Table of Contents

The closing of space for civil society is no longer just an emergent trend of uncertain gravity. Civil society organizations and activists in an ever-increasing number of countries have to contend with systematic efforts to reduce their resource base, operational effectiveness, and public legitimacy. In many places, formal and informal restrictions on freedoms of association and assembly and the public vilification of civic actors have already become the new political reality.

This represents a fundamental rupture of the global spread of liberal civil society norms advanced by Western aid providers and international institutions over the past several decades. Of course, human rights activists and citizen groups working to challenge state power have always faced an uphill struggle. Their work unsettles deeply entrenched vested interests, causing political and economic elites to lash out against them. In authoritarian contexts, state-society relations have always been tenuous, with governments keeping tight control over foreign aid flows and dissidents risking violent state repression.

What is different today is the growing number and diversity of countries implementing or considering restrictions and the rate at which such measures have spread. While new restrictions are most common in competitive authoritarian systems (that is to say, regimes that are neither fully autocratic nor fully democratic), countries in every regime category are part of this trend.580 Governments are risking domestic and international backlash and sacrificing the influx of valuable resources to reassert their political authority and regulate transnational influences on domestic politics.581

The closing space phenomenon raises pressing questions about the resilience and sustainability of civil society sectors in many parts of the world. The implementation, enforcement, and local impact of civil society restrictions thus deserve careful scrutiny—as do international responses.


As the cases of Russia, Egypt, and Ethiopia highlight, closing the space for civil society often goes beyond the enactment of restrictive NGO laws. In all three cases, these legislative measures were only one element of a much broader set of formal and informal efforts aimed at bringing civil society under greater state control.


All three governments have pursued aggressive and sustained smear campaigns against specific categories of civil society organizations. While these attacks on civil society have taken different forms depending on the context, they typically have built on three preexisting public narratives: suspicions of foreign political meddling, fears of violent extremism, and anti-elite attitudes within society.

Foreign Agents

Officials in all three countries have denounced foreign-funded organizations as vehicles of outside powers working to undermine national security and the public good. This strategy has been used most prominently in Russia, where authorities formally require foreign-funded organizations to label themselves as foreign agents—with the clear connotation that these groups constitute a fifth column seeking to destabilize Russia from within. In Egypt, consecutive governments have similarly exploited widespread resentment against U.S. political interference in the Middle East to delegitimize civic actors with ties to foreign aid providers. Ethiopian authorities have disparaged international and domestic human rights organizations as foreign spies and Western neoliberal agents undermining the EPRDF’s revolutionary democracy.

Violent Extremists

An alternative strategy, employed very successfully in both Egypt and Ethiopia, is to depict civil society organizations as extremist groups or terrorist sympathizers. Officials typically resorted to this strategy when the civic movement in question could not be reduced to an externally sponsored elite phenomenon but in fact had strong local roots, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or ethnically based civil society organizations in Ethiopia’s Oromia and Amhara regions. In both countries, courts have also convicted journalists on the charge of abetting terrorist groups. The use of counterterrorism rhetoric to justify civil society repression has proven particularly effective during moments of acute political instability when popular opinion supports assertive state action—such as following Morsi’s ouster in Egypt in 2013. In Russia, security officials have also raided and investigated NGOs under the pretext of suspected extremist activity—particularly in the north Caucasus. Governments are particularly astute at exploiting the fact that human rights organizations often defend terrorist suspects from state abuses (such as extrajudicial killings, disappearances, torture, and unfair trials).

Corrupt Elites

Government officials in Russia and Ethiopia have also tried to delegitimize civil society organizations by reinforcing existing gaps between urban groups dominated by educated elites and the wider population. For example, the EPRDF has used the fact that many nongovernmental groups are heavily dependent on foreign funding to disparage them as rent-seekers that exist to extract donor money. These accusations have resonance because of the reality of nepotism, corruption, and poor downward accountability in the aid sector. Russian officials, on the other hand, have at times depicted civil society activists and protesters as urban intellectuals who are out of touch with the struggles and aspirations of everyday Russians.

