The news photo captures an iconic moment of the second half of the 20th century: President Jimmy Carter stands flanked by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, as the three leaders sign the 1978 Camp David Accords.
But that was then. This week Egypt’s interim military rulers dissed the former US president, deciding that his Carter Center would not be issued a permit to observe Egypt’s presidential election next month, the first since the fall of former authoritarian ruler Hosni Mubarak.
The Carter Center, recognized for its work monitoring elections around the world, was one of eight US-based nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to be refused a license by Egypt’s Social Affairs Ministry. The ministry said the permits were denied because the organizations “breach the country’s sovereignty.”
Egypt’s military rulers have moved to restrict the work of foreign pro-democracy groups as the country approached parliamentary and presidential elections this year. In December Egyptian police raided the offices of democracy and human rights organizations, and in February the authorities charged 43 workers from five foreign NGOs with illegal activities.
The arrests caused an uproar in the US and a rift between the two governments, not only because the detained individuals included five American citizens, but also because the US provides Egypt with more than $1 billion in aid each year – aid the US agreed to in the Camp David Accords that led to normalization of Egypt-Israel relations.
The Carter Center office in Egypt was allowed to observe parliamentary elections that concluded in January. The Atlanta-based human rights center has already dispatched election observers to Egypt in preparation for the May vote.
Center officials say they have yet to receive official notification of any decision on their license application, which they say was submitted in October.
The Egyptian government’s rejection of permits for the eight US organizations so close to the election – and in particular the barring of the high-profile Carter Center – is an added concern for Egypt’s pro-democracy forces, who are increasingly worried that the May 23-24 elections won’t be fair.
Egyptians returned to Cairo’s Tahrir Square last Friday for one of the largest rallies in months, to condemn what protesters claim are efforts by interim rulers to ensure election of a candidate who favors the military’s hold on power.
Some Egyptians say they are concerned that if international election observers are limited or nonexistent, the prospects for free and fair elections will dim.