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Dispatches From Cairo: Egypt’s War on NGOs

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Posted on Dec 30, 2011
AP / Ahmed Ali

A protester gestures during a demonstration in Tahrir Square in Cairo on Friday. Several Egyptian rights groups accused the country’s ruling military council of using “repressive tools” of the deposed regime in waging an “unprecedented campaign” against pro-democracy organizations.

By Lauren Unger-Geoffroy

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.


Square, Site wide
And now the reality divide: 

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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By Ana Maria Alonso, January 4, 2012 at 12:43 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The NGOs in Egypt are not neutral. They are part of the Middle East Partnership Initiative formed by the Bush gov’t after 9/11/2001. What is behind them is a neoconservative project to promote “democracy” in the Middle East (just in case the dictators did go down & to improve our image). See “US democracy promotion in the Arab Middle East since 11 September 2001” by K. Dalacoura

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By chris massey lynch, January 3, 2012 at 5:15 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

SCAF are Scum.                          Which part of the words” Police State”  Do people not understand?

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By Howard, January 2, 2012 at 8:08 am Link to this comment

Oh my goodness ! Never thought anyone could blame
Israel after reading this article. Or reading of the
irrational assault on the NGS’s in Egypt by the
uninformed on the street at the behest of the military.
Writer before me will next say its Israel’s doings
that causes the sun to rise in the east.

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By Rehmat, January 1, 2012 at 11:51 am Link to this comment

It’s a polical charade. Both the ruling military junta and many anti-government NGOs are working for US-Israel interests. They want to keep genuine democracy away from Egypt and other Muslim countries. The western experience of democracy in the ME is very bitter. Most of the time, free elections have given power to Islamists, who are anti-Israel.

Not many people, including the protesters, know the evil people behind the Youth Movements which have spearheaded the street protests against the locally hated regimes. The Alliance of Youth Movement (AYM) was given birth by the US State Department in 2008 an inaugural summit meeting in New York city in 2008. The meeting was attended by members of variety of Jewish thinks, like Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and Israel-firsters officials from National Security staff, Department of Homeland Security advisers – and the Jewish-controlled mainstream-media, such as, Google, Facebook, NBC, ABC, CBS, CNN, MSNBC, and MTV. The meeting was attended by actress Whoopi Goldberg, Facebook Co-Founder Dustin Moskovitz and Ben-Obama’s Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, James K. Glassman. AYM has held annual meetings in Mexico city and London (UK) since then….

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By drbhelthi, December 31, 2011 at 9:13 am Link to this comment

Although the army leadership of Egypt were trained in the US War College, one wonders if they are in the process of severing the umbilical chord.  Their current deportment demonstrates insight into what eventually happens to 3rd world nations and their leaders, after the GHWBushSr/Obama/Miss Hilly brand of democracy” has taken hold, and U.S. pimpery is installed in leadership.  The GHWBushSr/NATO destruction of Libya and Muammar AL Gadhaffi may have had an impact.

One tends to think that the army leadership of Egypt fully comprehends Mr. Fish´s Boo Hoo, which, accurately reflecting modern history, is much more than a cartoon..

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By OzarkMichael, December 31, 2011 at 7:40 am Link to this comment

I am not in the mood to use the events in Egypt as evidence for my own causes. That is why I didnt comment on the last article and wasnt going to comment here, but instead I write a brief ‘thanks’.

The situation in Egypt is very sad, where once there was so much joy. It must be much harder for Lauren Unger-Geoffroy to write, but she does a fine job and I hope she can continue.

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By sofianitz, December 31, 2011 at 5:52 am Link to this comment

“The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has said repeatedly it will not tolerate foreign interference in the country’s affairs.” 
SCAF is, in an of itself, the largest foreign interference in Egypt’s affairs.  To the tune of $39.3 billion (through 2009,and counting) since the 1974 Camp David Accord, the United States has paid off the Egyptian military establishment, to the point that they now control over 40% of Egypt’s private economy.
You notice that the US Embassy, and the US intelligence agencies were not among the American institutions challenged by SCAF.  They go there every day to find out what to do next.

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By, December 30, 2011 at 9:26 pm Link to this comment

For a nation that appears to have made significant changes to repress the truth of an NGO such as Human Rights Watch is very bold and very wrong. The uninformed may believe that NGO’s are simply a front for lobbyists may know much more than me. I have witnessed their work in more than 140 countries and support their actions in everyway possible. On the other side of that coin, I have had the displeasure or seeing what really occurs in these countries that have won their freedom from one oppresive dictatorial leadership to another that will loot the remaining coffers until they are tossed out or strung up. The opportunity to do the next correct thing has passed them by and now with the reduction in the US military they will be required to account to the private sector, without the former support from NATO.  This is by no mmeans a threat it is simply the reality of the changes that are coming. Previously we evacuated several thousand people whose lives were at risk and we will gladly do it again due to the primary fact that Egypt has gone from the frying pan to the fire. People should have at the very least some basic rights and that is the reason the former dictators of North Africa have been removed. They should be very careful in what they do and who they do it to. Subjegation is a valid reason for war, they have set a poor example of their permitted insurgency and may wish to rethink their intentions if they continue to subjegate the people of Egypt any further than this false government in place already has.  They may last six weeks longer unless they rethink their position. If anyone believes the current ruling body achieved this on their own merit.  Halloween is over.

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By gerard, December 30, 2011 at 4:27 pm Link to this comment

“The lack of basic information has been an obvious barrier to cohesive partisan choices based on facts and has deeply complicated the transition to an effective democratic process.”

Turn toward Washington, D.C., bow three times, repeat the above statement, and then pray for the release of Julian Assange and Bradley Manning, for the continued open Internet, and for all the many journalists killed in the struggle for open information and truth.

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PatrickHenry's avatar

By PatrickHenry, December 30, 2011 at 3:49 pm Link to this comment

NGO’s are just another front for lobbyists.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

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