In all three cases, government officials initiated campaigns of vilification before implementing legal restrictions and intensified their accusations during periods of heightened polarization and instability. The campaigns thus served to justify further legal measures, yet they also had a more immediate effect: by continuously assigning secondary motives to civil society groups, governments weaken public trust in civil society activities, assessments, and reports. Three factors particularly aided government strategies of delegitimization: (1), state influence over key media outlets—such as public broadcasting in Ethiopia and state-controlled television in Russia—that allows the ruling government to aggressively disseminate its message; (2), the existence of public narratives that reinforced anti–civil society suspicions; and (3), relatively weak-rooted formal NGO sectors with narrow core constituencies. The latter factor appeared to be particularly prominent in contexts where civil society organizations first appeared and flourished because of an influx of foreign funding, such as Ethiopia in the 1980s and Russia in the 1990s.

Sweeping Legislative Measures

In Russia, Egypt, and Ethiopia, governments have paired NGO restrictions with other legislative measures and presidential decrees that restrict citizens’ freedoms of association and assembly, particularly counterterrorism laws and antiprotest bills. A key characteristic of these legal measures is the reliance on vague concepts and definitions that give implementing agencies considerable discretion in enforcement. The Egyptian antiterrorism law broadly defines terrorism as any act that disturbs public order with force.582 Similarly, the Ethiopian Anti-Terrorism Proclamation can be used to criminalize peaceful political dissent, assistance of any type provided to nonviolent protesters, as well as publications deemed to indirectly encourage terrorist acts.583 The Russian foreign agent law, on the other hand, failed to define “political activities,” which meant that the term could be applied to all forms of advocacy or human rights work.

Governments in all three countries have intentionally relied on a tactic of selective targeting. Rather than systematically enforcing all restrictive legal measures they prosecute and convict a select number of activists to send a signal to society at large.

These types of sweeping definitions undermine due process as the statutes in question do not adequately clarify what conduct is prohibited. The effects of this legal uncertainty have been self-censorship and fear. Civil society organizations simply do not know how broadly new laws will be applied, what types of activities will be sanctioned, and how the judiciary will respond to legal challenges. Broad and unclear legal guidelines have also resulted in delayed or inconsistent enforcement patterns, which contribute to uncertainty and disunity within the wider civil society community. This challenge becomes particularly acute as different government agencies and levels of government become involved in the enforcement process. In Russia, prosecutors and courts in different parts of the country initially arrived at divergent interpretations of the meaning and scope of political activities. In Ethiopia, the Charities and Societies Agency struggled to systematically enforce the government’s 70/30 funding guideline. As the agency faced government pressure to improve its performance, it lashed out at an increasing number of organizations in largely unpredictable ways.

Selective Targeting

Further, governments in all three countries have intentionally relied on a tactic of selective targeting. Rather than systematically enforcing all restrictive legal measures—often impossible owing to capacity constraints and fear of international and domestic backlash—they prosecute and convict a select number of activists to send a signal to society at large. This pattern has been particularly evident in Russia, where the government has initiated criminal charges against NGOs, individual citizens, and civic activists only in a select number of cases. These cases nevertheless highlight to the wider NGO community—and citizenry—that the government is willing and capable of using the law to repress dissent. In Egypt, the government failed to enforce its own NGO registration deadline, which has left those organizations that chose not to register vulnerable to future selective enforcement efforts. Ethiopian authorities, on the other hand, have regularly ratcheted up their pressure on journalists, activists, and lawyers ahead of elections or in moments of crisis, using the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation to initiate criminal proceedings.

In addition, law enforcement agencies in all three cases have singled out a core group of human rights and pro-democracy organizations perceived as particularly threatening to the government. These organizations have experienced the most sustained harassment: smear campaigns, repeated investigations, interrogations, and lawsuits—often focused on narrow procedural matters and administrative offenses. Yet even those activists, while aware of their vulnerable status, do not know when or how they will be targeted, when the raid or the arrest will happen, and how far government authorities are willing to go. The selective prosecution of dissidents, activists, and journalists combined with repeated threats and harassment by security officials have led many of these human rights defenders to go into exile, knowing that it is only a matter of time before they are targeted again.

