Organizational Health Episode 23May 12, 2022

23: When professionalizing your organization makes you safer

Hosted by Akwe Amosu
Produced by Peter Coccoma

Like many mission-driven organisations, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights didn’t give much thought to its internal structure and processes in its early years. Its task was to defend those whose rights were being abused, not to build an administrative paragon.  But there came a moment, with the organization growing, when ad hoc informality no longer seemed viable and the leadership began to put new systems in place, adding more oversight in the form of a board. For many in the human rights field, investing in what seems like bureaucracy can seem in contradiction to the work – at best a drain on energy, and at worst, a distraction from the mission. Veteran EIPR staffer and eventually executive director Gasser Abdel-Razek recalls the pros and cons of the path EIPR took, and the very personal significance it held for him on the day he found himself under interrogation.

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The Interview

‘The changes made us stronger when they came after us’

With the political reversals that ended a period of openness and brought General El Sisi to power, the decision to formalize systems and comply with many legal requirements looked cumbersome. But for Gasser Abdel-Razek, in the long run it was the right call.

Transcript

Akwe Amosu: Hello, and welcome to Strength and Solidarity

AA: I’m Akwe Amosu…with Episode 23 of our podcast about the tools, tactics and strategies being used by human rights activists around the world… And this time we’re in Egypt, tackling the nerdish but necessary theme of organizational structure and systems.

AA: Let’s imagine for a moment that you’re under interrogation for your work as a human rights leader. Would you, in such a moment, be reflecting on the successful reform of your organisation’s bureaucratic systems?  You think not?  Well, this episode is for you…  The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights is a human rights organization with a proud record since its founding in 2002.  In its first decade of standing firm against hostile government, its staff and leadership focused on the mission of defending rights and documenting abuse and thought little about administrative systems or governance structure or HR benefits; the organization was registered as a small business and its operations were relatively informal.  But with the political opening that came with the Arab Spring in 2011, the organization began to grow, and its leadership thought it needed more management and a board so new director, Khaled Mansour, set about putting that in place. More than a decade later, I’m curious about how that worked out for EIPR. Was going to the trouble of strengthening its internal bureaucracy worthwhile?  What was it like to suddenly have a board after years without one? And given the political reversals that have restored oppressive rule under General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, did the shift towards being a more formal organisation help or hinder its human rights work?  Gasser Abdel-Razek has been with EIPR since early on, and in 2015 he succeeded Khaled Mansour as executive director. So he seemed like a good person to walk me through the changes.

AA: Welcome Gasser.

Gasser Abdel-Razek: Welcome Akwe, nice to be speaking to you.

AA: So I want to ask you about EIPR’s journey as an organization – at a certain you decided to structure your internal arrangements more formally, with practical arrangements about pay, about benefits and obligations for staff, could you say something about what that process was?

GAR: Well, there was a point with the revolution in 2011 where the opportunities were enormous. The ideas we had for EIPR to grow from a Cairo-based organization into a real national organization, with a presence in all the major cities with completely, uh, different structure. That meant, in practical terms, that EIPR, that was in 2011 an organization of 20 people, and by mid 2013, it was an organization with 80 people present in four administrative areas of the country,  stretching from the very north on the Mediterranean to the south near the Sudanese border. With that growth, with the opportunities, we started asking ourselves questions about how the organization was structured, how the governance system worked. When we were 20, there were very few people that were part of the management team; when we were 80, the management team included 12 people. So it was obvious when we started growing that we really had no governance system. The senior people within the organization made all the decisions, uh, whether they were right were wrong. And the fact that that governance system wasn’t there created tensions within that small group of people that were managing. But also the organizations becoming four times bigger, budgets became five times bigger, we needed more governance and supervision and someone to challenge us.

AA: So that’s the internal side of it. Did the environment that you were working in have anything to do with this choice?

GAR: Yes. There was also the idea that the country was changing and some of the very genuine concerns and fears for people like us, building an organization within a repressive framework, under a lot of security threats that forces you to be very cautious about how open you are about the work you do, about your finances, about who’s working for you- That opportunity, that opening, helped us consider that maybe it’s about time to make that institution a much stronger institution, internally as well.

