Egyptian officials have given assurances that they will end raids on pro-democracy groups and return property seized in this week’s crackdown (above). But activists believe the security services’ storming of several organizations’ offices is a harbinger of a broader offensive against civil society and human rights advocates designed to undermine the country’s transition.
The raids were a “preventative action” to sabotage protests planned for the January 25 anniversary of the launch of the Jasmine revolution, says veteran analyst, Hani Shukrullah, and “part of an ongoing offensive by [an] emergent counter-revolution bloc,” led by the military.
The crackdown “startled” Obama administration officials who had been transparent about the groups’ funding and operations in discussions with the Egyptian authorities.
“It caught us all by surprise when they raided the offices because we didn’t think that was the way this was going,” said a US official.
In discussions today with senior members of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the U.S. ambassador in Cairo, Anne Patterson, reportedly demanded that the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) be allowed to resume normal operations.
“The ambassador has sought and received Egyptian leadership assurances that the raids will cease and property will be returned immediately,” a US official said.
Patterson will conduct a dialogue with Egyptian officials “to resolve the underlying issues related to the operation of U.S.-supported NGOs in a transparent, open manner.”
“These NGOs should be allowed to operate freely as they do in countries around the world in support of democracy and free elections,” the official said.
But thirteen activists have been summoned for further investigation, according to Egyptian media reports, citing a senior judicial source saying that “the coming days will see a significant movement in the investigations” that will be “a surprise for those involved in these issues.”
“It was never a question of if, just a question of when,” said Hossam Bahgat, head of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. “Choosing the last work day in the calendar year is not a coincidence; it is because the world is not watching.”
The episode confirmed suspicions that the ruling military aims to stifle civil society and silence dissident voices, activists claim.
“No one really believed us,” said Ziad Abdel Tawab, deputy director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. “This action proved that this is a true campaign against all the actors” involved in the Tahrir Square protests that ousted Hosni Mubarak and who continue to protest against military rule.
“Now people finally believe us,” he said. “The international community and more political forces are showing sympathy towards what’s happening.”
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has reportedly laid the ground for an assault on pro-democracy groups with claims that the authorities have uncovered a conspiracy to burn down parliament, while state media reported a plot to foment violent unrest on January 25 to facilitate a foreign invasion.
Such reports are “indicators of a clear attack on voices of dissent,” says Rabab al-Mahdi, a political science professor at the American University in Cairo. “The raids on NGO offices have to be seen in the wider context, they cannot be taken in isolation,” she told AFP.
Security forces seized computers, cell phones, documents and staffs’ personal effects from the offices of Egyptian and foreign-based non-governmental groups, including the Arab Center for Independence of Justice and Legal Professions and the Budgetary and Human Rights Observatory.
“They took all the documents and all the computers. It’s a new campaign against freedom from the Scaf, against civil society in Egypt,” said Helmy Rawy, director of the Observatory, which scrutinizes military expenditures. “They don’t want anyone to raise their voice for freedom,” he said.
The authorities also targeted foreign democracy assistance groups, including the US-based International Republican Institute, National Democratic Institute and Freedom House, as well as Germany’s Konrad Adenauer foundation.
“Cracking down on organizations whose sole purpose is to support the democratic process during Egypt’s historic transition sends a disturbing signal,” said NDI president Kenneth Wollack.
According to Associated Press:
Justice Minister Adel Abdel-Hamid accused around 300 nonprofit groups of receiving unauthorized foreign funding and using the money to fund protests. An inspection team official alleged investigations had found the groups had received up to $100 million from abroad, then deposited the money in Egyptian banks under the names of illliterate Egyptians without their knowledge.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press, did not elaborate.
Another official from the Interior Ministry said the military on Thursday found 70,000 Egyptian pounds ($11,600) in the office of one unidentified group, and seized half a million Egyptian pounds ($83,000) from the National Democratic Institute.
The groups are also accused of failing to register for licenses from Egyptian authorities, as required under law for non-governmental organizations.
Security officials refused to explain the purpose of the raids.
“We asked them if there was something specific we could help them find,” Julie Hughes, NDI’s Egypt country director, told CNN. “They refused to answer.”
“I don’t know that we fully understand what is behind this,” she said.
The crackdown is an attempt to whip up chauvinistic sentiment at the expense of liberal and secular democratic forces, observers suggest.
“They are demonizing anything foreign… in a bid to inject a sense of nationalism,” said Mahdi, and “trying to draw loyalty so that any attack on SCAF is an attack on the nation.”
The government is conducting an investigation into foreign funding of civil society and pro-democracy groups, targeting NGOs which reject Mubarak-era restrictions on operating without official licenses from the Ministry of Social Solidarity.
“We reject the NGO law because it is extremely repressive and we are not willing to accept it,” says Karim Medhat Ennarah, a security sector researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, one of the groups being investigated.
“We are operating legally but we refuse to join the repressive legal framework that would allow them to control our work,” Ennarah said.
Israa Abdel-Fattah applied several months ago for a license for her newly created Egyptian Democratic Institute and has yet to receive a reponse, AP reports:
Her group, which aims to promote political participation, was cited as among those receiving foreign funds. While it wasn’t raided Thursday, she fears she could be next.
“This is very dangerous message to all of us,” she said. “If you speak, you will be smashed.”
Activists believe the latest events demonstrate the threat to prospects for a genuine democratic transition as long as the process is controlled by longtime stalwarts of the former regime.
“The bottom line here is that the state unleashed its dogs in the media and in the government to tarnish our reputation so when we stand up against the military generals, we would be stripped of our credibility in front of public opinion,” said Negad el-Borai, a lawyer and rights advocate.
A Cairo court yesterday acquitted police officers accused of killing demonstrators during the democratic uprisingagainst Mubarak and his National Democratic Party.
The attack on democracy assistance is also viewed as a flagrantly hypocritical move by a military which is heavily dependent on US subsidies.
“It is a major escalation in the Egyptian government’s crackdown on civil society organizations, and it is unprecedented in its attack on international organizations like Freedom House, which is funded in large part by the United States government,” said Charles Dunne, the group’s Middle East and North Africa Programs director. “The military council is saying we are happy to take your $1.3 billion a year, but we are not happy when you do things like defending human rights and supporting democracy.”
The timing of the raids is significant, says Freedom House president David Kramer:
In a few days, Egypt is to conduct the third and final round of elections for the lower house of parliament. In the first two rounds, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and the more extreme Salafists secured more than 60 percent of the vote. Military actions against demonstrators and NGOs will weaken liberal, democratic forces, leaving Egyptians with an unpalatable choice between continued military autocracy or a theocratic state.
The military rulers’ actions show that they do not intend to permit the establishment of genuine democracy and that they are, instead, attempting to scapegoat civil society for their failure to effectively manage Egypt’s transition. Put another way: Egypt’s military rulers are responsible for creating the very conditions that could drive the country toward fundamentalism and instability, and they are blocking the accountability and transparency that Egyptian society fought for and that was integral to ending Mubarak’s rule.
Several of the groups and activists cited in this post are supported by the National Endowment for Democracy.