Legal uncertainty and unpredictable enforcement heighten the importance of institutions that can act as checks on government abuses of power, particularly the judiciary. Strong legal institutions can ensure that governments respect their human rights commitments even in the absence of other democratic protections. It is telling that in all three cases, the independence of the judiciary had already been compromised to some degree when the government began enacting legal restrictions. As a result, civic actors could no longer rely on the courts to fight back against the executive and legislative branches. The Russian and Egyptian governments in particular have pursued a legalist approach to civil society repression that relies on the judiciary to maintain a façade of rule of law. While civic activists who have challenged civil society restrictions and harassment in the courts have achieved a number of limited victories, these have been insufficient to turn the overall tide.

Varying Levels of Violent Repression

Governments differ in their use of overt repression and violence against civic mobilization. Despite widespread security force abuses, state violence against civil society in Russia has not reached the level of intensity and impunity witnessed in Egypt since 2013 and in Ethiopia after the 2005 election and more recently following mass demonstrations in Oromia and Amhara.584 Russian authorities have primarily relied on legal and bureaucratic measures and state propaganda to silence or marginalize critical actors, combined with the selective intimidation and prosecution of activists, journalists, and private citizens. In contrast, activists in both Egypt and Ethiopia face a high risk of detention and forced disappearance. Both countries have recently experienced mass killings of protesters by security forces in response to large-scale demonstrations.

This variation may potentially be explained by differences in regime strength, institutional and bureaucratic cultures, and degree of perceived threat. Violent repression is costly: governments thus have a strong interest in institutionalizing restrictions that make crude violence against citizens unnecessary. While a detailed analysis of these dynamics is beyond the scope of this report, it is possible that the Russian government is secure enough in its power and popularity to resort to crude repression only in isolated instances—for example, when faced with unauthorized protests. In contrast, the Egyptian military came to power after three years of internal upheaval in which the locus of control had repeatedly shifted. At the time, the Muslim Brotherhood still had a large support base and represented a concrete political threat. State security agencies were internally split and competing for dominance. Since then, the rise in terrorist activity has further facilitated the increasing use of extrajudicial proceedings and violence. In Ethiopia, the ruling party has extended its control over state institutions down to the local level. Yet it governs a fractured multiethnic federation that remains fundamentally fragile, particularly owing to the long-time political marginalization of the majority of its population. The recent protests in the Amhara and Oromia regions brought these structural vulnerabilities to the fore.

Creation of Alternative Civic Actors

Beyond targeting specific civic actors and increasing control over associational life, the governments examined in this report have also sought to reshape civil society by co-opting existing organizations, channeling resources toward certain types of civil society activities, and encouraging the formation of pro-government groups. They have followed two main strategies in this regard: a divide-and-rule approach that seeks to sow divisions within civil society by selectively disbursing punishment and rewards and a mobilization approach that encourages citizen action within party- or state-controlled structures and boundaries.

In Russia, Egypt, and Ethiopia, governments have tried to draw a line between organizations that are considered socially useful and groups working on more politically sensitive issues. They have done so primarily by making it much more difficult for the latter group to access foreign funding. For example, the Ethiopian Charities and Societies Proclamation stipulates that organizations working on a wide range of rights-related issues have to raise 90 percent of their funding from domestic sources. At the same time, the Ethiopian government continues to work with NGOs that engage strictly in local development and service delivery and refrain from challenging the state’s development agenda. Yet even the latter have little influence on national policy discussions. The most recent Egyptian NGO law institutionalizes a similar division: it explicitly limits the work of all civil society organizations to development and social welfare issues that are in line with the state’s development goals. In Russia, government officials have similarly highlighted the role of apolitical charitable and service delivery organizations in official statements and included them in official government platforms. This does not mean that development and social organizations have flourished: in Ethiopia, Egypt, as well as Russia, shrinking civic space has negatively impacted their ability to operate freely and independently, raise funding, and influence policy deliberations. To different degrees, all three governments seem to envision a civil society that primarily serves the role of implementing state policy, rather than aggregating and defending different citizen interests or encouraging civic participation—no matter in what realm.

