Activist blogger Alaa Abdel-Fattah
With the detention of five pro-democracy activists, including a prominent blogger, for protests against the ruling Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s Islamist-led government is escalating tensions with its opposition critics, observers suggest.
The arrests follow a clear threat to the National Salvation Front and other opposition groups from President Mohammed Morsi, referring to “emergency measures if any of them makes even the smallest of moves that undermines Egypt or the Egyptians.”
“Their lives are worthless when it comes to the interests of Egypt and Egyptians,” said Morsi. “I am a president after a revolution, meaning that we can sacrifice a few so the country can move forward. It is absolutely no problem.”
“Egyptians are already on guard against the possibility that their first freely elected president may seek to become a new autocrat, and some said they feared that the arrest warrants were the first clear example that Mr. Morsi’s government was using law enforcement as a political tool to punish his critics,” The New York Times reports.
One of the accused, activist blogger Alaa Abdel-Fattah (above) turned himself in to authorities today, “a day after the country’s prosecutor general ordered his arrest along with four others for allegedly instigating violence with comments posted on social media,” AP reports. “The charges stem from clashes between supporters and opponents of the country’s Islamist president last week that left 200 injured.”
The arrests are an example of a political party using its influence in the state to settle political scores, said Abdel Fatah’s father and veteran human rights lawyer Ahmed Seif Al-Islam Abdel Fatah.
“President Mohamed Morsi appointed the prosecutor general personally and Morsi is a member and former leader of the Freedom and Justice Party, the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is involved in this case. There is a clear conflict of interest,” he said.
The tensions between the Brotherhood and the liberal-secular opposition are also evident in skirmishes over the Islamist organization’s legal status and its attempts to stifle civil society.
“An Egyptian court today postponed a ruling on whether President Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood is illegal, agreeing to the Islamist group’s request for more time to present evidence in a case that has put it on the defensive,” Reuters reports:
Brought by anti-Brotherhood lawyers, the court case points to the deep antipathy some harbor towards a group that was formally dissolved in 1954 and forced to operate underground until President Hosni Mubarak was ousted two years ago. The impact of any ruling against the Brotherhood is likely to be more political than practical: analysts find it inconceivable that the state will take any measures against a group that is now at the heart of power.
The Islamist group last week tried to shield itself from any adverse ruling by registering as a non-governmental organization (NGO).
Draft ‘rammed through’
Ironically, the move follows a vote by the Islamist-led Shura Council (left) endorsing restrictive draft legislation curbing NGO activities.
The new law, drafted by the human development committee, which is dominated by the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, “was rammed through the council in only one hour,” Al-Ahram reports.
The law prohibits registered NGOs from obtaining foreign funding, either “from foreigners or Egyptians living abroad,” according to an explanatory memorandum.
The law defines NGOs as groups “not involved in profitable activities” that “aim to achieve humanitarian, developmental and/or economic objectives,” said committee chairman Abdel-Azim Mahmoud, a leading FJP member.
“The word ‘foreign’ includes NGOs subject to international agreements or that work in the field of civil society in general,” he said, adding that a proposed coordination committee under the auspices of the social affairs ministry “will also be in charge of scrutinizing the programs and funds of these foreign NGOs.”
Pro-democracy and civil rights groups criticized the draft as more punitive than the Mubarak-era restrictions on NGOs.
The government refused to submit an alternative proposal drafted by civil society groups, said human rights lawyer Malek Adly, describing the Shura Council vote as a warning that the law “could cripple” NGO activities.
The bill “adopts a very negative view of foreign NGOs,” said Sherif Mounir, a representative of the NGO Support Centre. “Obliging these NGOs to give detailed accounts of their sources of funding and donations is a very hard job; it is really aimed at scaring them away from Egypt,” he said.
“The draft would, in effect, nationalize civil society organizations by defining their funds as public money, create a new interagency committee with the authority to approve or veto foreign funding for local NGOs, raise registration costs for NGOs to prohibitive levels, impose stifling oversight restrictions and bring operations of ‘civil organizations’ and law firms engaged in human rights and democracy work under the same legal regime as other NGOs,” said Freedom House, the US-based rights watchdog.
“The law would also prohibit foreign organizations that receive any government funding from operating in Egypt, driving most if not all foreign NGOs out of the country,” it added.
Brotherhood conspiracy theories
But a leading Brotherhood official defended the law, on the grounds that foreign-funded NGOs played a role in promoting Mubarak-era corruption.
