her that I was going to Tahrir Square. She was incredulous. She said, “You’ve now started to go down to Tahrir?” I responded harshly, “I’m not going to protest…I am going to provide whatever help I can.” When I placed my foot down from the car onto the ground, I asked myself, “Am I really concerned about the situation of those who are in Tahrir? Or am I just doing this as an act of personal salvation?” I found no answer.


I feel dizzy in these situations. The ground spins and I do not know why and how to stop it. I remembered my dog, Plato. I decided to leave the Square for a while, to get away from the smell of thick smoke, in order to go check on him and to write, hoping that through writing there is an exit from this state of vertigo that follows silence and the feeling of Helplessness.