To different degrees, all three governments seem to envision a civil society that primarily serves the role of implementing state policy.

Yet there are also differences among the three cases. The Kremlin has pursued a relatively coordinated strategy that consists of creating government-approved civil society councils and funding civil society organizations that fill the government’s service delivery gaps or promote official ideology and policy. Russian authorities temporarily embraced a mobilization-type approach and encouraged the proliferation of pro-Kremlin grassroots groups. Yet they backtracked when these associations’ activities no longer seemed to serve the government’s reputation and agenda. Over the past two years, the Russian government has reverted to a more hierarchical model. The EPRDF, on the other hand, has pursued a mobilization strategy by strengthening the role of mass-based associations, which remain closely tied to the ruling party, and incorporating citizens into party-controlled committees and governance structures at the local level. However, these associations typically have limited autonomy and capacity and largely serve as extensions of the ruling government.


Exile or Closure

As government attacks have intensified, activists from all three countries have found it extremely difficult to continue their work. Some have decided to go into exile, knowing that they would in all likelihood become targets for prosecution. From Tunis to Nairobi and Vilnius, small communities of activists in exile have emerged, many of which remain remotely involved in civic activism and human rights work. In addition, organizations have been dissolved or become inactive, primarily owing to funding constraints. In Ethiopia, hundreds of organizations could not reregister under the Charities and Societies Proclamation because they did not meet the necessary requirements. Similarly, smaller organizations have struggled to comply with Russian reregistration requirements. In some cases, the organizations in question may have already been largely inactive beforehand. In other cases, they did not have enough funding or staff to meet the necessary bureaucratic benchmarks or simply struggled to raise the resources needed to continue their activities.

Reduced Funding

Campaigns to close civic space have reduced the access of civil society groups to funding, forcing them to cut budgets, terminate programs and activities, shrink in size, and focus on sheer organizational survival. Foreign funding restrictions have particularly impacted organizations involved in human rights and advocacy work or activities interpreted by the government to be of a political nature. In the case of Russia, this includes NGO work on local environmental protection, conflict resolution, and HIV prevention; whereas in Ethiopia, groups focused on gender equality and children’s rights—among other issues—have been forced to forsake external support. In addition, in Russia and Egypt, overall levels of civil society funding have decreased as concerned international funders have withdrawn. This means that even organizations working on relatively apolitical development or social accountability projects struggle to finance their work. In addition, certain government regulations, such as Ethiopia’s 70/30 guideline, impede access to funding for the sector as a whole.

A key consequence has been the desperate search for new funding models that will reduce civic actors’ dependence on external support. Affected organizations have tried to build up their local membership base or shift toward income-generating activities. However, in none of the cases examined in this report has the search for an alternative funding strategy—be it domestic corporate sponsorship, grassroots fund-raising, or income generation—yielded sufficient resources to sustain previous levels of civil society activity and reach. Instead, civil society organizations have had to scale back their activities. Those that have proved most resilient to the new funding environments are groups that can complement their advocacy or civic assistance work with income-generating services or can rely on significant volunteer support. On the other hand, smaller groups with limited internal capacity have struggled to adjust. As a result, NGOs have had to strike new compromises. In Ethiopia, many human rights and advocacy organizations have chosen to change their mandate and programmatic focus to more apolitical development work to continue receiving foreign funding. In Russia, a similar shift has happened more informally, with some organizations adopting a less critical stance to qualify for government assistance.

