National Journal: Other Arab Countries Take Note of Egypt’s Crackdown on Civil Society

Taking Advantage
National Journal
By Sara Sorcher

At the Cairo airport, Sherif Mansour got the welcome he was expecting. Authorities handcuffed the civil-society advocate as he arrived from Washington and whisked him to a police station across the street from Freedom House, his employer for the past five years. Mansour, an Egyptian-American who was senior officer for Middle East and North Africa programs, had hoped that the U.S.-funded nongovernmental organization would be able to help democracy take root in a new Egypt. Instead, more than a year after protesters toppled President Hosni Mubarak, the government sealed Freedom House in a crackdown on groups that receive foreign funding.

After three decades of dictatorship in Egypt, the United States was eager to help the new government lay the infrastructure for a transition to democracy. Elections alone wouldn’t bring about that transition, the thinking went: Egypt would also need a vibrant civil society. So Washington sent tens of millions of dollars to NGOs that promised to educate voters on complicated election laws; teach polling-station monitors how to guard the integrity of ballots; provide expertise to political parties and would-be politicians; and document any abuses. Most groups based abroad used Egyptian staffers to get the job done.

But after Mubarak’s fall, the ruling military council grew reluctant to transfer power (as the takeover last weekend underscores). Meanwhile, the generals watched as the civil-society groups went about equipping protesters with the means to push them out and helping activists spotlight the government’s human-rights abuses. In late December, the government launched an attack on those groups that went far beyond any meddling during the Mubarak era. Prosecutors, backed by police and soldiers with machine guns, raided 17 NGO offices, including the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, Freedom House, and the International Center for Journalists—which receive U.S. funds. The authorities seized cash and paperwork and sealed the offices. To make matters worse, Cairo barred IRI’s country director, Sam LaHood, son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, and six other American workers from leaving the country and charged them with illegally operating pro-democracy programs and stirring unrest.

This was a moment of truth for Washington. Congress had passed new conditions on Egypt’s $1.3 billion military-aid package, an annual rite that dates back to the 1978 Camp David accords. Before the U.S. released any aid, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had to certify that the Egyptian government supported a democratic transition, had implemented due process, and was protecting basic human rights such as freedom of expression and association. But with American NGO workers hiding from prosecutors at the U.S. Embassy, how could Clinton sign off on the aid?

Luckily, Cairo budged, but not much: In exchange for $5 million in “bail,” Egypt released the Americans, who flew home on March 1, playing the Indiana Jones theme song over the airplane’s public-address system. Three weeks later, in a demonstration of support for the security partner that has kept the peace with Israel, Clinton used the national-security waiver—a provision in the law that allows her to skip certification—to release the money despite Egypt’s record.

This was an object lesson, and it was not lost on Egypt’s government: As long as it didn’t detain American citizens or upset strategic interests, it could do more or less what it wanted at home. It could shut down U.S.-funded programs and silence critics by accusing them of operating without a license, sowing instability, or undermining the revolution. It could even dispatch requests to police departments worldwide asking countries to arrest 15 other NGO workers—including 12 Americans. Freedom House President David Kramer, who was assistant secretary of State for democracy, human rights, and labor until January 2009, says that the waiver “essentially said, ‘Go ahead, it’s OK to do this kind of thing. You let the Americans out. We really don’t care what you do to your civil society.’ ”

Attention to Egypt’s civil-society crisis has faded in Washington, but Mansour returned voluntarily to join Egyptian staffers who are still on trial—a decision that cost him his job. In the courtroom, they are confined to a cage. The prosecuting judges have indicated that the case against the 43 local and expatriate workers from foreign NGOs is just the first stage of a broader assault on civil society. With some 400 groups targeted for investigation, Mansour worries about the future of Egypt’s homegrown democracy advocates. “We’re the first line of defense. If they get us, they’ll get the rest,” he laments. Clinton’s waiver, Mansour says, was a clear message to the NGO community: Fight on your own.

