Sham Democracy in Egypt

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“They went into our office … and arrested staff. I tried the rest of the staff … but their phones are off. They most probably are in their custody now.”

With that e-mail from a Freedom House staffer early on December 29, 2011, I first learned of the raid by heavily armed Egyptian security forces on our Cairo offices, three days after we completed the process of registering our operations with the authorities. Thus began two years of abusive investigation, threats of espionage charges, the shutdown of our office, the forced exile of some of our staff, and the eventual conviction on June 4 a year ago in a Cairo criminal court of seven Freedom House personnel—including me—on spurious political charges. In its written decision the court claimed we were agents of Israel and “soft imperialism.”

This so-called “foreign funding” case ended up criminalizing U.S. government–funded operations of Freedom House and other international groups. Forty-three people—Egyptians, Americans, Serbs, and others—were convicted of conducting activities in support of Egypt’s nascent democracy without official government permission.

What was Freedom House doing there? To hear the Egyptian government and the state-controlled media tell it, we were “endangering state security.” But what were we actually doing? We supported our Egyptian friends as they sought to build the freedoms for which those in Tahrir Square demonstrated. We helped citizens monitor elections with cellphones and an uplink to a website. We worked to teach a new generation of civic activists how to use tactics honed in Eastern Europe to work for peaceful political change. We fought against torture and helped educate Egyptians about their rights as citizens. We didn’t discriminate by party, ethnicity, religion, or gender. We worked with a local office of entirely Egyptian staff and with many Egyptian partner organizations. That’s not a security threat.

The single-mindedness with which the Egyptian government pursued this case was surely intended as a warning to the United States that support for democracy and human rights would not be tolerated. Worse, it was designed to signal to Egyptian pro-democracy civil society organizations that they too would no longer be tolerated. Their resolve to bring about representative democracy in the wake of Mubarak’s overthrow was simply unacceptable to Egypt’s falool, or “remnants” of the former regime, including the bureaucracy, the security services, and the economic oligarchs, all intent on a comeback.

That comeback is in full swing now. The Muslim Brotherhood has been declared illegal and branded a terrorist organization on the basis of scant evidence; its leadership has been arrested. Many hundreds of its supporters were killed in clashes with the police and army last August, many of them during the government’s breakup of a generally peaceful sit-in following the July 3 military coup.

But that was just a start. Leaders of the secular opposition have been pursued as well. Ahmed Maher, the former leader of the April 6 movement, which was instrumental in organizing the opposition against Mubarak, was sentenced to a three-year prison term late last year. A long-feared campaign against civil society, this time against Egyptian organizations, has now begun. In January the government seized the assets of over 1,000 NGOs, at least some of them affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, and added another 22 to the list last week. The Egyptian Center for Social and Economic Rights was stormed for the second time in May. New media attacks, led by the pro-government newspaper Al-Fajr, published two articles in mid-May claiming that the activities of groups like Freedom House were intended to destabilize Egypt. The articles named dozens of individual Egyptians and local organizations who worked with us and others, in an apparent attempt to intimidate and silence.

With the election of General al-Sisi as president, Egypt’s counter-revolution is complete. But the intense polarization of Egyptian politics, evidenced by the extremely low voter turnout and rising political violence, suggests that the struggle for Egypt’s future is far from over.

The United States can still play a role in nudging Egypt in the right direction. The administration should stand up for international human rights standards, and highlight violations of these principles when they occur. It should require a just resolution of the NGO case and demand freedom for Egyptian human rights advocates. Above all it should resist the urge to return to business as usual with the new regime. Washington should refuse to release suspended military aid, which would only cement U.S. complicity in the ongoing human rights tragedy and harm America’s interest in long-term stability, which is tethered to the aspirations of Egyptians for representative government.

Egypt’s “democratic transition” is over for now. But its future doesn’t have to be.

Photo Credit: Reuters

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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