Egyptian non-governmental groups begin a campaign in defense of freedom of association later this week amid concerns that the Muslim Brotherhood-led government is continuing Mubarak-era practices designed to stifle civil society.
The initiative follows this week’s postponement of the trial of 43 pro-democracy activists charged with receiving illegal foreign funding and running unregistered organizations. Closing arguments in the case have been postponed to December 2, with verdicts and sentences due a month or two later.
The trial has had “a chilling effect on NGO and civil society activity, and on financial support for it,” writes Council on Foreign Relations analyst Elliott Abrams.
He believes the verdict in the case “will tell us a good deal about the direction in which Egypt is heading: toward an open society where individuals and groups can challenge the government and the Muslim Brotherhood, or a closed system much like the one over which Hosni Mubarak presided–only with the Muslim Brotherhood rather than the Army at the top and excluding voices it does not wish to hear.”
Civil society groups continue to experience “all forms of oppression and marginalization” under President Mohamed Morsi’s Brotherhood-led government, including exclusion from national political dialogue and deliberations on the new constitution, according to a declaration signed by over 160 human rights and pro-democracy NGOs, including the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, the Andalus Institute for Tolerance and Anti-Violence, and the Center for the Independence of the Judiciary and Legal Profession.
The groups insist that “civil society institutions should have a role in drafting the new constitution” and demand that the new constitution include a “special section for civil society with all its bodies and institutions, so as to ensure freedom of association and freedom of action.”
A guilty verdict in the NGO case would diminish prospects for a genuine democratic transition, says pro-democracy activist Sherif Mansour, a former official with Freedom House, one of the NGOs prosecuted by the government.
“It’s going to mean that civil society is not going to be engaged in our society for a very long time, and it’s going to threaten a lot of key elements in a society that’s being run by a religious authority and a military government,” he says.
“Without [civil society] groups, we are putting our transition on the Iranian track.”
The Brotherhood backed the military’s crackdown on pro-democracy NGOs, with several officials of the group’s Freedom and Justice Party expressing support for the investigation into foreign-funded non-governmental organizations, including the travel bans on several foreign nationals.
“If the travel ban is based on the law to ensure the employees [of these organizations] were not working on harming this country, then I support it,” said Dr. Adel Abdel Menem Ahmed, a member of the FJP’s Supreme Committee.
The FJP also endorsed a proposed new NGO law, drafted by the administration of ousted President Hosni Mubarak, which exposed civil society groups to monitoring by the security services.
“It is our country’s right to know what these organizations are doing, and the NGO law is important for the country’s security,” Ahmed said.
The prosecution has undermined international democracy assistance efforts, writes Ashraf Khalil, a Cairo-based journalist and author of Liberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation.
“As with the Saad Eddin Ibrahim (above, center) case a decade earlier, the overall effect has been to scare Egyptian NGOs away from applying for much-needed foreign grants—and deter international donor organizations from offering them,” he says.
“We’re under a continuing threat”, said Nasser Amin, the director of the International Center for the Independence of the Judiciary. “We still don’t know if they will open the file again. All they have to do is open the drawer and pull out the case.”
“The donors have suffered a big shock and the clients are afraid to apply”, he said. “It won’t appear right away. Around the end of the year, you’ll see organizations reduce their activities and not start new projects.”
The architect of Egypt’s crackdown on U.S.-funded pro-democracy non-governmental groups – and a leading holdover of Hosni Mubarak’s regime – is no longer in government. As minister for international cooperation, Faiza Abou el-Naga launched a campaign against civil society groups that led to charges against 43 employees of foreign-funded pro-democracy NGOs, including Egypt-based officials of the Washington-based National Democratic Institute and International Republican Institute.*
The case continues to act as a disincentive for donors, activists complain.
Gasser Abdel Razek, associate director of the Egyptian Institute for Personal Rights (EIPR), expressed similar concerns. “I’m sure that a lot of the organizations that were ready to sign new deals and a lot of the donors are saying ‘OK let’s wait and see,’” he said. “Nobody wants to see a quarter of a million dollars frozen in the bank for two or three years.”
But the prospect of the Islamist-led government maintaining the Mubarak-era practice of stifling and harassing civil society groups doesn’t worry veteran rights advocate Hisham Kassem:
It’s just that he doesn’t believe a post-revolutionary Egyptian population would let them get away with it. Kassem pointed to the fierce public reaction in August when a pair of prominent Muslim Brotherhood critics in the media, a newspaper editor and a Glen Beck-style firebrand television host were put on trial for inciting violence and insulting the President. The response was a wave of public demonstrations and further media criticism from incensed journalists. ….Morsi has been forced to make the conciliatory step of waiving the law that would have placed both journalists in custody for the duration of their trials. This kind of grassroots activism is now hardwired into the Egyptian political class, and….activists made it clear they are watching Morsi like a hawk.
“People went absolutely crazy over that”, Kassem said, and he expects a similar reaction if the Brotherhood-led government tries to suppress civil society. “They would be fought tooth and nail”, he said. “They would have a very hard time.”
NDI and IRI are two of the core institutes of the National Endowment for Democracy.