Weakening Through Bureaucratic Attrition

In addition to funding restrictions, seemingly innocuous administrative procedures and regulations have had a devastating effect on civil society organizations in all three countries. Changes in registration rules and reregistration requirements have been easy tools that governments have used to weed out critical organizations, force them to strike certain activities from their mandate, and prevent new independent groups from forming. Organizations now have to spend more and more time fulfilling complex reporting, permitting, and auditing tasks; cooperating with government investigators; and defending themselves against legal challenges. The Russian case exemplifies how officials use administrative regulations to repeatedly drag civil society organizations into court. The 70/30 rule in Ethiopia similarly highlights the often dramatic effects of simple administrative provisions. In a context of resource scarcity, constant bureaucratic hurdles further discourage citizens from forming nongovernmental groups and prevent already existing organizations from focusing on their substantive work. In addition, they provide ample opportunities for government officials to exercise their discretion to delay civil society activities, block funding flows, and otherwise target groups they perceive as threatening.


Another consequence of the closing civic space in Russia, Egypt, and Ethiopia has been the fragmentation of associational life. In all three countries, it has become more difficult for organizations to collaborate both formally and informally, as groups have become more absorbed in their own survival. Divergent regulations for apolitical development groups versus organizations working on political and rights issues have strained cross-sectoral partnerships, despite common challenges.

This is a worrisome trend: civic movements tend to succeed when different organizations pursue a cohesive and collaborative agenda. The density of social networks and horizontal ties between civic groups are typically crucial enablers of social and political mobilization: members of an interconnected civil society are more likely to overcome barriers to participation in contentious politics and withstand state repression.585 On the other hand, individualized or compartmentalized resistance to state policy is more easily controlled and suppressed. Yet there are also examples of resistance in the face of adversity. In Ethiopia, civil society organizations formed a task force to coordinate their lobbying efforts and pressure the government for reform. In both Russia and Egypt, human rights groups have managed to act in a relatively coordinated manner—for example, in jointly resisting the Russian foreign agent designation or issuing joint statements after attacks on individual organizations.

Diminished Domestic and International Reach

Due to funding cuts, smear campaigns, and government harassment, civil society organizations also struggle to expand their activities, develop new partnerships, and reach a broad audience with their work. The closing of space thus undermines both horizontal ties among organizations and civic actors and vertical ties between activists and members of the political elites. For example, in Russia, the foreign agent designation has made it difficult for NGOs to continue cooperating with local authorities, state agencies, or other public bodies, including schools. Only organizations that have forsaken their organizational autonomy have managed to maintain close connections to state decisionmakers. In addition, state control over key media outlets has made it more difficult for civic actors in all three countries to influence public narratives and raise awareness of their work. This is particularly problematic in Ethiopia and rural Egypt, where access to the Internet remains limited. As groups are increasingly forced to act clandestinely or keep a low profile to avoid government repression, they are less likely to achieve their desired goals.

Similarly, civil society organizations have found themselves cut off from international partners, counterparts, and forums. They now lack the resources and capacity to build cross-national linkages as they have become increasingly consumed with domestic challenges. Government harassment and restrictions—such as travel bans in Egypt—also make it more difficult for activists to participate in international exchanges, as doing so increases the risk of interrogation, detention, and arrest. This means that civil society organizations struggle to remain involved in transnational efforts and movements and to shape international policy discussions. They are cut off not only from resources but increasingly from exchanges of information and shared learning.

Forced Search for New Organizational Structures

The trend toward closing space highlights the limitations of formal NGOs as vehicles for social and political change. The professionalization and specialization of civil society organizations has of course often been crucial to their success, providing organizational continuity and strategic leadership. However, the flip side of this trend has been the weakening of their ties to local constituencies and increased vulnerability to legal and administrative restrictions.

Faced with escalating restrictions, nongovernmental organizations in Egypt and Russia have begun moving toward alternative organizational structures. In Egypt, human rights organizations already under Mubarak relied on a legal loophole that allowed them to operate as law firms and civil companies. They have fought to preserve this status under increasing government pressure. In Russia, the shift to for-profit models represents a relatively new strategy, adopted most successfully by human rights lawyers. Other groups have moved their operations to neighboring countries or created international affiliates that allow them to circumvent funding restrictions. These strategies have ensured organizational survival in the short run, yet it remains to be seen to what extent they can sustain civil society activism in the future.

