The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
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Plus ça change, Egyptian Style
Published on October 30, 2012

It was the summer of 2000, and the situation for Egypt’s fledgling civil society community was looking dire.

Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a prominent sociologist, had just been dragged from his home and jailed by longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak. The 61-year-old academic was held without formal charges for weeks and then prosecuted for a nebulous array of crimes, including financial improprieties, forgery, accepting foreign funding without government permission and seeking to ruin Egypt’s international reputation. “All that was left out was drug dealing and rape”, Ibrahim joked in an interview shortly after his first release from custody.

The government’s smoking gun at the time was a seemingly innocuous short film funded by the European Union that Ibrahim’s Ibn Khaldoun Center for Developmental Studies was producing to encourage voter participation in the parliamentary elections scheduled for that fall.

Ibrahim spent three years in and out of jail before finally gaining his freedom on appeal. His case was accompanied by a vicious media smear campaign depicting local NGOs like the Ibn Khaldoun Center as tools for sinister foreign interests. Despite his eventual exoneration, Ibrahim was never quite the same person after his legal ordeal. He emerged from prison frail and suffering from a degenerative nerve condition. He spent much of the next decade in self-imposed exile.

The effect of the Ibrahim case on Egypt’s fledgling civil society community was equally devastating. Egyptian NGOs, especially those focusing on human right issues, subsisted almost exclusively on foreign grants, and the government had just proven it could criminalize that kind of unauthorized foreign funding.

Hafez Abu Saada, then head of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR), called the Ibrahim case a demoralizing blow that left NGOs and human rights groups hesitant to accept even the most harmless form of foreign aid for fear of leaving themselves vulnerable to similar treatment. At the time of our interview in 2000, Saada’s EOHR was already facing financial problems and staff salaries were being delayed; meanwhile, a $25,000 grant offer was on the table from a Dutch development agency that his board was now reluctant to accept.

EOHR board member Negad al-Borai sounded a similarly bleak note. “I can’t see any future for real Egyptian civil society if this continues”, he told me. “We’ll see some [opposition] parties and labor unions here and there, but nothing that can be called true civil society.”

Twelve years later, Egypt is in the midst of an historic transformation. Hosni Mubarak is gone, hounded from power by his own people in February 2011 following a landmark 18-day popular uprising. The violent and unchecked police state that kept him in power has been humbled; his once omnipresent National Democratic Party is disbanded. Egypt can now boast its first ever democratically elected civilian president, longtime Muslim Brotherhood official Mohamed Morsi.

But having a leader who is technically elected by democratic means doesn’t presuppose that a society can suddenly acquire democratic habits. Some things still haven’t changed in Egypt, including the government’s obsession with controlling the local NGO community—and especially any kind of overseas funding its members might receive. In a very real sense, Egyptian history is repeating itself. Once again local NGOs and civil society groups are scrambling to make their budgets in the face of a bureaucracy that seems determined to choke off international funding. The problem, it turns out, wasn’t just Mubarak or his ministers; it was, and remains, a deeply entrenched security state and government bureaucracy that continues to view NGOs, and particularly human rights organizations, with hostility and suspicion.

“It’s surprising the amount of damage a righteous bureaucrat that thinks he or she is defending Egypt can do”, said Heba Morayef, head of the Egypt office for Human Rights Watch. “The bureaucracy has always been infiltrated or outright controlled by the security services and that bureaucracy remains fundamentally suspicious of (human rights) groups.”

The first disturbing sign that hostility to the civil society community didn’t end with Mubarak’s reign came in late December 2011, when police mounted surprise raids on the offices of several international and local NGOs, including the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute. The latter two faced charges of operating without government authorization, while the Egyptian NGOs were charged with illegally accepting foreign funding. The raids touched off an immediate firestorm of international criticism, especially since the defendants included several U.S. citizens like Sam LaHood, the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

The ensuing crisis dragged on for weeks, with LaHood and the others banned from travel and taking shelter on the grounds of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. The incident prompted perhaps the greatest modern crisis in U.S.-Egyptian relations, with several U.S. Congressmen openly threatening the cut the nearly $2 billion in annual American aid the Egyptian government receives as part of the Camp David Accords.

