Tensions between long-standing allies Egypt and the US climbed to a new high this week as Egypt’s ruling generals arrested 43 employees of the country’s non-profit non-governmental human rights organizations – including several from the US.
But many are suggesting that the US organizations are simply being used as pawns in a larger game — the military’s increasingly desperate efforts to make a deal with the country’s Muslim Brotherhood that would define and secure the Army’s role in the future Egypt.
The Background: Last week the Egyptian Ministry of Justice swooped down on the offices of all the major non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the country, searched the offices, confiscated computers and other files, and arrested 43 employees and charged them with “accepting funds and benefits from an international organization” to pursue activities “prohibited by law” and carrying out “political training programs.”
Accepting foreign funds was Mubarak’s bogeyman under his repressive and restrictive NGO law. Now that law has been held over by Mubarak’s successors, the military, which threatens to make it even more draconian.
In a letter to the SCAF (the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces), Daphne McCurdy, a Senior Research Associate with the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) said: These groups have worked transparently and in cooperation with Egyptian authorities to help support Egypt’s democratic transition—a goal to which the ruling military council purports to be committed. Sixteen of those charged are American citizens, seriously threatening the future of the U.S.-Egypt relationship.”
This controversy is merely the latest chapter in a series of attacks against both Egyptian and international civil society organizations that escalated shortly after the ouster of President Mubarak one year ago.
The Egyptians gave Washington a heads-up regarding likely future developments back in July, when SCAF Major General Assar gave a talk at the United States Institute for Peace in Washington DC, in which he said that foreign funding to NGOs without government pre-approval “represents a danger, in light of the recent incidents where many police weaponry was lost, and about 20,000 prisoners escaped from the prisons of Egypt following the events experienced by the country.”
Later that month, Field Marshall Tantawy, head of the SCAF, said in an address to officers that “there are foreign players who feed and set up specific projects that some individuals carry out domestically, without understanding. It is possible that there is lack of understanding, that foreign players are pushing the people into inappropriate directions [since they do] not want stability for Egypt.”
It’s now clear that the government’s “investigation” into NGOs has been ongoing for months and that dozens of other organizations are also at risk. A leaked ministry of justice report in September 2011 listed 39 of the most vocal human rights organizations in Egypt as not registered under the Associations Law and said a further 28 were receiving foreign funds without prior authorization. The vast majority of those named were human rights and democracy organizations.
POMED, the influential Project on Middle East Democracy, reported that US authorities and human rights advocates expressed displeasure with the SCAF investigation. For example, the group said, while excerpts of the investigation’s report were leaked to the Egyptian press in September, the official report has never been made public nor have suspects been officially notified of the charges against them.
POMED also declared that it was not until IRI employee Sam LaHood – son of President Obama’s Secretary of Transportation, Ray LaHood — arrived at Cairo’s airport and was prohibited from boarding a flight that suspects were made aware that they were barred from travel.
POMED is a non-profit, non-partisan organization based in Washington, DC, dedicated to examining how genuine democracies can develop in the Middle East and how the United States can best support that process.
Most recently, the Ministry of Justice announced it was referring 43 individuals to face trial, but the formal charges have yet to be delivered to the suspects. U.S. policymakers have also received inconsistent messages from the Egyptian government, as the ruling military council and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs have sought to reassure the U.S. government and targeted organizations while the Ministry of Justice and Minister Aboul Naga have struck a defiant tone.
The Muslim Brotherhood, which earlier endorsed the investigation, denounced the American reaction to the NGO probe as inconsistent. “America does not allow any foreign organization to open branches and operate without a permit,” said Brotherhood Spokesperson Mahmoud Ghazlan. U.S. lawmakers have threatened to halt the $1.3 billion in promised military aid to Egypt in response to the investigation.
Generally being overlooked is that the organizations whose offices were raided and employees arrested have been well known to the Mubarak government – and approved, tacitly and overtly, for many years. Mubarak’s NGO law made it extremely difficult to operate in the human rights, democracy-building, and related fields. There were occasional prosecutions for accepting foreign funds without prior approval.
That’s what’s going on at the surface. But the backstory is far more Machiavellian, according to one of the most credible witnesses to the current scene in Egypt. He is Samer S. Shehata, Assistant Professor of Arab Politics at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University in Washington.
