The Egyptian public and the international community were shocked last week by televised images of civilian Hamada Saber being dragged, stripped, and brutally beaten by police officers amid ongoing clashes between police and protesters in Cairo.
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.
The past week’s developments in Egypt have been dispiriting to anyone who thought Hosni Mubarak’s ouster last year represented a true revolution. It is now clear that, though unplanned, Mubarak’s downfall presented a golden opportunity for Egypt’s generals to stage a soft military coup, easing him out of power and preventing a handover to his son and heir-apparent Gamal, a businessman with no military experience whom the generals were unwilling to accept. Since then, the world’s focus has been on Egypt’s continuous political turmoil: demonstrations by revolutionary forces in Tahrir Square, parliamentary and presidential elections, the struggle for power between Islamist movements and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), and now reports of Mubarak’s incapacitation or death. But the real story is the relentless campaign by Egypt’s “deep state”—its generals and their military-industrial complex, state security organizations, and elements of the former ruling party, with their well-established patronage networks and allied business interests—to stage a counterrevolution.
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.
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.
In an op-ed published in the New York Times last April, we took a cautiously optimistic view on the possibility of a breakthrough for media freedom in post-Mubarak Egypt. We argued that if state-controlled media, especially television, underwent serious reform, it would tip the balance toward an open information landscape, particularly when combined with the revolution in online social media in the country.
Now, one year since the January 25, 2011, onset of the uprising in Egypt, we are far more cautious than optimistic.
A months-long campaign against civil-society groups by Egypt’s military leadership came to a head Thursday when Egyptian security forces raided the Cairo offices of Freedom House and several other international and local nongovernmental organizations. These attacks were a major setback to the hopes that emerged this year with the revolution in Tahrir Square. If corrective measures are not taken, the attacks will severely damage Egypt’s long-term stability and prospects for a more democratic future.
It is a core belief of Freedom House that American foreign policy should be grounded on support for democratic values and the global expansion of freedom. Practically every aspirant to the American presidency would agree that the United States should remain the world’s beacon of democracy. But especially in an era of rival claims for global leadership and calls for fiscal austerity, the development of a U.S. strategy to propel freedom forward poses a serious challenge. Thus far, the presidential candidates have failed to grapple with the complexities of this challenge, and the discussion has been far from illuminating, to put it mildly.
On November 4, to mark the release of this year’s edition of Countries at the Crossroads, Freedom House and the Atlantic Council hosted a discussion on the prospects for successful democratic transitions in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA)—particularly in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, which were among six MENA countries examined in the new Crossroads report.