But the emphasis on LaHood and the foreign NGOs somewhat overshadowed the effect the raids had on Egypt’s homegrown civil society community. A handful of local NGOs were hit at the same time, including one of Egypt’s most historic organizations, the International Center for the Independence of the Judiciary.

Nasser Amin, the center’s director, said police confiscated eight computers and a massive array of files, none of which has yet been returned. “The entire archive of the organization is on those computers”, said Amin, who added that he and his colleagues were able to backup and retrieve most of the lost files.  

The NGO raids were a serious embarrassment to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the collection of senior generals who helped push Mubarak out and assumed control of the country in the wake of the revolution. Even in the midst of the controversy, the generals seemed unaware of just how volatile the situation was or how seriously it was being taken in Washington. In one memorable debacle, several SCAF members came to the United States in February 2012 to discuss their preferences for dispersal of the next round of American military aid. When they saw just how angry their longtime friends in the U.S. Congress were, the generals cut short their trip and returned to Egypt.

The situation was eventually defused by what seemed to be a backdoor deal between the SCAF and the U.S. government. The travel ban against the American defendants was quietly lifted, the U.S. government paid their bail, and most of them were flown out of the country amid circumstances that remain mysterious. One American, Robert Becker of the National Democratic Institute, insisted on staying and facing trial along with his Egyptian staff members. The court case against the foreign NGOs is still technically active, but nobody seems interested in pursuing it too vigorously.

The Egyptian NGOs targeted in the raid still aren’t completely clear of the charges either. Early in the investigation, the Egyptian Prosecutor General’s office decided to split the foreign and local NGO’s into two separate legal tracks. Then it declined to bring the local NGO case to trial. But the charges of accepting unauthorized foreign funding were never dropped; the case is still technically open and could be revived at any time.  “We’re under a continuing threat”, said Amin. “We still don’t know if they will open the file again. All they have to do is open the drawer and pull out the case.”

As with the Saad Eddin Ibrahim case a decade earlier, the overall effect has been to scare Egyptian NGOs away from applying for much-needed foreign grants—and deter international donor organizations from offering them.  “The donors have suffered a big shock and the clients are afraid to apply”, Amin said. “It won’t appear right away. Around the end of the year, you’ll see organizations reduce their activities and not start new projects.”

Gasser Abdel Razek, associate director of the Egyptian Institute for Personal Rights (EIPR), expressed similar concerns. “I’m sure that a lot of the organizations that were ready to sign new deals and a lot of the donors are saying ‘OK lets wait and see,’” he said. “Nobody wants to see a quarter of a million dollars frozen in the bank for two or three years.”

At the time of the NGO raids, many observers here believed that the arrest warrants did not actually originate with the SCAF. The generals, it was widely believed, were simply caught up in a situation they didn’t create and then proceeded to make things worse by publicly lashing out at criticism from Washington and creating a trans-Atlantic staring match over sovereignty and national pride. Instead, the blame was largely placed on Fayza Aboul Naga, the Minister of International Cooperation and a holdover from the Mubarak era. Aboul Naga had long been obsessed with controlling the flow of foreign money into Egyptian civil society; she had survived multiple cabinet reshuffles during the Mubarak era and remained in the cabinet even after the revolution. But her long reign of continuous government service ended in June with the ascension of Morsi to the presidency.

Amazingly, despite all the changes that Egypt has gone through in the past 18 months, the country is still operating under the Mubarak-era law that mandates that all NGOs must register with the government and must receive prior permission before accepting any overseas funding. That law has spawned a number of legal loopholes because the Ministry of Social Affairs often simply declines to respond to registration applications, making it impossible for NGOs to “go legit” and function openly. Some organizations register themselves overseas as international or regional NGOs; many others, like the EIPR, are formally on the books as law offices. All of them are essentially staying one step ahead of laws that could be used against them any time the authorities see fit.

Now the beginning of the Morsi era begs the question of whether the situation will improve for Egypt’s civil society. So far the results have been inconclusive. “Their tone is a little confusing. You hear different people within the Brotherhood saying different things”, Abdel Razek said.

