Freedom House’s David Kramer Responds to Claims by Egyptian Minister Leading the Crackdown on Pro-democracy Groups

Egypt’s Full-Frontal Assault on Civil Society
The Washington Post
By David J. Kramer

In her March 10 op-ed, “Why Egypt moved on the NGOs,” Fayza Aboulnaga, Egypt’s minister for planning and international cooperation, left out key facts and generally misrepresented the campaign she has been leading against civil society in that country. It is important to set the record straight.

Aboulnaga omitted from her Post column scurrilous charges she made against us last fall. “Evidence indicates an unequivocal desire and persistence to thwart any attempt at Egypt’s progress as a modern democratic country with a strong economy since that will pose a threat to Israel and American interests,” she said in testimony to prosecuting judges. She also testified that “Freedom House moreover was founded by the Jewish Lobbyists to hail accusations and criticisms against countries whose policies are not in line with US objectives.” She accused our organization of working “in coordination with the CIA.” Interesting that she opted not to repeat these absurd allegations in her op-ed. The anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism at the core of these assertions belie her insistence that this is solely a judicial matter.

Aboulnaga wrote in The Post that the dispute involves a handful of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operating illegally in Egypt. Beyond the 10 organizations — five foreign and five domestic — that were raided on Dec. 29, some 400 Egyptian civil society organizations are under investigation by the government. All could be shut down and their staffs arrested in a heartbeat. In other words, what Aboulnaga has unleashed is a full-frontal assault against Egyptian civil society.

And let’s be clear: None of us is operating illegally. Freedom House’s application for registration was officially acknowledged by Egypt’s Foreign Ministry three days before the raid. Some of the other organizations raided Dec. 29 submitted their applications for registration in 2005 and 2006 and never received an answer from the government. Egyptian Law 84, which dates to 2002 and is still on the books, states that lack of denial of an application within 60 days constitutes acceptance of the organization as a legal entity.

To apply for registration, Law 84 requires an organization to establish a presence and hire a staff. Freedom House followed Egyptian law completely. Our staff met numerous times with government officials to explain our activities and intentions in the interest of full transparency. It is incorrect, as Aboulnaga claims and several Western correspondents in Cairo have reported, to say that we have been operating illegally in Egypt.

Aboulnaga wrote that “the investigating judge independently ordered investigators to inspect the offices of the unregistered NGOs on Dec. 29 and seize evidence. I am told that these actions are no different from those undertaken by U.S. law enforcement officials.”

What happened on Dec. 29 were not inspections. Heavily armed security forces stormed into our office and those of nine other organizations without any warning, prior requests for documentation or, in some cases, any legal authority or subpoena to do so. We have received no receipts or accounting for the equipment and documents they removed. The actions of Egyptian authorities have been very different from what one would see in any society based on the rule of law.

Don’t take my word for it. In a statement issued Feb. 15, 29 Egyptian NGOs condemned the “ongoing slandering and intimidation of civil society organizations, particularly human rights groups, and note that the referral of 43 Egyptian and foreign nationals to a criminal court is politically motivated.” They described the December raids as a “crime for which the law was sacrificed. Armed forces were used to attack these offices, and no legal or non-legal explanation was given to justify the presence of these forces.” A judge involved in the first hearing against us, on Feb. 26, later told the government newspaper Al-Ahram that the substance of the case was “nonsense.”

Contrary to Aboulnaga’s claims, none of our organizations funds political parties or candidates. We are in Egypt to support civil society organizations, encourage respect for fundamental human rights, promote the transition to an accountable democracy and share experiences with other countries that have gone through transitions. We would not be in Egypt were there no indigenous demand for the kind of work we do. Our agenda is an Egyptian agenda.

The February statement from the NGOs noted: “Of the lies told by the government, perhaps the biggest is the claim that the funding of human rights groups is political, similar to funding given to political parties during elections in the US and elsewhere. . . .[R]ights organizations do not support one political party over another. . . . Their activities in this field are limited to raising citizens’ awareness of their political rights, without discrimination based on political or partisan affiliation, and monitoring elections to ensure transparency, fairness, and freedom for all parties in the process.” A statement issued Sunday by 13 Egyptian human rights organizations urged that the case be closed, “seeing that it is fundamentally nothing more than a political campaign against human rights groups.”

Aboulnaga wrote that “[t]he process begun on Jan. 25, 2011, continues. Our friends must understand that Egypt will never be the same, that this is an Egyptian revolution and that the Egyptian people will determine its outcome.” I endorse these sentiments, but it is a strange claim from an official who served for 10 years under Hosni Mubarak and is a holdover minister from the previous, unelected regime. The campaign she leads — against American organizations and, more important, Egyptian civil society — is a betrayal of last year’s uprising and the ultimate sacrifices made by more than 800 Egyptians.

David J. Kramer is president of Freedom House.

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