Pressure on the formal NGO model has also contributed to groups giving up formal registration altogether and operating instead as looser coalitions of activists and volunteers. This model creates new challenges, as it makes it more difficult to raise funding from international partners or collaborate with state authorities. On the other hand, it provides a greater layer of protection from administrative and legal harassment. Anecdotal evidence also suggests that shrinking civic space has contributed to the emergence of more sporadic and fluid protest movements focused on specific policy issues or local grievances—at times in relative isolation from established NGO actors.

Wider Societal Implications

It is difficult to measure the cumulative effect that the weakening of civil society organizations has on societies as a whole or on the specific social and political problems that these organizations are working to address. Yet several broad patterns emerge from the analysis. First, in Egypt and Ethiopia, the weakening of advocacy and human rights organizations has—to different degrees—diminished the quality of information about government abuses in those countries, particularly security service violations and public sector corruption. In Ethiopia, where the human rights community was already small before the crackdown began, this impact has been felt most severely—for example, there is currently only one local organization systematically monitoring government abuses in relation to demonstrations in Oromia and Amhara.

A second impact is the decline in services and advocacy for marginalized communities and neglected issue areas, including LGBTQ and women’s rights, migrant and refugee protection, and environmental justice. Given that many of these issues and groups have traditionally been neglected, ignored, or suppressed by government authorities and political parties, they disproportionately depend on civil society organizations for targeted advocacy. A third impact is the silencing of voices that challenge dominant government narratives about current political realities, future prospects, and events of the past. In Egypt and Ethiopia, journalists and independent publications have been primary targets. Russian organizations that aim to highlight the victims of Stalinist repression have also been repeatedly discredited and attacked.

International Responses

As governments have lashed out against Western aid programs and imposed new restrictions on civil society, the U.S. and European governments have pushed back, voicing their disagreements both in private discussions and public statements. However, several factors have hindered the effectiveness of their responses. First, in the interest of preserving bilateral cooperation, Western governments have at times dismissed early civil society restrictions or actions against external funders as isolated incidents and failed to respond in a coordinated manner. Second, Western governments’ competing geopolitical and economic interests have often prevented them from taking a stronger stance—even in the face of escalating crackdowns. Public statements and human rights dialogues remained decoupled from other areas of strategic cooperation and therefore had little teeth. Governments have been most effective when they have pursued limited goals in a coordinated manner, even though these gains tended to be short-lived.

Ignoring of Early Signs to Preserve Cooperation

Both the U.S. and European governments have at times dismissed or underestimated early signs of closing civic space. For example, the U.S. government did not mount a very loud response to Egyptian authorities’ crackdown on foreign-funded and international NGOs in late 2011—instead reacting to the raids and NGO trial as a legal dispute and misunderstanding. Similarly, European actors were slow to publicly recognize increasingly repressive trends in Ethiopia following the 2005 election and continued to praise Ethiopian authorities for their civil society consultations and cooperation with Western donors.

There are several possible explanations for these subdued responses. The U.S. and European governments may have genuinely miscalculated the political trajectory of the countries in question. For example, in the case of Egypt, they may have viewed the backlash against foreign-funded civil society organizations as a specific grievance rather than as an indication of broader repressive trends. Competing strategic priorities in all likelihood reinforced this tendency, leading governments to dismiss early signs of repression for the sake of continued cooperation in other areas. The Russian, Ethiopian, and Egyptian governments also proved to be relatively astute at manipulating Western policymakers. As they began implementing civil society restrictions, they offered quiet reassurances that certain organizations and activists would not be targeted, that restrictive laws would be amended in cases of abuse, and that enforcement efforts would be impartial. In private negotiations, they repeatedly justified restrictions on civil society as necessary measures to increase transparency and limit foreign support for explicitly partisan activity—even as they publicly malign Western interference in their domestic political affairs.

