This past week marks the first anniversary of an unprecedented assault on civil society in the history of Egypt. The Egyptian authorities raided 11 offices of human rights and democracy NGOs, including Freedom House’s Office in Cairo. The raid came after several months of an aggressive smear campaign in the Egyptian media against foreign funded NGOs. The campaign particularly targeted local and international human rights defenders, defaming their activities, casting doubts on their intentions and accusing them of being a threat to national security.
In the wake of recent violence, including the tragic death of Ambassador Chris Stevens in Libya, some have called for the United States to decrease its diplomatic engagement with the Middle East. With perceptions of America in the region already greatly damaged by a legacy of narrow relationships with autocratic governments, such a move would be a grave mistake with dire consequences for U.S. foreign policy and national security interests. Ambassador Stevens was among the strongest advocates of building relationships with the Arab public, and it would be tragically ironic to see his death lead to an abandonment of this critical task.
Last week the world witnessed a wave of violent outrage in various Muslim countries, triggered by a film produced in the United States that defames the prophet Muhammad. While there is speculation on whether the attacks against U.S. embassies were spontaneous or orchestrated, that is not really the most crucial issue in this tragedy. More important is the way the overall phenomenon is being used to draw attention away from pressing political and economic problems in the affected countries.
The outlandish accusations of Muslim Brotherhood affiliations made against American government officials and agencies by Congresswoman Michele Bachmann and four other members of Congress have rightfully been dismissed by many public figures and members of the media as utter nonsense. While it’s tempting to shrug this off, the incident could have significant repercussions for the individuals singled out for accusation and for religious tolerance generally.
Last week, Freedom House released the 2012 edition of Freedom in the World, its annual survey of political rights and civil liberties. According to the report, Egypt remains in the Not Free category, but with a number of score improvements and an upward trend arrow to reflect progress since the ouster of long-standing president Hosni Mubarak in February 2011. Some might argue that this assessment does not give sufficient credit to the achievements of the uprising, while others will insist that the improvements registered in the report are not justified in light of ongoing repression.