Freedom House's David Kramer Writes About the Crackdown on Civil Society Groups in Egypt

February 1, 2012

Sending a clear message on Egypt
The Hill's Congress Blog

By David J. Kramer

Representatives from the military council that has been ruling Egypt since Hosni Mubarak’s fall from power last February are in Washington this week for a series of official meetings. Their visit comes amid a continuing crackdown inside Egypt against civil society that included an armed raid last December 29 on the offices of ten non-governmental organizations, including the U.S.-based International Republican Institute (IRI), the National Democratic Institute (NDI), and my organization, Freedom House. Despite promises made by Egyptian authorities to the highest levels of the U.S. Government, we remain closed, our computers, files, and cash still in the possession of the Ministry of Justice, and our staffs continue to face hostile interrogation by investigating judges. Nowhere else in the world has any of our offices been raided as they were in Egypt.

During their visit, the Egyptian delegation needs to hear a clear and consistent message from both Capitol Hill and the administration: U.S. assistance to Egypt – which totals $1.3bn to the military alone, about a fifth of Egypt's military budget – depends on the administration’s being able to certify to Congress that the Egyptian government is taking steps to move toward civilian government and protect civil liberties; recent developments make such certification impossible. This will trigger a suspension in American aid to Cairo, and only a clear and irreversible end to the campaign against civil society organizations, foreign as well as Egyptian, can lift this suspension. Moreover, U.S. support for desperately needed loans from the International Monetary Fund will be difficult to muster as long as the Egyptian authorities run roughshod over civil society.

While the unprecedented actions taken against IRI, NDI, and Freedom House, including a recent travel ban imposed against non-Egyptian staff, have made the headlines, more disturbing is what is happening to Egyptian civil society in general. Some 400 Egyptian NGOs are under investigation, and five were shut down in the raid on December 29. Recently proposed legislation on NGOs, if passed into law, would snuff out civil society activity in Egypt. The Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation, run by a Mubarak holdover, is leading the campaign to intimidate or shut down any organizations working for a democratic transition in Egypt, and the military council is letting her get away with it.

Around the world, our organizations have decades of experience in helping countries going through transitions. We do not dole out money to political parties or politicians, as we have been falsely accused of in Egypt. We are independent institutions with missions and mandates to promote greater freedom, democracy, pluralism, and human rights.

We are in Egypt to help with election monitoring, training of political parties, strengthening civil society, and advancing human rights – assistance that we provide in many other places around the world. Ironically, both NDI and IRI were given permission to monitor the elections for the lower house of parliament; despite the raids on their offices, they still managed to conduct observer missions. We would not be in Egypt were there not local interest in and demand for the kinds of support, training, and expertise we provide.

Egypt has been a strategic partner of the United States for over thirty years, a leader in both war and peace. Stability in this important country depends on completing the transition to democracy. The alternative—reversion to authoritarianism and resurgent radicalism—poses a serious threat of deepening political turmoil and increased economic stress, with potential regional repercussions. This is in no one’s interest.

We have made every effort to conduct our activities in Egypt in a transparent manner and to comply with the terms of Egyptian law. Each of us has attempted to register our offices; NDI and IRI did so five years ago, and Freedom House, which opened an office only after last year’s uprising, applied just three days before the raid.

But registration is not the magic solution; it could give the Egyptian authorities greater control over our activities and even veto power over the areas in which we can work. Nowhere else do we operate under such smothering control. But that seems to be the authorities' main goal -- to control us and in turn scare Egyptian organizations and activists who wish to work with us.

Each day that passes in which we remain closed only makes the situation worse. We need to be allowed to reopen; have our confiscated equipment and cash returned; see an immediate end to the investigations; be allowed to register with no strings attached; and see an end to a negative campaign in state-owned media against us, our staff, and those with whom we work. This applies for us and all Egyptian NGOs. We cannot be given special treatment while Egyptian civil society remains under attack.

Senior U.S. officials, including President Obama, and many Members of Congress have been diligent in their efforts to persuade Egyptian authorities to change course, so far without success. How this turns out is important not just for Egypt but for civil society around the world. Authoritarian regimes elsewhere are watching what happens in Egypt and no doubt calculating that if Egyptian authorities can get away with this crackdown on civil society without paying any price, so can they.

Kramer is the president of Freedom House.