By William Fisher
Despite a US Congressional warning exempting American democracy-promotion funds from having to obtain prior approval from the Government of Egypt, the Mubarak regime - a major recipient of US aid and hailed by he Bush Administration as a staunch ally in the "global war on terror" -- has shut down one of the country's premiere human rights organizations.
Earlier this month, Egypt dissolved the Association for Human Rights Legal Aid (AHRLA), based on its alleged breach of the Associations Law that prohibits NGOs from receiving funding from abroad without the prior authorization of the Ministry of Social Solidarity.
The Egyptian Government currently receives some $ 2 billion economic and in military assistance from the US - behind only to Israel and Iraq. American assistance to Egypt began as a reward for Egypt's recognition of Israel following the Camp David Accords 1979, and the two countries' establishment of full diplomatic relations.
AHRLA chairperson Tarek Khater said his organization has not received any foreign funding since 2005 when it obtained a grant from the US-based National Endowment for Democracy (NED).
At that time, he added, AHRLA submitted more than a dozen requests to obtain permission from the Ministry of Social Solidarity to use these funds but has never received any response from the authorities. To avoid the paralysis of the organization and continue to carry out its projects, AHRLA eventually decided to start using the funds.
The NDI, a private democracy-promotion organization authorized and funded by the US Government, was not immdiately available to comment on the size and purpose of its grant to the AHRLA.
Earlier this month, the official receiver appointed by the dissolution decree came to the AHRLA office accompanied by a number of security officers and confiscated the organization's checkbooks to prevent it from using its funds.
AHRLA has appealed the dissolution decree before the Egyptian Administrative Court and a hearing has been scheduled for October 21, 2007.
AHRLA said the government's decision to shut down the organization "appears to be in reprisal for its activities exposing human rights violations in Egypt and providing legal assistance to victims of torture."
In a statement, more than 25 of the most prominent human rights groups in Egypt denounced the decision to shut down AHRLA as a measure taken by the government "in retaliation to the association's significant role in exposing the institutionalized and widespread torture wave hitting Egypt."
The organizations declared, "The attempt to shut down AHRLA will not pass, it's a show-down between us and this police-minded government. The government has no other resort but to reveal its true domineering face and send us to jail or to acknowledge the right of the civil society to work freely and independently."
The shutdown came in spite of a declaration in the US State and Foreign Operations Appropriations bill for Fiscal Year 2008, that "with respect to the provision of assistance for Egypt for democracy, human rights and governance activities, the organizations implementing such assistance and the specific nature of that assistance shall not be subject to the prior approval by the Government of Egypt."
AHRLA has been involved in a sustained effort to address the pervasive use of torture by the police and security forces and to support victims by representing them before the courts on a pro bono basis.
This is not the first time the Egyptian government has used "prior approval of foreign funding" to crack down on the human rights community. In 1998, Hafez Abu Saada, Secretary General of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR) was taken into detention and accused of taking money from foreign sources to defame the reputation of Egypt abroad. The accusations related to an EOHR report about human rights violations in Upper Egypt.
In 2000, Egyptian-American sociology professor Saad Eddin Ibrahim, chair of Ibn Khaldoun Center for Development Studies (ICDS), an NGO that promotes human rights and democratic reform in Egypt, was convicted along with other researchers at ICDS on charges of "receiving foreign funding without permission", "disseminating false information abroad" and "misappropriation of funds", and sentenced to seven years' hard labor. Following an international campaign in support of Dr. Ibrahim and intense pressure from the international community, Egypt's Court of Cassation ultimately declared his earlier trial improper and acquitted him and his associates at the Ibn Khaldoun Center of all charges. The ICDS was accused of accepting a grant from the European Community to make a film promoting voting rights and encouraging citizen participation in elections.
Among AHRLA's clients is the family of Mohamed Abdel Kader el-Sayed, who was reportedly tortured to death by a State Security officer. The case of al-Sayed was brought before the courts by the AHRLA resulting in the first prosecution since 1986 of a State Security officer for torture and ill-treatment. However, despite the solid forensic evidence provided by AHRLA, the Sate Security officer suspected of torturing al-Sayed to death was acquitted by the court on September 5, 2007, the very same day that the decision to close the organization was announced.