Reluctance to Use Political Conditionality

Not surprisingly, competing interests on the side of Western governments have hindered coordinated and coherent responses to closing civic space in Russia, Egypt, and Ethiopia. Governments repeatedly found themselves internally divided over which foreign policy objectives to prioritize and how much emphasis to give to civic space concerns. In the United States, these debates played out in interagency deliberations, as well as between Congress and the White House. In Europe, different member states struggled to reconcile competing geopolitical priorities, historical allegiances, and economic interests. For example, in the case of Russia, the United States throughout the late 2000s sought cooperation on nuclear nonproliferation and counterterrorism, whereas several European governments remained wary of upsetting their commercial and energy ties. Western governments’ competing interests were even more pronounced in the case of Egypt: while concerned over the resurgence of authoritarian tendencies since the 2011 uprising, the United States sought to preserve its relationship with the Egyptian military to ensure continued counterterrorism cooperation, prevent further regional instability, and preserve the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty.

These diverging security, economic, and political interests kept Western governments from attaching stricter political conditions to their development and security assistance or imposing other types of financial or economic penalties. Policymakers repeatedly argued that stricter conditionality would damage cooperation on issues of mutual concern, such as counterterrorism in the case of Ethiopia and Egypt, while having little impact on antidemocratic trends. In the case of Russia, various EU member states also feared adverse consequences for European industries and potential retaliatory measures in the energy sector. In addition to competing interests, governments faced internal divisions over the effectiveness of aggressive pushback versus continued engagement. While some policymakers argued that the United States and its European allies could maintain their leverage only by making credible threats and following up with tangible measures, others asserted that quiet diplomacy and continued dialogue were generally more effective for achieving substantive reforms. In Russia, Egypt, and Ethiopia, the latter camp typically won the debate, with governments opting for continued engagement in the hope of achieving limited progress on civic space without compromising other areas of cooperation.

Policy Incoherence and Wavering Commitment

Unwilling to damage important bilateral relationships, Western governments thus tried to balance their efforts to counteract civil society restrictions with continued cooperation. The Obama administration in particular advanced a doctrine of principled engagement, which consisted of pursuing cooperation along issues of mutual concern while continuing to meet with and support civic actors and raise human rights issues in bilateral meetings. While European actors overall have been less outspoken on democracy and rights issues in Russia, Egypt, and Ethiopia, they have similarly condemned civil society restrictions in public and in private—without curtailing their cooperation in other domains.

This dual-track approach has had a number of shortcomings. First, as governments increased their pressure on domestic civil society groups, Western governments’ emphasis on continued engagement often resulted in delayed responses and incoherent messaging. They not only issued public condemnations without following up with any substantive policy changes, but in some cases even avoided any type of stark public criticism or weakened their statements with subsequent conciliatory measures or remarks. For example, in the case of Egypt, the U.S. government was slow to react to the violent escalation that followed the military’s return to power in 2013. While eventually deciding on limited aid cuts, U.S. policymakers continuously deemphasized the importance of these measures and signaled that they would continue prioritizing their relationship to the Egyptian military—thereby essentially undermining the purpose of the assistance freeze. The repeated lack of follow-through by the U.S. government may have empowered the Sisi government to expand its domestic crackdown, knowing that it would face few serious international repercussions.

Diplomatic pressure has been most successful when it has focused on limited, tangible policy goals and when it occurred in a coordinated manner and at the highest levels of government.

Second, the dual-track approach often facilitated the decoupling of civic space and human rights issues from strategic bilateral meetings and negotiations. For example, the EU has raised human rights concerns with both Russian and Ethiopian counterparts in structured bilateral dialogues. Yet these typically occurred in parallel to high-level consultations, with limited benchmarks or follow-up mechanisms. Discussions of civil society restrictions at high-level meetings took a back seat whenever other foreign policy crises dominated the international agenda. For example, Western governments’ bilateral discussions with Russia over the past three years have centered on the Ukraine crisis and on Russia’s increasing involvement in Syria, while domestic developments within Russia have received significantly less attention.