In spring a new democratically elected parliament was seated—dominated by Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood. Among the tasks undertaken by this new legislative body was a rewrite of the laws governing civil society and NGOs. That effort was still in the drafting stages when the parliament was dissolved by the Supreme Court in June on a legal technicality. But even before that, the new NGO law under discussion was only a partial improvement over the Mubarak-era restrictions. Morayef, of Human Rights Watch, and Abdel Razek, of the EIPR, were both privy to those negotiations and said the proposed new law would still have required Egyptian NGOs to receive government approval for any foreign funding or grants.

Abdel Razek said that outside the hardcore activist community, there simply isn’t strong public support for completely removing the government from the process. Many Egyptians genuinely do regard foreign funding for NGOs as inherently sinister, partially due to the years of media smear campaigns under Mubarak. It is simply too early to discuss allowing foreign funding for local NGOs without some sort of government oversight. The challenge going forward will be to design that oversight so that the process is transparent and local organizations don’t starve while waiting for approval.

“The problem with NGOs and foreign funding is that we have very few people willing to stand up publicly and strongly for us”, Abdel Razek said. “In my opinion, the best we can achieve now is an approval system that is clearly defined with a set time limit for (government) approval.”

Currently the situation is in stasis, awaiting new parliamentary elections that should happen sometime between December 2012 and March 2013, depending on the drafting and ratification of a new Egyptian constitution. In the meantime, any foreign grants for registered NGOs still require approval from the Ministry of Social Affairs, making them subject to the whims of “fundamentally suspicious bureaucrats”, Morayef said.  Often the ministry simply doesn’t respond, leaving NGOs starved for funds that have already been granted by international donor organizations. Morayef said she knew of two local NGOs that had already curtailed their activities and slashed their staff salaries in order to avoid layoffs while waiting for government grant approval.

Theoretically, President Morsi could break this deadlock with a single nod. When the parliament was dissolved by court order, its legislative authority reverted to the SCAF. But Morsi, after a brief power struggle with the SCAF, succeeded in sending the most senior generals into early retirement and claimed legislative authority for himself.

So far, Morsi has used that power sparingly, perhaps mindful of the apprehension inside and outside Egypt about one man holding so much authority. His legislative decisions have been relatively small and non-controversial: things such as expanding the parameters of the social insurance system and repealing the law that journalists charged with incitement must be jailed for the duration of their trial. Given that track record, few activists here expect Morsi to expend precious political capital on an issue as contentious and potentially controversial as foreign funding for civil society.

Nevertheless there are some who see a relatively silver lining to these clouds. It’s easy to point out all the things that haven’t changed in Egypt since Hosni Mubarak fell. But some crucial things absolutely have changed—mostly at the street level.

Hisham Kassem, an independent newspaper publisher and former head of the EOHR, said he’s not worried about the possibility that a Muslim Brotherhood-led government could continue the Mubarak-era policy of harassing NGOs and civil society organizations. It’s not that he trusts the Muslim Brotherhood; he emphatically doesn’t. It’s just that he doesn’t believe a post-revolutionary Egyptian population would let them get away with it.

Kassem pointed to the fierce public reaction in August when a pair of prominent Muslim Brotherhood critics in the media, a newspaper editor and a Glen Beck-style firebrand television host, were put on trial for inciting violence and insulting the President. The response was a wave of public demonstrations and further media criticism from incensed journalists. As of this writing in late October, the trials continue, but Morsi has been forced to make the conciliatory step of waiving the law that would have placed both journalists in custody for the duration of their trials. This kind of grassroots activism is now hardwired into the Egyptian political class, and, despite the often disturbing slow progress at the top, Egypt’s activists made it clear they are watching Morsi like a hawk.

“People went absolutely crazy over that”, Kassem said, and he expects an even fiercer reaction should Morsi or a Muslim Brotherhood-led government move to suppress civil society the way Mubarak did. “They would be fought tooth and nail”, Kassem said. “They would have a very hard time.”

Ashraf Khalil is a Cairo-based journalist and author of Liberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation.