Egypt’s Paradox: Foreign-Funded Military Attacks Foreign-Funded NGOs

Egyptian NGO raids

Just one day before the end of the historic 2011, the Egyptian authorities could not bring themselves to end the year without undertaking actions that, yet again, have provoked domestic and international criticism. On December 29, several democracy and human rights non-governmental organizations (NGOs) were stormed by combined police and army forces, accompanied by investigators from the General Prosecutor’s office. The raid targeted 17 offices of 10 NGOs on the grounds that they were illegally operating and accepting international assistance without the required registration permits, according to the Egyptian Middle East News Agency (MENA). This is part of a broader investigation launched by the government earlier this year into foreign funding and alleged violations of Egypt’s highly restrictive law regulating NGOs, Law No. 84/2002.  Of the 10 organizations targeted in the raid, six have officially confirmed break-ins: The Arab Center for Independence of the Judiciary and the Legal Profession (ACIJLP); the Budgetary and Human Rights Observatory; the German Konrad Adenauer –Stiftung (KAS), and the American National Democratic Institute (NDI), the International Republican Institute (IRI) and Freedom House. These NGOs reported that their offices were raided and sealed by military and police personnel, who confiscated documents and computers.

In a collective response, over 31 groups led by the Cairo Institute for Human Rights (CIHR) expressed their concern and outrage in a statement condemning the break-ins. They appealed to the international community and accused the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) of spearheading a campaign since July to defame human rights activists and organizations committed to democracy development. Another Cairo-based group, The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information ‎‎(ANHRI) issued a statement describing the security crackdown as an attempt to intimidate and silence activists with an iron-fisted brazenness that even Mubarak’s regime never dared to exercise. 

Although the international community has for the most part continued to express qualified support for the Egyptian military’s handling of the transition, the December 30 crackdown exposed the generals’ true intentions and mishandling of the transitional period. The United States through its Departments of State and Defense expressed deep concern over the attacks and called on the Egyptian government to end the raids and return all confiscated property. Germany summoned the Egyptian Ambassador and demanded an immediate investigation into the incident, while the European Union described the police raids as “an open demonstration of force” and urged Egyptian officials to support the work of civil society groups for the duration of the transitional period.

Although the latest raids indicate a sharp escalation in the government’s crackdown on civil society, Egyptian NGOs have long faced difficulties operating in a hostile environment governed by the restrictive NGO law. The roots of the latest crackdown can be traced back to the aftershocks of Mubarak’s resignation in February of last year, when the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) allocated $65 million under the new Egyptian Economic and Transition Support programs for grants available to any Egyptian, American and international organizations working in Egypt. But the Egyptian government soon became concerned that American support for civil society would lead to intervention in domestic political affairs, and in July, Fayza Aboul Naga, Egypt’s Minister of International Cooperation, publicly announced that cases of illegal foreign funding to unregistered local and ‎international NGOs in Egypt would be investigated. The government of former Prime Minister Essam Sharaf promptly formed fact-finding committee to launch a probe into the charges. By October, the Ministry of Justice stepped up its investigation by commissioning two judges to explore the allegations, while the interim government increasingly portrayed foreign funding as one of the primary causes of continued political unrest and protests.

By late November, preliminary findings of the commission’s investigations were leaked to the press. The investigation, according to Al-Shorouk newspaper, involved questioning around 400 organizations that received foreign funding over the past 6 years. 

Although Fayza Aboul Naga had clearly intended for the investigation to incriminate US-funded groups promoting democratization, the commission’s evidence supported a very different conclusion: Salafi Islamist organizations were actually the biggest beneficiaries of international assistance, much of it originating from the conservative Gulf monarchies. According to the report, Egyptian Salafis received at least $48.9 million in funding from Gulf donors.  The Egyptian Salafi organization Ansar al-Sunna, which received almost $19 million from a single Kuwaiti Islamic association, was the biggest recipient of foreign funding, not any of the human rights groups or youth movements that had been so maligned and defamed by the Egyptian government. 

Since the December 30 raids, growing international criticism and outright condemnations have significantly increased pressure on the ruling generals. Field Marshal Tantawi assured Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, in a phone conversation on December 31 – that the government will cease its crackdown and return the confiscated material. However, SCAF’s empty promises have not translated into action. In fact, the issue has escalated into a full-blown media war as the SCAF scrambles to deny responsibility for the raids. The Egyptian Defense Attaché to the United States, General Mohamed al-Keshki, said that the NGO investigation is under the jurisdiction of the judiciary and public prosecutor, denying any involvement by the SCAF. On January 1, the Ministers of International Cooperation and Justice held a press conference in which they defended the measures independently taken by the judiciary while insisting that the SCAF and interim government were not interfering or influencing the investigation. Meanwhile, NDI and IRI have issued updated statements describing the attacks on their offices and clarifying the nature of their activities to try to counter to the latest media attacks.

Why is the Egyptian government pursuing this campaign against civil society, and why now? An analysis of SCAF’s official statements sheds light on the situation and exposes the severity of the harassment faced by NGOs. Since July, the military council has been accusing opposition groups like April 6 and Kefaya of advancing foreign agendas by illegally accepting foreign funding. In the SCAF’s 69th communiqué, posted to its Facebook page on July 22, the military blamed personal interests and foreign agendas for rising tensions between the military forces and the people. This was further emphasized on December 20  in statements 91 and 92, which claimed that intelligence information pointed to a foreign-led plan to destabilize Egypt through mass protests and sit-ins. The government’s conspiracy theories have created a climate of fear and mistrust among the people, and the recent pattern of events – violent clashes in December followed by the latest raids – suggests that the SCAF is deliberately enflaming anxiety and panic to assert control over the transition.

The SCAF’s latest actions serve the purpose of consolidating the military’s power by sending several different messages to domestic as well as international actors including:

  • Reminding human rights groups, NGOs, and revolutionary forces that the SCAF is still in control.
  • To the Egyptian public – countering critics of the military by claiming that the SCAF is protecting Egypt’s sovereignty and national interests by securing the country against the “foreign agendas and third party” represented by some NGOs and outside forces.
  •  A message reminding the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist forces that the SCAF is still in charge of the transition, even though Islamist candidates won a clear parliamentary majority.
  •  To the West and the U.S. in particular—we have the power. Much of the old system survived the fall of Mubarak; the military is still your best option when compared to rising Islamists, the only clear alternative. We just want you to keep writing us a $1.3 billion check each year that we decide how to spend without interference.
  • By continuing its own propaganda campaign while allowing contradictory reports from different officials and ministries, the SCAF is trying to deflect blame for the crackdown by portraying the government as a decentralized network of independent institutions that operate beyond the SCAF’s oversight.   

The Egyptian government’s increasingly defensive and often contradictory messages to US officials are evidence of unprecedented tension in the bilateral relationship since the fall of Mubarak. Many Egyptian NGOs rely heavily on foreign funding. Yet the Egyptian government has used the international aid issue as a bargaining chip when dealing with Washington, and has deliberately obstructed American organizations from opening branch offices in Cairo. Both IRI and NDI applied for registration with the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) in 2005 and have yet to receive official permits. However, both organizations maintain offices and staff in Egypt. According to the Wikileaks cables, an MFA official in 2006 said that resolving the pending registration could best be resolved by high level talks between the two governments. Over the next few years, Mubarak’s regime used this bargaining chip to try to fend off the democratizing agenda of the Bush administration.

Today, Egypt’s military leaders – who are starting to behave a lot like Mubarak – appear to be acting out against the prospect of new conditions linking Egypt’s 1.3 billion dollar military aid package to progress on democratization. The U.S. Congress approved a new spending bill on December 16 that imposes tough conditions on military aid to Egypt for 2012. The new restrictions require the State Department to certify that Egypt’s government is supporting the transition to civilian leadership and respecting “freedom of expression, association, and religion, and due process of law.” Will the military leadership risk $1.3 billion in aid by refusing to cease its crackdown? The answer will become increasingly clear in the coming days.

With the 1-year anniversary of the January 25 uprising fast approaching and a new Parliament scheduled to convene at the end of the month, the SCAF is facing many challenges and growing pressure to fulfill the revolution’s democratic demands. Between transferring power to civilians and overseeing the drafting of a new constitution, the SCAF has its hands full and the last thing Egypt’s military leaders should be looking for is trouble with Washington.

Let us not forget that the ultimate irony here: The party guilty of receiving the most foreign funding is the Egyptian military, not NGOs, and generals in glass houses should not throw stones.

Ahmed Morsy is a Ph.D. candidate at the School of International Relations, University of St. Andrews. 

Photo Credit: Nahar Net


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