The backlash to the Arab Spring is in full swing in Egypt, as the ruling class seeks to lock down control of the country before the planned transition to civilian rule in July. (Last weekend, just before the presidential runoff elections, Egypt’s military dissolved the new Islamist-led parliament and imposed an interim constitution sapping the president’s power.) By granting Cairo the full $1.3 billion without conditions, the United States has already signaled that, as during the Mubarak era, it is unwilling to rupture a crucial national-security relationship for the sake of democratic change. Other countries in the region—worried that the desire for reform might one day upend their own hold on power—took note.

Governments across the Arab world are copying Egypt’s example and cracking down on reform groups. And the backlash doesn’t just threaten civil-society movements where they were beginning to blossom; it also threatens to kill them where they haven’t yet taken root.

Washington’s effort to help Egypt’s transition went awry almost immediately, with the $65 million it sent directly to the civil-society organizations after the revolution. Egypt’s highly restrictive laws give the government discretion over what groups can work in the country or receive foreign funding. Some of the organizations that Washington considers key had applications pending for years, but Mubarak tacitly allowed them to operate anyway. Western officials, looking to make connections with a broader swath of the Egyptian people beyond the elites at the top, assumed that the new power structure in Cairo would revise the laws to accord with basic democratic rights. “It wasn’t that people said, ‘Oh, who cares about the law anymore,’” says Tamara Wittes, director of the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy, who was deputy assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs until January. “They said, ‘Well, these laws are no longer relevant.’”

That proved to be a dangerous assumption. The Egyptian establishment, angry about the influx of money that bypassed its authority, is pushing for an even more restrictive NGO law that would give government officials wide latitude to decide whether the civil-society groups are pursuing acceptable goals—and to disband them if they aren’t. The interim government’s proposal would allow Egypt to send officials to NGOs’ meetings and to veto candidates for their boards of directors. The human-rights committee of the newly elected (and now-dissolved) parliament developed a less restrictive option in May. It’s not clear whether the final law will be “an improvement or something worse,” says Kareem Elbayar, the Middle East legal adviser for the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law.

Both proposals would require groups to obtain the Egyptian government’s approval before accepting foreign money. The regime could force organizations dependent on such funding—especially human-rights and political opposition groups—to discontinue their work, Elbayar says. Meanwhile, over the past two months, the government has “aggressively denied” most foreign-funding requests and made it very hard for new civil-society organizations to register. And, Elbayar says, a tougher law could have far-reaching implications. “Egypt is a very influential country, and it would be a net loss for civil society in the region.… Restrictive governments are learning from one another.”

Events seem to bear him out. Within days of Clinton’s waiver, authorities in the United Arab Emirates raided two foreign NGOs—the National Democratic Institute and Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, a German think tank that promotes democracy—that were also targeted in Cairo. The UAE shuttered a branch of Gallup, the Washington-based polling organization. The regime there had tolerated those groups, which operated throughout the Gulf region, for years. But the Arab Spring frightened the monarchy. “The UAE was convinced by governments like Bahrain and Saudi Arabia that these organizations were problematic,” says Stephen McInerney, executive director of the Project on Middle East Democracy, a U.S.-based advocacy group. Those other Gulf nations, he says, told the Emirates, “Egypt’s going after them. It’s important for you to [do likewise] because these groups cause trouble.” Clinton was then in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, for a security conference. “We very much regret” the action taken against the NGOs, she said at the time. But she stressed that “our overriding interests to cooperate, particularly in the security arena, the antiterrorism arena, are ones that are paramount.”

Meanwhile, as part of what international human-rights groups are calling a wider crackdown on dissidents, the UAE has since March rounded up and detained at least 11 activists from the Reform and Social Guidance Association—a nonviolent Islamist political association calling for democratic reforms—even though the group had conducted a peaceful political discussion for many years. Another prominent activist was rearrested in May despite a previous pardon and release from detention; now he faces deportation.

Next door in Bahrain, Arab Spring protests by the disenfranchised majority Shiite population demanded that the Sunni rulers institute reforms. An independent inquiry last November, commissioned by the king, found that in response, Bahraini forces systematically raided homes of protesters, terrorized their occupants, and tortured detainees once in custody. At first, the United States held back a $53 million arms package pending the monarchy’s progress implementing reforms.

