Egypt: regime targets activists, NGOs

Egypt: regime targets activists, NGOs

The Egyptian government is adopting more sophisticated tactics to silence democracy and civil society activists, according to the writer and sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim. Individual members of the ruling National Democratic Party with no legal standing are filing lawsuits against dissidents, even though the country’s weak and divided liberals represent no major threat to the Mubarak regime.

Ibrahim told a Washington, DC, meeting yesterday that “NDP cronies”, posing as concerned citizens, allow the regime to claim innocence and distance itself from what has become a concerted campaign of harassment and intimidation. Ibrahim faces 21 lawsuits, including a claim that he undermined Egypt’s reputation by writing an op-ed in the Washington Post criticizing the regime of Hosni Mubarak, and other lawsuits seeking to strip him of his nationality. NDP members have also filed legal requests to close the Ibh Khaldun Center, then a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy, with which Ibrahim has long been associated.

Ibrahim had proposed that U.S. aid to Egypt be closely linked to specific political and economic reforms. He had already served two years in jail for “tarnishing Egypt’s image” and receiving foreign funds “without permission.” Ironically, notes the Washington Institute’s J. Scott Carpenter, Ibrahim was only freed after the White House conditioned future aid on his release, suggesting that conditioning military aid may be the only avenue open to prompt reform.

The Arab Center for the Independence of the Judiciary and the Legal Profession is concerned that the judiciary is being wielded for political purposes and politically-motivated or hesba cases continue to be brought in violation of article 3 of the Pleadings Law. The law was amended in 1996 to prevent radical Islamists bringing hesba cases against artists and other cultural figures.

Rooted in Islamic jurisprudence and “originally a tool of civic empowerment allowing any citizen to hold fellow citizens, and even the state, accountable for violating religious virtue,” journalist Daanish Faruqi notes, hisba lawsuits more recently been “used to silence dissent and stifle civic engagement.”

The Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights, a former NED grantee, has reported over 500 cases of police abuse in recent years, including 167 deaths that it “strongly suspects were the result of torture and mistreatment.” Security services targeted Facebook activists whose weapons are keyboards and digital cameras.

The regime’s growing repression of independent voices highlights the need for fundamental reform, writes Michelle Dunne, editor of the Arab Reform Bulletin. The next U.S. administration should urge the regime to re-institute presidential term limits and to redefine the role of the security services. “Limiting the president to two terms, which all opposition and civil society groups now demand, would mean that the pharaonic, president-for-life system has finally ended,” she writes.

Reforming the internal security services is far more complicated business, she suggests, but essential to any political opening. There is “little hope for the development of a healthy spectrum of political forces“, Dunne writes, so long as “security officers infiltrate opposition parties and sow dissent, causing parties to implode if they become too problematic in the eyes of authorities.” They even exceed “the already extensive powers provided by the state of emergency to obstruct mobilization, fundraising and other activities by parties, movements and civil society organizations.”

A lack of internal democracy and transparency, coupled with an imbalance between the voluntary and professional aspects of NGOs undermine the ability and effectiveness of civil society as a catalyst for democratization in Egypt, argues Nadine H. Abdalla.

Islamist NGOs tend to be more effective than their secular counterparts, yet tend to be excluded from external funding. “The result is two categories of organizations, she notes, “secular ones with limited effectiveness, a weak social base, and access to outside aid; and Islamist ones with greater efficiency, a stronger social base, and no outside aid.” The two groups rarely cooperate and thus are unable to act as a catalyst for pressuring the government.

The regime has conducted a relentless and largely successful pushback against NGOs, argues James G. McGann, featuring such legal measures as funding restrictions and intrusive government monitoring, as well as extra-legal measures, including the suppression and harassment of leaders and threats of violence. 

The ruling NDP has also mobilized chauvinist sentiment against foreign-funded NGOs in particular. “By placing the world against Egypt in an “us vs. them” dichotomy,” he writes, “those critical of the work of NGOs can undermine any nationalist or patriotic reason put forth by NGO activists for justifying the work that they do for Egyptian society.”