Mar 8, 2014
Dispatches From Cairo: Egypt’s War on NGOs
Posted on Dec 30, 2011
We asked Lauren Unger-Geoffroy, an international artist who lives in Cairo, to share her perspective of life in Egypt after the revolution. In this entry, she writes about a campaign by authorities against nongovernmental organizations operating in Egypt to foster democracy.
CAIRO—With a raised fist, 2011 staggers bleeding and shouting to a close in Egypt. On Thursday, security forces raided the offices of 17 nongovernment civil liberties organizations. Among them were facilities of two prominent U.S.-based groups and local offices of the U.S.-based International Republican Institute (IRI) and the National Democratic Institute (NDI). Documents and office machines were confiscated as part of an investigation by Egypt’s military into the funding of pro-democracy and human rights organizations.
“Security forces who said they were from the public prosecutor are raiding our offices as we speak. They are grabbing all the papers and laptops as well,” one person working at the NDI reported. Employees at the raided offices were not allowed to leave during the searches.
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has said repeatedly it will not tolerate foreign interference in the country’s affairs.
Under orders from the central bank within the last three weeks, private banks such as HSBC and Commercial International Bank have contacted at least four well-known independent human rights organizations that bank with them to inquire about incoming transfers of funding from foreign sources. Clearly, the government was preparing the crackdown that came Thursday.
The U.N. Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, adopted by consensus in the General Assembly in 1998, provides that states must ensure “the right, individually and in association with others, to solicit, receive, and utilize resources for the express purpose of promoting and protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms.”
In September, a Justice Ministry report identified more than 30 NGOs that were receiving foreign funding and were not registered with the Social Solidarity Ministry as required by the Associations Law. The offense is punishable with imprisonment.
Minutes of a July 27 Cabinet meeting stated that the Cabinet “fully rejects all forms of foreign intervention in internal affairs including direct foreign funding of all forms that is given to Egyptian and international organizations and civil society groups that operate in Egypt without authorization and in violation of Egyptian laws.”
The Social Solidarity Ministry, under the restrictive 2002 Associations Law, has effectively blocked funds to projects and organizations dealing with human rights violations such as torture. It has accomplished this mainly by denying registration to groups it considers controversial.
The NDI and the IRI are associated with the U.S. Democratic and Republican parties, respectively, but insist that they are neutral, claiming their sole interest is helping establish democracy in Egypt by training members of inexperienced political parties in democratic processes.
“The National Democratic Institute has been training new parties ... in how to participate in elections,” a leading member of a liberal party said on condition of anonymity. “This has been with the full knowledge of authorities and was not clandestine.”
The NDI says on its website that it “organises an exchange of ideas between countries that have managed a transition to democracy and others that aspire to it.”
The IRI says it is working with Egyptian activists to teach them political party development, campaign strategy and public opinion research.
Deputy Defense Minister Maj. Gen. Mohamed al-Assar told an audience at the United States Institute for Peace in Washington, D.C., on July 25, “It is inconceivable that 40 million US dollars should go toward human rights when we have much bigger problems than this.” He was referring to the amount the U.S. Embassy earlier announced it had earmarked for democracy and human rights groups in Egypt. He also said that foreign funding for nonregistered organizations “represents a danger, in light of the recent incidents where many police weapons were lost, and about 20,000 prisoners escaped from the prisons of Egypt following the events experienced by the country.”
On July 28, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, the head of the SCAF, said: “There are foreign players who feed and set up specific projects that some individuals carry out domestically. … It is possible that there is lack of understanding, that foreign players are pushing the people into inappropriate directions.” He added that these elements “do not want stability for Egypt.”
On Aug. 7 the state security prosecutor, without naming any of the groups, accused organizations that “illegally [receive] funding from foreign sources” of “grand treason, conspiracy against Egypt and carrying out foreign agendas to harm Egyptian national security.” Such cases would be referred to the Emergency State Security Court, which operates under the emergency law in effect in Egypt since 1981; the court, in which there is no right to appeal, operates outside the regular court system.
While it’s true that many of the organizations targeted have been criticizing the military for torture and military trials, and NGOs observing the upcoming elections have been among those targeted, an objective observer can wonder whether indeed there might be at least a speck of validity on the government side of the dispute. The stress of trying to figure it out makes most Egyptians prefer to be fed the government’s truth-of-the-day in a flavor they can understand.
National law gives the executive authorities overly broad discretion to forbid groups to do anything that authorities might see as “threatening national unity” or “violating public order or morals,” vague terminology that lays the law open to abuse and has served as a basis for the denial of registration to some NGOs.
“It sends alarming signals about the transitional government’s commitment to human rights that Egyptian authorities have started a criminal investigation with the same methods Hosni Mubarak used to strangle civil society,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Egypt should reform the Associations Law to protect civil society’s independence and freedom instead of tightening the screws further and threatening criminal prosecution.”
The current elections, if they survive Egypt’s endemic lack of transparency, well might result in a governing body that would represent the people and shape a new system, starting with a new constitution. But the country struggles under a vast, chaotic, handwritten-paper-based bureaucracy that casts a murk over public life. Among those running Egypt, transparency is a threat to stability because it inevitably causes public debate and gives people information to dispute government actions—leading to protest, conflict and rebellion.
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