AA: I mean, it’s interesting because by 2014 you have General Sisi being elected, and you’ve got a very different political environment to operate in. And I wonder at the time, how that looked to you as you had been going through this – can I call it professionalization of the organization? Did it seem to you that that was still the right direction once you were faced with a very hostile government?

GAR: We were in a sense lucky because that process – of professionalization as you put it-, started with the growth and most of the decisions were being developed before Sisi took over. By the end of 2013, we actually changed the legal status of the organization from a small business to a limited liability company registered with the investment authorities. So, EIPR became registered the same way Vodafone is registered or IBM has registered and so forth. And with that came a lot of other small, but very important changes in my view. Our books became much more correct; the social insurance, taxation, medical insurance – all of these duties that you have as an LLC were met. And in retrospect this has made EIPR a stronger institution.

AA: And having found yourselves in this much more hostile environment with a much more repressive, regime. Did you have to unwind any of what you had done? How did you adapt?

GAR: Uh, there were a few very difficult decisions to make. By mid-2014 we were actually shutting down offices that were outside Cairo because we felt that it was much safer for our staff to be in one office and not having a physical space that can be raided and people arrested and so forth.  We went down from about 80 people back to around 40 people. And some of the areas of work that we were starting to focus on, like housing, the right to food, we stopped that and decided to just focus on what we’ve accumulated enough experience on, or on issues that no other organization in the country would be working on. So yes, the dreams stopped there.

AA: So you reversed the growth plan. In terms of the actual institutional changes you had made, did you stick with those? I mean, you didn’t reverse the decision to become an LLC,  all of your bureaucratic processes, you kept all of that.

GAR: Yes. And the key, I think in that period is that, as an LLC, you’re not required by law to have a governance structure – other than the owners of the LLC -, but we made the conscious decision of appointing a seven-member board, that is made up of people that supported the work of EIPR but in themselves are prominent, activists, writers, academics, journalists, and so forth. And the idea there was, even though they do not exist legally on paper, they had that moral authority that it would be very, very difficult for someone like me to say to them, ‘Oh, sorry, no, I won’t, I won’t stick to that decision you’ve just made-‘ It would’ve been very difficult.

AA: And in that environment, that increasingly hostile environment, what role did the board play?

GAR: I mean, when they became very active towards the end of 2014 is exactly the time when I took over as executive director, which was in January 2015. This was a time of major crisis, not for the whole country, but specifically for NGOs that were registered, in any form other than the NGO law, because at some point, the minister in charge of NGOs issued an ultimatum in the major newspapers saying that if you don’t register as an NGO by a certain date, we’ll have to deal with you, which wasn’t clear what will they do. So it was a time of crisis… And the board was meeting almost on weekly basis. They became at a certain point of time, very, very close to the daily decisions of the organization. And I think looking back, as much as it was difficult at times, because the decisions they’ve made, that as executive director I had to stick to, were not the decisions I would’ve liked to make, they have been very responsible, in a sense. So the discussions would be, there would be a shopping list, a very large shopping list that would start with something that would drive someone like me crazy. By saying we should close down!  I would, I said that I did say it in meetings, ‘so one of the country’s major human rights organization would shut down when the country’s going through its major human rights crisis – it doesn’t make sense!’ And I was very angry, I have to say, at times, but when you look back, at it, they were really, really, a bunch of smart, responsible and candid people that wanted to actually discuss all the options on the table… think about our safety, even if most of us, did not really prioritize the idea of our own personal safety. So they have been very, very, uh, useful in that crisis.

AA: But going back to their belief that the right thing would be to close down. Can we just back up a little bit and talk about that? You said, you know, the government issued the ultimatum, said people have got to register as NGOs. That was not your current status – was that the point at which the board said, ‘Okay, you have to close down now?’

GAR: They never said you have to close down now. They just said it is an option, weighing the security risks, and weighing under the current circumstances, what quality work can an organization produce? It wasn’t really, for most of them, “let’s run away.” It was much more complex than that. It was real, discussion.

AA: But their concern was that it would be really hard for you as EIPR to continue working under the conditions that were being imposed by the government. That was their concern – it was not safe for your team and you to continue.