But Bahrain is a key ally, home of the U.S. 5th Fleet, and a counter to Iranian influence. In late January, Washington signed off on the sale of some military equipment around the same time that Bahrain barred several international human-rights groups, including Human Rights First and Physicians for Human Rights, from entering the country. The commander of Bahrain’s defense forces then accused 19 NGOs based in the United States of orchestrating a coup attempt against the government. Nevertheless, when the crown prince visited Washington in May, the Obama administration approved further sales for the island’s “external defense” that it had previously delayed—and now plans another weapons package. (It is still withholding some Humvees, advanced missiles, and other items such as small arms and tear gas that could be used for internal repression.)

The administration, to be sure, is walking a fine line, and the Arab Spring has made doing so even tougher. Washington needs Gulf nations to fight terrorism, provide oil, and counter Iran. Michael Posner, assistant secretary of State for democracy, human rights, and labor, says that the United States was “very clear” that it resumed arms sales to Bahrain only because of national-security interests. “We recognize there were a number of unresolved, very serious human-rights issues,” Posner says. “We weren’t extending military cooperation because human-rights issues had been dealt with successfully.… Those issues are still with us, and those are the things that we’re raising.” (See “Democracy’s March”.)

But without securing a specific implementation deadline for reforms or a quid pro quo for the weapons, President Obama could issue only a somewhat powerless call for reform. Bahrain is taking advantage. It jailed Nabeel Rajab, the president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, for three weeks in May; after being released, Rajab was rearrested this month. The Justice Ministry filed a lawsuit to dissolve the Islamic Action Society, or Amal, a political opposition group, this month as well. Bahraini activists who criticized the government at a United Nations human-rights review in Geneva were threatened, and the state media attacked them. “[This] is a new level of targeting of civil society,” says Brian Dooley of Human Rights First, who maintains that Bahrain also impeded the work of international NGOs. And Posner, there last week, told reporters that a court verdict that reduced, but did not eliminate, prison sentences against nine medics for their roles in the protests has “deeply disappointed” Washington. The convictions, he said, appear to be based partly on their criticism of the government’s actions.

Once, Bahraini protesters thought that Obama would be a friend, says Maryam al-Khawaja, the foreign-relations director of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. Now they think the United States is “part of the oppression…. [It’s] willing to do business as usual with a government that’s committing human-rights violations on a daily basis.” If Washington doesn’t ratchet up the pressure for reform or exact consequences for failing to do so, Khawaja says, anti-American sentiment will grow to the point where Bahrainis won’t want a U.S. base in their country—and may even welcome support from Iran.

Elsewhere in the Gulf, strict laws against civil-society advocates and a pervasive political climate that discourages dissent have long made it difficult (or impossible) for independent groups to operate. Unlike Arab Spring countries such as Tunisia and Egypt, where pocketbook issues largely drove the protests, oil wealth in the Gulf states pays for universal health care and tax-free income. But those governments also appear to be using their strict laws to quiet individual actors who call for change and to shut down unregistered groups.

In Oman, for example, Amnesty International has documented a wave of arrests of activists, bloggers, and writers as a mechanism to “criminalize dissenting opinions” and suppress any move toward broad reform. In June, the government’s public prosecutor announced legal action against anyone who publishes “offensive” writing that incites others to act “under the pretext of freedom of expression.” More than 30 people have been arrested. And in Saudi Arabia, the government this year imposed travel bans—lasting as long as 10 years—on several activists in an attempt to thwart their advocacy efforts abroad. Some, such as the reformer Mohammad al-Qahtani, are now on trial for supporting human rights.

Farther afield, Jordan, which has a strict NGO law, arrested many activists who were calling for wider political freedom, lower fuel and electricity prices, and an end to corruption. After the arrests in March, demonstrators marched for their release. Local papers described a rare show of unity in recent months as leftist activists joined with Islamists to protest the repression—and what both groups see as an ongoing crackdown on reformists.

