An Ambiguous Anniversary in Egypt
To mark the first anniversary of Egypt’s January 25 revolution—which resulted in the fall of long-time president Hosni Mubarak just 18 days later—a coalition of more than 80 revolutionary groups issued
a statement underscoring just how unfinished the revolution really is.
“In light of a full year of failure,” the statement by the Revolutionary Youth declared, “it is clear that the junta has not achieved the goals of the revolution.” Amid the demonstrations by hundreds of thousands of people in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and other cities across the country, both celebrating the anniversary and calling for an end to military rule, that statement struck a sobering note. Hundreds have been killed since last January 25 by Egyptian security forces; thousands of others wounded in clashes; and over 12,000 civilians have been put on trial in military courts for a range of crimes, most of them political in nature and in any case a violation of guarantees of due process. Meanwhile, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) faces spiraling economic problems, with a budget crisis and a sharp depreciation of the Egyptian pound potentially in the offing. The hoped-for democratic transition seems to be in serious jeopardy.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the SCAF’s attempt to eviscerate Egyptian civil society and handcuff its international partners through a campaign of legal intimidation and media sensationalism that began in the summer of 2011. What has been portrayed by the Egyptian government as strictly a matter of law—the need to investigate NGOs to ensure they are in compliance with Egyptian law governing their registration and ability to move funds into the country—has been given the lie by the manner in which the investigation has been carried out. Freedom House, the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute, along with 14 other organizations (many of them Egyptian), were all raided on December 29 by armed security police. Our offices were searched, equipment and records seized, cash on hand confiscated, and the premises closed and sealed. Freedom House’s local staff has been repeatedly interrogated by the investigating judges. International staff of some of these organizations has been prevented from leaving the country. The media vilification campaign continues unabated, and some organizations, including ours, have been falsely accused (though not formally charged) with attempting to foment instability and “chaos” in the country. All this has taken place despite the fact that Freedom House and its sister organizations made every attempt to comply with Egyptian law by being transparent about our activities, submitting applications for legal registration, and cooperating with the investigation.
The raids are only the latest episode in a broader war on Egyptian civil society. Over 400 Egyptian organizations are likewise under investigation, and some of their offices have been closed as well. Their employees too remain under investigation. It is no coincidence that the Egyptian government’s actions focus almost exclusively on organizations involved in human rights, democracy building and governmental oversight. These activities pose a challenge to long-entrenched interests in Egypt.
The SCAF’s motivations seem clear. Pulling a page from Mubarak’s playbook, the military wants to ensure that it is seen as the only authority in Egypt that can control the rising power of the Islamists, including the Muslim Brotherhood (whose Freedom and Justice Party won 46 percent of the votes in the new parliament) and its more radical counterparts, the Salafis. By intimidating or eliminating the ability of civil society as well as liberal politicians and parties to offer alternatives, the army can justify its continued grip on the levers of power. This is an especially effective message in some Washington corridors of power.
In addition, the military wants to ensure that its plans for shaping the political transition now under way are not disrupted by political forces opposed to its control. At stake is the military’s ability to avoid civilian oversight of its budget and activities, and to retain control over its web of economic interests (by some estimates military or military-controlled industries account for around 40 percent of the Egyptian economy). The SCAF also fears it will be held accountable for past crimes and human rights abuses—as the Revolutionary Youth’s statement demanded—if more democratic alternatives arise to successfully challenge the state.
Despite an energetic campaign by the U.S. administration and Congress, the SCAF so far appears to have calculated that it can carry out its campaign against civil society without paying a significant cost to
its relationship with Washington. So far they have been proven correct.
Photo Credit: Sherif9282
Why should this matter to the United States? For more than 30 years, America has invested in Egypt as a cornerstone of regional stability, based on its commitment to peace with Israel, counterterrorism cooperation, and quiet facilitation of U.S. military movement in and out of regional theaters of war. Cairo remains the third largest recipient of U.S. military assistance ($1.3 billion in Foreign Military Financing annually) and the fourth largest aid recipient overall. But with the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, military needs are fewer. And the sweeping political changes in the region over the last year have transformed the very meaning of regional stability. Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous country, has been a leader in both war and peace; it must now become a partner on political transformation, where its example, positive or negative, will have a major and perhaps transformative impact elsewhere.
Most important, the stability of this major country depends on completing the transition to democracy. The alternative—reversion to authoritarianism and resurgent radicalism—poses a serious threat of deepening political turmoil and increased economic stress, with potential regional repercussions. This is in no one’s interest. But it is more likely if civil society cannot operate freely. Without effective advocates for political freedoms, transparent electoral processes, civil liberties and representative government, Egypt’s press, political parties and citizens will more vulnerable to government repression and investors will keep their money off the table. All this has serious implications for the country’s future.
Re-opening our offices and returning equipment and documents would be a welcome first step by the Egyptian government to begin addressing the problems it has created.
But that’s only a start. Will Freedom House and its Egyptian partners be allowed to operate freely? That is where the larger and more important fight lies.
The U.S. government has considerable leverage available to influence Egypt’s course. The State Department and Foreign Operations bill, signed into law by President Obama late last year, requires that before military aid to Egypt can be released, the administration must certify that the Egyptian military is assisting the transition to civilian government and the implementing policies to protect freedom of expression, association, religion, and due process of law. Used properly, this certification requirement gives the administration an opportunity for a powerful diplomatic conversation that it should use not just to roll back the current crisis manufactured by the Egyptian government, but also to enlarge the political space in which civil society can operate.
The U.S. should insist on replacement of the current repressive Mubarak-era law governing the operations of NGOs (Law 84 of 2002), which has long been used to restrict activities of civil society organizations. Moreover, the United States should make clear that it considers the protection of human rights and the advancement of democracy a vital interest in Egypt and elsewhere in the region, much as President Obama did in his speech on the Arab Spring last May.
Whether the United States can succeed in effecting such an important policy shift in Egypt is unclear; whether it will even wish to take on such a task is too. Nevertheless, one thing is clear: the longer the crisis inflicted on civil society in Egypt drags on, the likelier the rollback of democratic transition will become.
Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.