Saturday, September 20, 2003



The recent refusal of the Egyptian Government to allow registration of two human rights organizations reminds us once again of some of the strange bedfellows who become America’s ‘strategic allies’ and who regularly receive massive aid from US taxpayers. The billions of tax dollars the US has given to Egypt since Egypt pledged not to try again to destroy Israel demonstrates the primacy of ‘strategic interests’ and ‘national security considerations’ over principle. It may also provide something of a cautionary tale for the people of the United States.

Under a new law governing the activities of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), Egypt’s Ministry of Social Affairs last month rejected the registration of the New Woman Research Center and the application of the Land Center for Human Rights to register a new entity -- Awlad al-Ard (Sons of the Earth). The Ministry’s letter to the two organizations stated, "security agencies do not approve the registration…. "

The New Woman Research Center, founded in the early 1990s, raises public awareness of women's rights issues, including female genital mutilation and domestic violence. The Land Center for Human Rights, founded in 1996, works on economic and social rights issues, primarily in rural areas. The Center has produced a series of reports on agricultural child labor, land tenancy issues, and environmental problems, as well as other topics.

According to the widely respected Human Rights Watch, "these two groups have been spotlighting important human rights issues for years…By refusing to give them legal status, the government has confirmed that the new NGO law is intended to stifle civil society... There is nothing in the law requiring clearance by the security services…In banning these two groups the government has gone beyond even its own restrictive legislation."

The new NGO law, which passed the People's Assembly in 2002 despite widespread opposition from NGOs, significantly tightens state control over these types of organizations. It requires existing groups to apply for registration with the Ministry of Social Affairs, bars groups the state determines to be "threatening national unity [or] violating public order or morals", and prohibits them receiving funds from abroad without ministry approval. The ministry must approve nominees to the governing boards of NGOs and can deny requests to affiliate with international organizations. The ministry can dissolve an NGO at will, as well as freeze its assets and confiscate its property without a judicial order. The law provides criminal penalties for unauthorized NGOs and for those who form "clandestine organizations". In effect, these provisions criminalize many forms of informal or grassroots organizing.

The Land Center is appealing the government's decision. Says Human Rights Watch: "In Egypt as elsewhere, the state has a legitimate interest in registering civil societies, but in a way that allows citizens to exercise their basic political rights…If the past is any guide, the authorities will use this legislation to pounce on any group whose activities cross the very low threshold for dissent in Egypt today."

Against this background – and under considerable behind-the-scenes pressure from the US government -- Egypt’s ruling NDP party has proposed the creation of a new Council of Human Rights. According to the Egyptian government, the Council would be completely independent of the government, headed by leading public figures, and have the power to investigate human rights violations. But many independent and opposition political figures, as well as Egyptian intellectuals, have likened this initiative as tantamount to letting the fox guard the hen-house. Some point out that Egypt is branded by such global organizations as the United Nations Human Development Report (UNDP) and Freedom Watch as undemocratic or authoritarian. And our own US State Department’s annual Human Rights Report is highly critical of Egypt’s human rights record.

Why should all this concern the United States? Because our government considers Egypt a ‘moderating’ force in the Middle East, largely based on its efforts to assist in finding a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its long-standing crackdown on Islamic Fundamentalism, which began long before 9/11. That is the rationale for massive US economic assistance, including programs to curtail corruption, improve education and health services, increase productivity in agriculture, manufacturing and services, strengthen Egypt’s natural and physical infrastructure and, yes, enhance democracy and civil society.

It was Egypt’s ‘war on terror’ (long before that phrase was coined) that gave birth to the so-called Emergency Law back in 1981. It is under this draconian law that thousands of people are detained without charge on suspicion of illegal terrorist or political activity, and that the Egyptian Government uses to infringe on citizens' privacy rights, restrict freedom of the press and curtail freedom of assembly and association.

This is the same law that convicted civil society advocate Dr. Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a professor at the American University in Cairo and a dual US-Egyptian citizen, on charges including seeking to harm the reputation of the State and accepting funds from the European Union without government permission. After three trials – and, to our great credit, relentless pressure from the US Government, as well as from UN agencies and human rights groups worldwide -- Dr. Eddin was acquitted. But his prosecution and imprisonment has had a chilling deterrent effect on the activities of human rights organizations.

According to the 2002 US State Department Report on Human Rights, the Emergency Law continues to restrict many basic liberties. Security forces continue to arrest and detain suspected members of terrorist groups. In combating terrorism, the security forces continue to mistreat and torture prisoners, arbitrarily arrest and detain persons, and hold detainees in prolonged pretrial detention. And in actions unrelated to the antiterrorist campaign, local police kill, torture, and otherwise abuse both criminal suspects and other persons.

The importance of Egypt’s vigilance against terrorism cannot be underestimated: it helps to protect the entire international community. The danger is that Egypt will throw away the baby with the bathwater. The reason is that NGOs can too easily find themselves tarred with the same brush as terrorist organizations. The irony here is that the loser will be Egypt itself. NGOs provide myriad services that the Egyptian government can’t or won’t perform. Traditionally, these volunteer-based groups help make societies more vibrant, inclusive, participative and effective.

Which brings us back to the US taxpayers who are helping to finance the current regime and, indirectly, helping it tighten its stranglehold on basic human freedoms. No one expects Egypt – or any other Middle East country – to move from authoritarian police state to democracy overnight. But the US has had substantial aid programs in Egypt for more than 25 years. Is it not time for the US Government to impose the principle of ‘tough love’ on Egypt and the kindred authoritarian regimes we support? Do we not have the right – indeed, the obligation – to demand that overseas beneficiaries of our largesse begin to meet at least the most fundamental criteria of civil society -- beginning with a lot more respect for individual civil liberties?

And do we Americans not have the right -- and no less the obligation – to be relentlessly vigilant lest the sweeping powers given to our own Attorney General under the Patriot Act and other post-9/11 legislation morph into our very own Emergency Law?

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The author has managed a number of aid programs in Egypt funded by the US Agency for International Development.