In Libya, where the popular uprising overthrew dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi, many civil-society groups appear willing to work with Western countries. But McInerney, who visited recently, says that some government officials now worry that foreign funding will allow groups to carry out “sinister activities.” He says he heard high-level speculation about Egypt’s propaganda that the organizations were fronts for the CIA.

Although Libya’s developing NGO law seems to be emulating progressive legislation in Tunisia—the good-news story in the region—the government in June unilaterally announced a new provision: Foreign donors desiring to fund civil-society groups must register with the state. Moves here and across the region (outside high-profile cases in Egypt and Bahrain) have met with little, if any, public condemnation by American officials. The Obama administration, eager to preserve its flexibility in the region, shows no sign of conditioning its aid on governments’ respect for civil society and human rights.

What’s happening in the Gulf countries could foreshadow a broader, worldwide crackdown on civil-society groups. Since winning Russia’s presidential election in March, Vladimir Putin has been accusing Washington of supporting pro-democracy programs to fuel opposition-party protests. Freedom House’s Kramer also flagged Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Venezuela (which have, to varying degrees, blamed foreign funding for instability) as potential trouble spots. “If the second-largest recipient of U.S. aid”—Egypt—“can get away with this, then why can’t they?” Kramer wonders.

Even in Israel, the only liberal democracy in the Middle East, civil-society and human-rights groups are coming under more scrutiny. Last November, a ministerial committee passed a set of measures from right-wing parties barring “political” groups—loosely defined as those attempting to affect Israel’s political and security agenda—from receiving more than about $5,000 from a foreign government. The panel also approved a 45 percent tax on donations to these groups from states or international agencies such as the European Union and the United Nations. Some NGOs that receive foreign funding had been criticizing the Israeli occupation and publishing information about human-rights violations in Palestine, especially after the 2009 Gaza war. After strong criticism from Clinton and other U.S. officials, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is said to have quashed the legislation. Now it won’t head to the parliament for a vote—but even if it did, it is highly unlikely that the United States would cut off $3 billion in annual aid.

Just days after Mubarak fell, Mansour was invited to sit next to Clinton at the inaugural “Strategic Dialogue with Civil Society” at the State Department. “I was very happy to hear from you that U.S. foreign policy does not have to choose between oppressive governments and the aspiration of the people,” he told Clinton.

Now Mansour worries the Arab Spring could sputter if activists can’t advance the cause of civil society in his bellwether nation. He compares this moment to 2005. That year, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice proclaimed to an Egyptian audience that, after pursuing stability at the expense of democracy in the Middle East for decades and achieving neither, the United States would side with “impatient patriots” across the region. But then, Hamas won Palestinian elections, Iran’s proxies posed obstacles for democratization in Iraq and Lebanon, and Egypt spurned liberalizing reforms when the Muslim Brotherhood made unexpectedly strong gains in the 2005 elections.

In response, the Bush administration backed away from its “freedom agenda,” and the Arab Spring died (until it rose again on its own last year). “That’s what I fear may happen with this Arab Spring, if there isn’t enough support both from abroad and from within,” says Mansour, who sought political asylum in the U.S. in 2006 after Mubarak’s government harassed him for leading a coalition of NGOs to monitor elections.

Autocrats in the Arab world have long warned the United States that it faced a stark choice: Support us, or deal with the extremists. The first democratic elections in Tunisia and Egypt ushered in parliaments dominated by Islamist groups. The West is largely unfamiliar with these new players, and Washington might understandably overlook the new governments’ democratic failings for the sake of U.S. national-security. (See “Rise of the Islamists”.)

But one lesson of the Arab Spring is that no government is totally immune from its people’s demand for democratic freedoms. Washington can force illiberal rulers to answer these demands and, in doing so, risk upsetting its long-standing allies in a volatile region. Or it can grant foreign aid and maintain relations no matter how these regimes respond to opposition. That choice carries an often-overlooked risk, too: The United States could end up alienating the Arab populations that are the future of the Middle East—the very people whom Washington keeps promising to help. It would be a sad irony if the world’s oldest democracy found itself on the wrong side of history.

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