Limited Success on Tangible Goals

While Western leaders have repeatedly emphasized the value of quiet diplomacy, the cases of Russia, Egypt, and Ethiopia provide little evidence this this approach has been effective at reversing broader repressive trends. Diplomatic pressure has been most successful when it has focused on limited, tangible policy goals and when it occurred in a coordinated manner and at the highest levels of government. For example, such efforts have helped thwart highly restrictive provisions in proposed NGO laws in Russia in 2006 and in Ethiopia in 2009 and have led to the release of individual activists and delayed crackdowns against specific organizations. It is likely that sustained international attention has also granted some protection to prominent human rights defenders and groups, forcing governments to instead rely on more sophisticated means of administrative and legal harassment. In this sense, public statements of support and private pressure do matter, even in repressive environments. However, in a number of cases tactical successes proved temporary. Target governments simply delayed a particular legal measure until international attention had moved elsewhere or agreed to limited amendments in one domain while tightening restrictions in another.

New Avenues for Civil Society Aid

In Egypt and Russia, efforts to cut off domestic organizations from foreign funding have been relatively effective: as governments have imposed legal and administrative barriers, foreign funding flows to civil society organizations have declined. Some international funders have withdrawn in fear of political prosecutions, while others have lost long-standing local partners or shifted to grants for less politically sensitive work. In Ethiopia, civil society funding as a whole has not decreased, but the bulk of this aid flows to development NGOs rather than advocacy and human rights organizations. Despite efforts to adapt to the new environment, governmental donors in particular still face significant internal bureaucratic barriers that make it difficult to fund nonregistered groups or disperse smaller amounts in a more flexible manner.

As civil society organizations continue to adapt to a closing or closed civic space, it is likely that more diffuse and less formally structured organizational models will become more common, creating new challenges for international actors seeking to support civic activism. This analysis highlights the importance of preserving the minimal space available to surviving human rights and advocacy organizations through sustained international attention and pressure. This means that instead of confining civil society to opaque political dialogues with limited follow-up, Western leaders should consistently raise civic space issues at high-level meetings and push for much deeper civil society integration into bilateral engagement. In a context of increasing civic fragmentation and disrupted transnational and domestic linkages, enabling continued civil society exchanges and coalition building among civic actors emerges as another important priority. In places where civic space remains at least partially open, Western governments can also play a role in supporting the development of local funding sources to ensure longer-term sustainability. Lastly, donor governments are uniquely positioned to highlight the role and importance of civil society by continuously involving civic actors from closing or closed contexts in international forums and bilateral policy discussions to ensure that their perspectives continue to be heard.


580 Dupuy, Ron, and Prakash, “Hands Off My Regime!,” 299–311; and Darin Christensen and Jeremy M. Weinstein, “Defunding Dissent: Restrictions on Aid to NGOs,” Journal of Democracy 24, no. 2 (April 2013): 81.

581 Dupuy, Ron, and Prakash, “Hands Off My Regime!”

582 Associated Press, “Egypt Adopts Strict New Anti-Terror Law,” CBS News, August 17, 2015,

583 Lewis Gordon, Sean Sullivan, and Sonal Mittal, “Ethiopia’s Anti-Terrorism Law: A Tool to Stifle Dissent,” Oakland Institute and Environmental Defender Law Center, 2015,

584 The Republic of Chechnya represents an exception within the Russian Federation, as civil society activists face high levels of violence and intimidation from the Kadyrov government.

585 Tsveta Petrova and Sidney Tarrow, “Transactional and Participatory Activism in the Emerging European Polity,” Comparative Political Studies 40, no. 1 (2007): 74–94, and Michelle Benson and Thomas R. Rochon, “Interpersonal Trust and the Magnitude of Protest,” Comparative Political Studies 37, no. 4 (2004): 435–57.