The Egyptian government has refused to license several US-based civil society groups, including a prominent election-monitoring group, raising questions about the likely integrity of next month’s presidential polls.
The official MENA news agency quoted a government source saying the Insurance and Social Affairs Ministry rejected the applications because the NGOs’ activities were “inconsistent with the state’s sovereignty.”
The eight blacklisted groups include the Carter Center, Coptic Orphans and Seeds of Peace.
“I do not understand how a charity group like the Coptic Orphans, which works with over 35 churches in Egypt to provide medical and social aid, was rejected,” said Negad al-Borai, a lawyer for the group.
The news of the ban coincided with Egyptian civil society groups rejection of a new draft NGO law and an announcement by the Higher Presidential Elections Commission that domestic and foreign NGOs will be allowed to monitor the coming presidential election after securing a permit which “shall not be considered, in any way, a license to exercise any other activity inside Egypt.”
The new ban threatens to damage US-Egyptian relations and to embarrass Egypt’s envoy to the US who told a recent Washington meeting that he hoped the recent conflict over the regime’s crackdown on pro-democracy NGOs was “behind us.”
The pro-democracy NGOs facing prosecution had helped to “enhance Egypt’s ability to address problems of transition” and had “a benevolent impact” on civil society, Ambassador Sameh Shukry (right) told a meeting at the Bipartisan Policy Center. The NGOs had been officially invited to observe Egypt’s constituent assembly elections, he conceded, and been allowed “greater leverage following the revolution to support civil society.”
Egyptians had “apprehensions” about the NGOs’ motives, he said, insisting that it would be naïve to say their activities were “beyond questioning.” While insisting that the prosecution was a strictly judicial matter, he expressed the hope that the state media’s virulently anti-American propaganda campaign that accompanied the crackdown has “now receded.”
The Obama administration needs to reset U.S.-Egyptian relations and “build a broad basis” for a new partnership, after consultations with parliamentarians, businesspeople, political leaders, and labor activists, Michele Dunne, director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council, argued in a recent joint policy brief with the Project on Middle East Democracy.
But the regime’s anti-NGO offensive “underscores how difficult it will be for the U.S. to develop partnerships across Egyptian society,” said Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
It is a “calumny” to claim that pro-democracy NGOs try to impose alien political systems on other countries, he told the BPC event.
Assistance to Egyptian democrats and civil society may not the most important aspect of U.S.-Egyptian relations, said Satloff, but it is the “most vulnerable and the most human” dimension.
Civil society groups are “caught in a vice between the new and the old order” and need to be “insulated” against politically-motivated attacks.
Democracy assistance groups had provided invaluable capacity building and related assistance to develop civil society, not only in Egypt, but also in Iraq and Tunisia, said Zainab al-Suwaij, executive director of the American Islamic Congress.*
While the ruling military, Mubarak holdovers and the Muslim Brotherhood were united in attacking pro-democracy NGOs for receiving foreign funds, there has been little complaint about largely opaque financial assistance from the Gulf for Islamist groups, the meeting heard.
Such covert funding provides evidence that there are “lots of different interests trying to steer Egypt’s transition to their desired outcome,” said General (ret.) Jim Jones, a former National Security Advisor to President Obama.
There is a concern that the transition is “being hijacked,” he said, and the U.S. “must be prepared to compete” to stop that happening.
The latest ban on NGOs suggests that the authorities in Cairo are acting with complete disregard for the U.S.-Egyptian relations and without consulting Ambassador Shukry and his foreign ministry colleagues.
The rejection of the NGOs’ applications coincided with Interpol’s rejection of an Egyptian request to issue international arrest warrants for 15 employees of U.S.-based NGOs. The agency would not call on member states to arrest the 12 US citizens, two Lebanese and one Jordanian who work for U.S.-based democracy assistance groups.
The “request is not in conformity with Interpol’s rules … under which it is ‘strictly forbidden for the organization to undertake any intervention or activities of a political, military, religious or racial character’,” the agency said.
Cairo’s request comes several weeks after authorities lifted a travel ban imposed on several foreign nationals, including U.S. citizens, as part of its prosecution of Egyptian and foreign activists, following security forces’ December 29 raids on seventeen pro-democracy NGOs, including three U.S.-based and government funded groups: Freedom House, the International Republican Institute, and the National Democratic Institute.
The Obama administration recently waived conditional democracy criteria to award up to $1.5 billion in aid to Egypt’s military despite the regime’s crackdown on pro-democracy NGOs and backsliding on democratic governance.
The decision was made against objections from Capitol Hill lawmakers, including Patrick Leahy, chair of the Senate subcommittee on foreign aid, who had insisted on “no blank checks” for Egypt’s military.
At least part of the assistance should have been withheld or differentiated, said Satloff, in order to employ leverage over the ruling military and to reserve sufficient assistance to aid a new civilian government.
The performance of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) “has been, at times, head-scratching,” according to a new analysis.
“Extolled in the wake of the uprising as the revolution’s protector, many have come to view it as an agent of the counter-revolution. It often has been obstinate, before abruptly yielding to pressure,” says the International Crisis Group:
It values its long ties with Washington, from which it receives much assistance, but seemed willing to jeopardise them by targeting U.S.-funded NGOs. Suspected by Islamists of seeking to deprive them of opportunity to govern and by non-Islamists of entering a secret pact with the Muslim Brotherhood, it finds itself in the worst of both worlds: an angry tug-of-war with liberal protesters and a high-wire contest with Islamists.
*The American Islamic Congress is supported by the National Endowment for Democracy.