We asked Prof. Shehata if the Egyptians should be prosecuting these NGOs.
His answer: “Of course not. There is no justification for prosecuting or harassing these organizations. Many of them were in operation with the full knowledge of the government previously. Moreover, their activities are not detrimental to the political process or sovereignty.”
He said the question facing the government vis a vis NGOs is whether in the post-Mubarak Egypt, the procedures for establishing an NGO will be made easier, transparent and standard.”
But Shehata emphasized his view that, “I don’t think the moves against these organizations have much to do with what these organizations actually do (or what they did). This is political hardball between the SCAF and the US administration. One must assume that the SCAF knows what they are doing (escalating the challenge with the US administration) and they are trying to signal to the Obama administration that the US should not get involved or voice opinions regarding Egypt’s internal politics in the next, crucial period, in which some kind of a “transition” will be worked out between domestic political forces, most importantly the Muslim Brothers and the military, about the future shape of Egyptian politics.”
He added, “I think the issue of the NGOs is being used in a much larger and more important attempt to limit US statements and actions in the coming period.”
Shehata cautioned that commenting on the current NGO problem requires a certain degree of “reading the tea leaves.”
“The best assessment — and the one that makes the most sense — in this period is that “the actions against the NGOs signal to other NGOs in Egypt concerned with human rights, personal and political freedoms workers’ rights, etc. that the regime/SCAF could move against them. It must be a tremendous disincentive to vigorously criticize the current state of affairs, SCAF’s responsibility or the ‘transition’ period for many other domestic organizations.”
Shehata was asked, “What should the response of the US be vis a vis military aid, and where’s it all going to end?
He replied, “I can only imagine that the Egyptian regime will eventually drop the charges against the Americans affiliated with these NGOs, allowing them to leave the country and avoid any kind of prosecution.”
Other observers tell much the same story. For example, Prof. Lawrence Davidson of West Chester University told us, “My guess is that this is part of an unwritten agreement between the generals and the Muslim Brothers. If you look at who these NGOs were helping, it was the elements that stand in opposition to both the Islamists and the army. It might be that going after these groups is the price the Egyptian generals have to pay to keep the Muslim Brotherhood from sending their followers into the streets to join the liberal/secular/youth folks presently protesting.”
Back in Washington, the NGO situation created a firestorm of protest, with Senators warning of a “Disastrous” Rupture of U.S.-Egypt Ties. In a statement, US Senators John McCain, Kelly Ayotte, and Joe Lieberman warned Egypt’s government that the ongoing investigation into foreign-funded nongovernmental organizations could result in a “disastrous” rupture in ties with the US, saying, “harassment and prosecution” of US citizens must end, and “support for Egypt, including continued financial assistance, is in jeopardy.”
In an article published last week, Amnesty International said that NGOs in Egypt were being held “hostage,” and called for the “repressive laws on civil society” to be scrapped. “These international associations have become the latest scapegoats as the authorities desperately spin their story of foreign conspiracies,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Deputy Director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Program.
But Egyptian Prime Minister Kamal Al Ganzouri dug his heels in, declaring that Egypt “will not kneel” and “will not change [its] stance because of American aid.”
The response to the Prime Minister’s bravado comes from Joe Stork, the veteran official of Human Rights Watch (HRW).
He said, “The Egyptian authorities are using a discredited Mubarak-era law to prosecute nongovernmental groups while proposing even more restrictive legislation. The government should stop using the old law, halt the criminal investigations, and propose a law that respects international standards.”
He concluded: “This campaign targets the Egyptian human rights and democracy groups that were prevented from registering by Mubarak’s security forces. Foreign funding is their lifeline. Egypt’s military government is now using the kind of tactics used by Zimbabwe and Ethiopia to silence independent voices.”
William Fisher has managed economic development programs for the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development in the Middle East, North Africa, Latin America, Asia and elsewhere for the past 25 years. He has supervised major multi-year projects for AID in Egypt, where he lived and worked for three years. He returned later with his team to design Egypt’s agricultural strategy. Fisher served in the international affairs area in the administration of President John F. Kennedy. He began his working life as a reporter and bureau chief for the Daytona Beach News-Journal and the Associated Press in Florida. He now reports on a wide-range of issues for a number of online journals.