Al-Ahram Weekly Online   5 - 11 January 2012
Issue No. 1079
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Courting a backlash

Egypt is struggling to contain the fallout from last week's raids on NGO offices in Cairo, reports Mohamed Abdel-Baky

Click to view caption
Demonstrations in front of the Supreme Justice Court in downtown Cairo protest against police swoops on NGO offices

Following raids last week on 17 Egyptian and foreign NGOs Egypt's relations with the EU and US were plunged into crisis.

On 29 December public prosecutors, backed up by police and military personnel, raided the Cairo offices of, among others, the Arab Centre for the Independence of the Judiciary and the Legal Profession (ACIJLP), the Budgetary and Human Rights Observatory, the International Republican Institute (IRI) and Freedom House (FH). The Cairo and Assiut offices of the Washington- based National Democratic Institute (NDI) were also raided. Hundreds of CDs, flash drives and computers were removed.

Kamal El-Ganzouri's newly formed government struggled to distance itself from the raids.

"The decision was taken by the judicial committee that is responsible for investigating NGOs which is independent of the government," said International Cooperation Minister Faiza Abul- Naga in a press conference on Sunday.

The committee was formed more than a month ago on the orders of the Ministry of Justice.

But Abul-Naga went on to defend the raids as part of a legitimate investigation into organisations operating without government permission and receiving "political funding" from overseas.

Under the laws regulating the work of NGOs any civil society organisation must first be licensed by the government before it can operate legally and must secure government approval before receiving funds from foreign donors.

Abul-Naga repeated complaints voiced by the ruling military that civil society groups had accepted foreign funds to "influence public opinion in non-peaceful ways".

Staff members at the Freedom House's (FH) office in Cairo were unable to communicate with anyone during the raid as their mobile phones were confiscated along with personal laptops. The raid occurred three days after FH formally submitted papers registering its offices as required under Egyptian law.

NDI submitted its registration papers in 2005. It has yet to receive a response from the Egyptian government. In April 2011 NDI reported that it had received a two-year grant totalling $14 million to assist democratic reform efforts in Egypt. The funds, provided by the US State Department and USAID, were approved by Congress and earmarked for training programmes in developing political parties, and for assistance to civil society organisations engaged in election monitoring, civic education and non-partisan voter education. The April report went on to state that "at no time has NDI funded any political party or protest movement, all programmes are designed to support public confidence and participation in key political processes".

The two judges heading the Ministry of Justice appointed committee investigating civil society organisations say more than 400 Egyptian NGOs have been examined, including Islamic and Coptic associations, as well as individuals suspected of receiving funds from overseas.

Unsourced leaks have appeared in the media claiming that a single Islamist charity has received $300 million from four Gulf states -- Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and UAE -- since January last year. That figure makes the $40 million that US ambassador to Cairo Anne Patterson told Congress had been spent in Egypt to "promote democracy" since the revolution pale into insignificance. At the time Patterson said 600 Egyptian NGOs had applied for funding for projects including election monitoring to raise public awareness about political participation.

The US administration reacted quickly to the move against NGOs, with the State Department hinting that future aid to Egypt could be withheld.

"We do have a number of new reporting and transparency requirements on funding to Egypt," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said after the raids.

"The Egyptian government is well aware of that and it certainly needs to be aware of that in the context of how quickly this issue gets resolved."

Washington ratcheted up the pressure over a phone call between the head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi and US Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta who expressed "deep concern about the raids" in a telephone call with Tantawi.

In what appeared to be a clear retreat from the belligerence embodied by the raids Egyptian officials have said all confiscated property will be returned and American organizations receiving US government funding will be able to resume operations "as soon as possible".

In the wake of the raids, which included the Cairo office of the Konrad Adenauer Institute, Berlin summoned Egypt's ambassador to Germany to demand an explanation.

German media have reported that Andreas Jacobs, who heads the institute's Cairo office, is expected to be questioned by the public prosecutor in the next few days over its funding of Egyptian NGOs.

An official at the Konrad Adenauer Institute's Berlin headquarters told Al-Ahram Weekly that the police raid had taken them by surprise.

"The institute has been working in Egypt for 30 years. It has a permit from the Egyptian government, and enjoys good relations with Egyptian government institutions. Even under Mubarak we did not have problems with either the government or state security."

He added that the government had been fully informed of the organisation's activities in Egypt, and it had taken part in several development programmes in cooperation with government institutions and state-owned media, including Al-Ahram.

"The raid on the Konrad Adenauer Institute is an indicator that the current authority in Egypt knows nothing about our work, or the work of other international NGOs operating in Egypt," said the official.

ACIJLP Director Nasser Amin detects the hands of SCAF behind the raids. Egypt's military rulers, he says, are deliberately targeting NGOs that have exposed its brutal repression of protests.

"In an attempt to salvage its own legitimacy the military is attempting to make good its claims that foreign hands are somehow behind the violent clashes that have occurred recently."

More than 60 people have died and hundreds have been injured since last October in clashes with the military and police.

Members of SCAF and the government have repeatedly blamed violent clashes involving the security forces, in which protesters are killed by live ammunition, on "foreign hands". When challenged to provide evidence for their assertions they have remained silent, only to repeat the allegations at a later date.

"It is regrettable and ironic that resources taken from NDI's Cairo office were to be used to support an international election delegation accredited by the government of Egypt to witness the third stage of the People's Assembly elections," said a statement released by NDI's head office in Washington.

A former American diplomat in Washington told the Weekly SCAF had placed the US administration in position in which it had no option but to voice serious protests.

"The US administration has tried to stay objective over developments in Egypt since the revolution, remaining silent over human rights violations by the government against protesters and Copts. The latest action, though, was against American organisations well connected to the US administration and could not be ignored," he said.

Other diplomats in Washington told the Weekly that tensions between Washington and Cairo have been growing since mid-2011. SCAF, they say, complains that supporting civil society in Egypt is hardly a priority at a time when the Egyptian economy is collapsing.

The raid on NGOs will further depress relations between Egypt's military rulers and US Congress. A group of senators known for their good relations with Egypt and the military have already issued a statement warning that the US will be forced to reconsider economic support for Egypt during the transition unless SCAF improves its human rights record.

"Actions like these are another reason Congress's appropriations sub-committee refused to give a blank cheque to the Egyptian military," Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy said in a statement released during the New Year holiday.

Republican senator John McCain described the raid as "unjustified" and called on SCAF to provide a democratic environment in which civil society can "play its role in Egypt's transition".

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