GAR: It’s not safe and they couldn’t see how we would continue to produce the work that we are there for, and obviously there was no consensus because EIPR is still there and still doing a fantastic job, six, seven years down the road… Again, I think they were very, very responsible in how the discussions were framed.

AA: So yeah, just talk about those subsequent years, obviously you didn’t decide to close down, you continued. How many of the concerns that had been expressed about the ability of the organization to continue functioning were borne out, proved valid? I mean, you did face your staff being arrested… You yourself were detained with two other colleagues in the senior management. And so I’m just wondering how, in retrospect, looking back, how that set of conversations looks?

GAR: Um, that’s one of the arguments in the discussions in 2014 and, and through the years when the pressures were really high, is that from my point of view, and the point of view of many of my colleagues, was that we really can’t operate, run an organization, while thinking about the security risks as our number one concern really. And our argument was, probably our best chance, if they decide to close us down, if they decide to go after some of our staff members, is that they do that when we are working and producing to the best of our ability under the circumstances. And I think this has proved us right, the experience that we went through in November of 2020, because I think it would’ve been much easier to go after people like me, like Hossam, our founder and current executive director, and other colleagues, if we were working as individuals or with other groups, and we don’t have the protection of the work we’ve produced over the past 19, almost 20 years. So I think, in a sense, they were responsible, but, I think we were right that the work we produced, uh, the professionalism, uh, the changes that we’ve done in 2013 – and a lot of credit goes to our former executive director Khaled Mansour for the registration of the LLC and so forth, made this a much, much stronger organization when they decided to come after us.

AA: What I keep thinking, listening to you is, that it’s counterintuitive that embedding yourself more firmly in the bureaucratic structures and legal requirements that go with professionalization, when you know that the very institution, the state that is powerful, it oversees implementation of the law, is hostile to you. I think a lot of people would be surprised to hear you say, EIPR was stronger for having, as it were, gotten more involved with the state. They might have expected that avoidance of entanglement in bureaucratic processes, in registration, in tax, in national insurance, would make you stronger.

GAR: There are a couple of things here. I’ve done human rights work for 27 years, so more than half my adult life, more than half of my life actually, not just the adult-, but, in most of my jobs, I never had social insurance, so… I’m 53. I’m hoping to retire at some point of time. When that time comes, I will not have a decent pension so it will probably force me to work much longer into my sixties than what I would’ve hoped. And so, in a sense, that is the right of my colleagues and for the young people that are joining the movement today, or five years ago, or 10 years ago; they don’t have to go through what we went through, or some of us went through. It’s not a question of, it’s more complicated or less complicated, I think, this is the right of people working for human rights organizations.

But also, during my short detention in November, I spent the first few hours in the security building, didn’t know where I was, I was blindfolded and interrogated and I was being asked about, “Where do we get our money from?” And, I have a very mathematical brain so I remember numbers quite well. So I went through all of EIPR’s contracts, uh, and I would say, “OK, we’re getting – we have a contract with the Fund for Global Human Rights for a 100,000 dollars a year… We’ve just signed a contract with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Germany and that’s 300,000 euros for two years, maybe a bit more, and that way…” “So who works for EIPR?” And I would say, “OK, we have, uh, so, and so, and so, and so, and so,” and I did not feel at any point of time, even though I’m blindfolded, my, my hands are handcuffed to the chair. I didn’t feel like I’m giving them any secrets. All of that money goes into one single bank account; these contracts – according to, the Central Bank of Egypt, if you get transfers from abroad, you have to show the bank, why are you getting that amount of money? So all of our contracts with the Fund with, with everyone –  these contracts are in the bank, that money arrives under the control of the Central Bank and our colleagues are paid by bank transfers. So to me, and, and this is something that I, I haven’t talked about it much before. To me, in the situation I was in, which is a difficult situation, I was so comfortable talking about the structure because it’s known; talking about the funding because it’s known. And, um, I felt very, I don’t know, I felt like… part of why I wanted to talk to you about it is that this is something for a lot of our colleagues here and elsewhere, uh, that they need to think about.

AA:  Before you, before you go on, you want those colleagues to recognize that this transparency actually strengthened EIPR and strengthened your hand; that you didn’t have anything to hide made it easier for both you and your organization to go through this hostile treatment.

GAR Absolutely, absolutely.  Try and imagine, in the first few hours, blindfolded, handcuffed, and I’m not giving information because I’m scared for my colleagues – how that scenario would’ve developed? Uh, we know that they torture people, uh, from very mild maltreatment to extensive torture. What if I didn’t give that information? So, yes, it made me in a much stronger position and in the sense it did protect me in these first few hours, and it did offer Hossam and my colleagues on the outside a very strong support in campaigning on my behalf, and on behalf of my other colleagues, because everything was transparent.  The fact that he could dig out a letter that has a government stamp, signed by me, sent to the minister. The fact that when asked about anything that has to do with our funding, he just says it.  This has made this a much, much stronger organization and made my short detention a much easier one.

AA: You were going to go on to make, another point?

GAR: Yeah! The idea that we can work in countries like mine and, in other countries, that have repressive regimes and hide, with all what we know now about their abilities to tap into our laptops and into our smartphones, and trace this, that, and the other, the technology that they have the support they’re getting from Western democracies to do that,- should be something that we think about hard as well. Is it worth the risk that we actually try and work away from the systems that exist in any given country while, we might be exposing ourselves and colleagues to surveillance that will probably manage to pinpoint everything that we have done. So that’s something for people also to think about.

AA: And for EIPR I’m wondering now, if the organization does – I don’t know whether I should say, um,’ succeed’ at registering as an NGO or ‘feels obliged to do so’, but whichever way we look at it – the anti-NGO law in Egypt has, as in many countries, some pretty tough strictures, particularly and notably the ones that limit foreign funding. And having made this really strong case for the professionalization process, the institutionalization, um- Can an organization that’s like that function without significant infusions of funds, wherever they come from? Does the ability of the state to limit EIPR’s income for the future have implications for its ability to remain a strong professional institution?

GAR: There are many ways to look at it really. Definitely the model we have at the moment will cease to exist. We will not be able to generate the same amount of international funding that we’ve managed in the past 20 years. Having said this, and these are discussions that don’t just take place within EIPR, you know that a lot of people around the world are looking at the international funding model with a critical view on how it has really affected activism and the core of what we’re doing. So, back to EIPR, I think the model we’ve had will definitely cease to exist so we will have to find other ways to continue working and there are ideas that we are discussing. It won’t be the same, but my belief is that we can continue to produce the quality work that we’ve produced over the years, maybe with not the same number of staff, uh… maybe counting on our alumni, people that worked for EIPR for years and left, and are doing other stuff. I’m very happy to take on projects for EIPR, as a volunteer. And I know there are tens of others who’d do the same. We’ve had a model where we’ve used young graduates as fellows, and some of them produced excellent work under supervision of our senior researchers. So there are ways to actually do that. In a sense, for me, we have a moral responsibility to continue to do that, because if we stop, because the international funding is becoming more difficult, it will prove my government and many other governments right, is that this was all, uh, whether you produce good work or bad work, it was all because there was international funding. So if we fail to create an alternative model that builds on the many, many talents and the commitment that people have in this country then we have failed our aspirations, our dreams, and the people that we always claim we are doing that work for.

AA: Thank you, Gasser.

GAR: Thank you, Akwe.

AA: Gasser Abdel-Razek was the director of EIPR until early 2021 when he stepped down after a period in detention. He remains closely involved with the organization, whose current director is also its founding director, Hossam Bahgat – the two of them are the registered owners of the limited liability company that is EIPR.  As always, you can find a transcript of our interviews on our website, strength and solidarity dot org.

AA: That’s it for episode 23 of Strength and Solidarity… The coda will be back next week. We love getting your feedback and suggestions – you can write to us at pod@strengthandsolidarity dot org… And also, if you’d like to get updates from us every time a new episode drops, you can register.  Visit our website – again, that’s strength and solidarity dot org – there’s a link on the podcast page. Thanks to Cate Brown for production help, and to our producer Peter Coccoma  – thanks for listening.