The question of requiring government authorization in order for NGOs to receive funding from abroad has long been a controversial aspect of the Egyptian law on associations. In her report to the U.N. General Assembly in 2004, Hina Jilani, the U.N. Special Representative on Human Rights Defenders, said, "Given the limited resources available for human rights organizations at the local level, legal requirements of prior authorization for international funding have seriously affected the ability of human rights defenders to carry out their activities. In some cases, they have seriously endangered the very existence of human rights organizations. The ability of human rights defenders to carry out their activities rests on their ability to receive funds and utilize them without undue restriction."
She recommended that "Access to funds, including from foreign sources, for the purpose of defending human rights, should be ensured and facilitated by the law." The Government, ruled by the aging Hosni Mubarak since 1981, chose to ignore her recommendation.
The shutdown of AHRLA follows a number of repressive measures taken in recent months by the government in what appears to be a clampdown on the independent Egyptian human rights community. In December 2006, the Governor of al-Qalyubiyah province issued a decision to shut down the Ahalina Center for Egyptian Family Support and Development that provides legal aid as well as health and social services to the deprived inhabitants of the city of Shubra Al-Khayma. The closure of the Ahalina Center appeared to be a reprisal for its public criticism of the governor's policies.
In April 2007, the Egyptian authorities closed down the headquarters and two branches of the Center for Trade Union and Workers Services (CTUWS), an independent NGO that provides legal aid to workers and monitors the situation of labor rights in Egypt. To justify the shut down of the CTUWS, the government claimed that the organization was inciting workers to strike and constituted a "threat to national security".
Following its closure, the CTUWS submitted a request to Ministry of Social Solidarity to register as the Center for Trade Unions and Human Affairs, but its request was rejected on August 14, 2007, for unexplained "security reasons."
These developments come amid fears among civil society organizations that a bill to amend the Associations Law of 2002, drafted by Ministry of Social Solidarity officials without any input from them, will impose new restrictions on NGOs. The Ministry of Social Solidarity has reportedly finalized the amendment bill, which is expected to be examined soon by parliament.
Human rights activists charge that the bill will particularly target a large number of human rights or legal aid groups that have chosen to register as civil companies or law firms to avoid the heavy restrictions imposed by the Associations Law. The amendments are expected to compel these groups to sacrifice their independence by obliging them to subject themselves to the onerous restrictions provided for in the 2002 Law.
A number of human rights groups, including the Hisham Mubarak Law Center and the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (HRINFO), have offered to share their offices with AHRLA in case it is forced out of its office by the authorities.
On September 16, representatives from civil society gathered outside the AHRLA office to show their support and solidarity. A series of peaceful protest actions have been scheduled for the next few weeks by civil society groups including the closing down of their websites on September 23, a strike on September 30, a demonstration on October 4 and a sit-in before the Administrative Court on October 21.
The crackdown on human rights and other civil society organizations is not limited to Egypt; similar measures are being taken by authoritarian governments throughout the Middle East and North Africa.
While consistently being noted in the State Department's annual Human Rights reports, this trend has drawn little comment from the Bush Administration, despite the president's pledge in his second State of the Union message to "spread freedom" throughout the world. Administration officials have implied that they see a conflict between fighting terror and promoting democracy, and that counter-terrorism is their highest priority.
But many other observers have labeled this a faux conflict and said the US should have the skills and the political will to do both.
For example, Amnesty International's Mary Shaw told Truthout, "Egypt's decision to shut down the AHRLA appears to be a consequence not of any financial mismanagement by the organization but rather an attempt by the Egyption government to silence a group that supports victims of torture and works to expose human rights violations in Egypt."
She added, "The Egyptian government says that it opposes torture even as it persecutes those who work to expose torture cases and assist the victims. And now those victims will lose access to the social and legal services that AHRLA provided.Actions speak louder than words, and the world is watching."