from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

Obama and Civil Society: Does the President Mean What He Says?

September 24, 2014

Blog Post
Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

President Obama gave a wonderful speech yesterday to the Clinton Global Initiative, about civil society. Here are some of the things he said:

[P]romoting civil society that can surface issues and push leadership is not just in keeping with our values, it’s not charity. It’s in our national interests. Countries that respect human rights -— including freedom of association -- happen to be our closest partners. That is not an accident. Conversely, when these rights are suppressed, it fuels grievances and a sense of injustice that over time can fuel instability or extremism. So I believe America’s support for civil society is a matter of national security.

It is precisely because citizens and civil society can be so powerful -— their ability to harness technology and connect and mobilize at this moment so unprecedented -— that more and more governments are doing everything in their power to silence them. From Russia to China to Venezuela, you are seeing relentless crackdowns, vilifying legitimate dissent as subversive. In places like Azerbaijan, laws make it incredibly difficult for NGOs even to operate. From Hungary to Egypt, endless regulations and overt intimidation increasingly target civil society. And around the world, brave men and women who dare raise their voices are harassed and attacked and even killed.

This growing crackdown on civil society is a campaign to undermine the very idea of democracy.  And what’s needed is an even stronger campaign to defend democracy. Since I took office, the United States has continued to lead the way....First, partnering and protecting civil society groups around the world is now a mission across the U.S. government. So under a new presidential memorandum that I’m issuing today, federal departments and agencies will consult and partner more regularly with civil society groups. They will oppose attempts by foreign governments to dictate the nature of our assistance to civil society. And they will oppose efforts by foreign governments to restrict freedoms of peaceful assembly and association and expression.... We’re going to increase our emergency assistance to embattled NGOs.

[A]lthough it is uncomfortable, although it sometimes causes friction, the United States will not stop speaking out for the human rights of all people, and pushing governments to uphold those rights and freedoms. We will not stop doing that, because that’s part of who we are, and that’s part of what we stand for....And when governments engage in tactics against citizens and civil society, hoping nobody will notice, it is our job to shine a spotlight on that abuse.


The question is whether these are just words. For five and a half years, the words the President spoke yesterday have not in fact guided U.S. policy; human rights policy in the Obama years has been weak, under-funded, an afterthought.

A very good test of the President’s words is Egypt. There, civil society is under a merciless assault by the Sisi government and the military. Only yesterday, penalties for Egyptians who accept foreign help for their civil society organizations were further tightened by President Sisi:

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi issued an amendment to the Penal Code on September 21 penalizing the receipt of foreign funding with a life sentence, as well as the payment of fines. The decision follows an ultimatum by the Ministry of Social Solidarity for all NGOs working outside its scope to legalize their status, seen by some as an attempted crackdown on the work of human rights organizations in Egypt. The earlier version also limited the identity of agencies offering funds to foreign states and their affiliated bodies. The current amendment extends the giving parties to non-state actors and private organizations, both locally and internationally....The amendment takes place in the midst of an expected crackdown on non-governmental organizations, which engage in civil society work outside the scope of the Ministry of Social Solidarity’s control. Many of these organizations work in the field of human rights and receive foreign funding to sustain their work, which the government deems harmful and has been trying to control.

So, the day before Sisi and Obama meet, the day Obama is making his "civil society" speech in New York, Sisi acts to endanger more civil society activists. This is far harsher than the situation under President Mubarak, which was bad enough. The fact is that support from the United States--whether from NGOs like Freedom House, or from USAID or the State Department--is a lifeline for many civil society organizations. I suppose this is why the new government of Egypt wishes to cut it off, and stop their work.

What President Sisi is doing is clear enough, and so is what President Obama is saying. The remaining question is whether Mr. Obama means what he says in the speech, and will speak out clearly against Sisi’s actions. Will he actually work to defend those civil society activists and organizations in Egypt, or are the words meant to be symbolic of good wishes--but nothing more? Will Mr. Obama "shine a spotlight on that abuse" because "America’s support for civil society is a matter of national security," as he said?  We’ll know soon enough.