“The Americans gave Egypt $70 billion during the Mubarak era and then wonder ‘Why do they hate us?” said Essam El-Erian (left, with Morsi). “I would answer, because your money was used to spread corruption in this country.”
“We don’t have any objections to foreign NGOs doing business in Egypt, but they must know that their funding will be subject to stringent transparency and control measures,” he added.
The Brotherhood’s conspiracy theories are shared by some secular groups.
“Most foreign NGOs in Egypt are, in fact, espionage cells spying on Egypt for the US and Israel,” said Nagi El-Shehabi, a member of the liberal Generation Party. “I see this new law as crucial to Egypt for eliminating the spies who have infiltrated the country under the cover of foreign ‘NGOs’.”
But civil society officials accused the Islamist group of hypocrisy and lack of transparency for covering up its own foreign funding.
“The FJP’s NGO law does not put the financial activities of the Muslim Brotherhood under the scrutiny of the central auditing agency, because its officials allege that the group’s funding comes from member contributions, thus exempting them from any financial review,” said Mohamed Anwar El-Sadat (right), a board member of the General Federation of NGOs.
He said that “most of the funds of Muslim Brotherhood International are estimated at $200 billion, most of which are deposited in Qatari banks.”
There are at least five draft NGO laws currently in circulation and all but one prepared by a civil society coalition are restrictive, according to the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law. The two drafts under serious consideration are sponsored by the Ministry of Insurance and Social Affairs (MoISA) and the other by the Freedom and Justice party.
The Ministry of Insurance and Social Affairs finalized the draft law’s amendments in January, and they will be reviewed by the next House of Representatives, once it is elected, Egypt Independent reports.
The Islamist group’s registration as an NGO came shortly after the State Commissioners Board recommended that the Supreme Administrative Court reject the Brotherhood’s longstanding appeal against a 1954 decision by the ruling Revolutionary Command Council declaring the group illegal and ordering its dissolution, notes Egypt Source.
“Some analysts argue that the abrupt registration is in breach of the law 84/2002 that forbids NGOs from taking part in political activities, raising doubts about the transparency of the process,” it adds.
“It is regrettable that Social Affairs Minister Nagwa Khalil allowed herself to be manipulated by Brotherhood officials into giving the group an automatic license,” civil society activist El-Sadat told Ahram Online. “Anyway, the process of registering the Brotherhood is very vague; and they did it very quickly in the same autocratic way as former president Hosni Mubarak’s ruling party, in order not to be scrutinized by any institution and remain above the law.”
The FJP bill states that “some NGOs can obtain licenses as full-fledged institutions,” which gives the Islamists the right to engage in all business sectors and establish overseas branches, said El-Sadat (left), chairman of the liberal-oriented Reform and Development Party.
“It’s very dangerous for a group that mixes religion with politics – and works under an international organization aiming to convert all the world to Islam – to get a license,” he said.
“However, as an NGO, the Brotherhood will be subjected to certain restrictions,” as under the 2002 Law on NGOs such groups are “barred from dabbling in politics or having a religious basis,” writes analyst Ramadan A. Kader:
Moreover, the law obliges registered NGOs to disclose their finances. Since the 2011 revolt that deposed Mubarak, the mostly secular opposition has been calling for the powerful Brotherhood to go public with their finances and the sources of their financing.
Shortly after the anti-Mubarak revolt, the Brotherhood, banned for more than five decades, obtained a license for their first-ever political party: Freedom and Justice. The party, which was headed by Morsi before he became the head of state, secured nearly half the seats in the now-dissolved Parliament.
“How will this party fare, should the court disband the parent group, while the Brotherhood have become an NGO, technically barred from practicing politics?’ he asks.
The Brotherhood’s hardline stance on NGO regulation will come as little surprise to observers who recall the group’s support for the former regime’s crackdown on NGOs, imposing a travel ban on several foreign nationals, including U.S. citizens, as part of its prosecution of Egyptian and foreign activists, following security forces’ raids on seventeen pro-democracy NGOs.
The proposal to outlaw foreign-funded NGOs would immediately disable many Egyptian groups working on human rights, corruption and other democracy-related issues, including partners of Freedom House, the International Republican Institute, and the National Democratic Institute, that were among the groups targeted in last year’s crackdown and which receive support from the Washington-based National Endowment for Democracy.