Egypt's military rulers crack down on democracy groups

Egypt's military junta raided independent civil society groups today, including the United States' premier democracy promoters.

Mohamed Abd El-Ghany/Reuters/AP
Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi (r.) the head of Egypt's ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), and Egyptian armed forces Chief of Staff Sami Anan (l.) pictured in Cairo, Egypt, Dec. 22. SCAF raided pro-democracy groups, Thursday.

The military junta that has ruled Egypt since President Hosni Mubarak's ouster in February cracked down hard today, sweeping into the offices of more than a dozen human rights and democracy promotion groups today, some of them US-funded. Files were seized and prosecutions threatened. 

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has accused activists who have clashed with security forces as being stirred up by "foreign hands." SCAF sought to advance that narrative today with the raids, which included the local offices of the US-based International Republican Institute (IRI), the National Democratic Institute (NDI), and Freedom House.

While the Egyptian uprising is often described as a revolution, it was the military that pushed out Mr. Mubarak, a former top officer, to mollify protesters. The military put itself directly in charge on a transitional basis, maintaining a political order that's been guided by the Egyptian military since the 1950s. While SCAF has insisted that it's overseeing an orderly transition towards democracy, it has arrested political dissidents, used deadly force on protesters, and sentenced political activists to jail terms in military trials since Mubarak fell.

In the run-up to the ongoing parliamentary elections, which head into their third and final round next week, SCAF also put pressure on civilian political parties to promise that a new Egyptian constitution, scheduled to be written next year, would not place the military's budget and management under full civilian control. When protesters have demanded an end to military trials and indefinite detention under the country's emergency law, senior officers and officials who answer to SCAF have dismissed the protesters as agents of foreign powers seeking to harm Egypt – a tactic right out of the Mubarak-era playbook.

This storm has been gathering for some time. In September, Egypt announced that it was preparing prosecutions of 30 nongovernmental organizations on the charge of "treason" for improperly receiving foreign funding.

Sends 'alarming signals'

Human Rights Watch warned the prosecutions could have a chilling effect on reform.

"Restricting foreign funding can effectively deny civil society groups the ability to operate since under former President Hosni Mubarak, local funding sources shied away from funding controversial groups," Human Rights Watch wrote in late September. Joe Stork, the group's deputy head for the Middle East, said then: "It sends alarming signals about the transitional government’s commitment to human rights that Egyptian authorities have started a criminal investigation with the same methods Hosni Mubarak used to strangle civil society."

IRI and NDI are funded directly from the US government's National Endowment for Democracy, and have been at the forefront of US democracy-promotion efforts abroad for decades. Freedom House is also mostly funded by the US government and its roots go back to the 1940s, at first pushing for US involvement in WWII and evolving into a democracy-promotion outfit down the decades.

Other targets were Germany's Konrad Adenauer Institute and Egyptian national NGOs focused on human rights, legal and judicial reform, and government budget transparency.

The raids, which Egyptian security services and prosecutors said were over illegal foreign funding, involved heavily-armed riot police moving into the offices and seizing documents and computers. At the NDI offices, staff were locked in rooms while the raid was carried out.

In a statement, NDI said "it is particularly concerned that the Egyptian authorities targeted local organizations, some of which are working on observation efforts for the country’s ongoing parliamentary elections.... Cracking down on organizations whose sole purpose is to support the democratic process during Egypt’s historic transition sends a disturbing signal."

IRI wrote it is "dismayed and disappointed by these actions. IRI has been working with Egyptians since 2005; it is ironic that even during the Mubarak era IRI was not subjected to such aggressive action. Today’s raid is confusing given that IRI was officially invited by the Government of Egypt to witness the people’s assembly elections, and was in the process of deploying a high level international delegation to observe the third phase of elections on January 3 and 4."

Echo of Mubarak

To be sure, IRI and NDI have both run into trouble in Egypt in the past. In June of 2006, as the Bush administration was pushing for democracy in Egypt (an effort that was ironically in the process of being scaled back at the time), Mubarak's government suspended both groups work in the country, saying they had not applied for the appropriate licenses.

Traditionally, the US has tolerated restrictions on democracy promotion groups and focused more on its direct relationship with the Egyptian state and the military. The US gives Egypt more than $1 billion a year, on average, since the Camp David accords were signed. Some US congressmen have publicly mulled conditioning Egypt's military aid on concrete democratic reform. Though the Obama administration has said it opposes those kinds of conditions, SCAF has thrown down the gauntlet to the US and other financial backers today.

The xenophobia often reflected by the Egyptian military – and, indeed, many average Egyptians – is far more than a pose. The military leadership is insular and distrustful, and sees outside help for democracy groups as not only a threat to its power, but to the position of Egypt itself.

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