Thursday, December 29, 2011

Egypt Security Raids US, German and Egyptian NGOs

By William Fisher

Seeming to borrow a page from the Hosni Mubarak playbook, Egyptian security forces yesterday raided the offices of two Egyptian, two American and one German non-governmental organization and held their staffs inside these offices while police and prosecutors search their papers and computers.

The reason for the raids is still unclear, but it is known that these are among the not-for-profit groups who have registered strong objections to the so-called NGO law drafted by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) IN November 2011.

According to the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), officers – in uniform and civilian clothes – raided the Arab Center for Independence of Justice and Legal Professions (ACIJP) and The Budgetary and Human Rights Observatory, both Egyptian NGOs; The National Democratic Institute (NDI), an American NGO with offices in Cairo and Assuit); the International Republican Institute (IRI), an American organization with an office in Cairo; Freedom House, an American organization with an office in Egypt, and Konrad Adenauer, a German NGO.

The staff members of these organizations were reportedly held in their offices while. Police searched their papers, laptops and computers.

Staff members of the six organizations were warned from using their cell phones, laptops and computers; and were isolated from contact with the outside world. Additionally, with regards to the ACIJP office at least, authorities restricted access to the entire building, preventing people from entering or exiting the building.

ANHRI said that “storming these offices is related to the campaign led by the Supreme Council for Armed Forces (SCAF) and the Egyptian government starting from June 2011 against civil society organizations and more specifically human rights groups in Egypt.”

The NDI, IRI, and Freedom House have been previously investigated by the ministry of justice on charges of receiving foreign funding, while the Arab Center for the Independence of Justice and Legal Professions has not been yet investigated. An Investigation of the Budgetary and Human Rights Observatory was due to start next Sunday, January 1, 2012.

ANHRI said the storming of NGO offices is “an unprecedented move in the recent history of Egyptian NGOs,” adding that in February 2011, during the 18 days Egyptian revolution, “Military Police stormed the office of Hisham Mubarak Law Center, an Egyptian NGO based in Cairo, and arrested several of its members as well as staff members of other international organizations who were present at the scene.”

The Egyptian newspaper, Al Ahram, reported, “In Mubarak's time the government never dared to do such a thing," said prominent human rights activists Negad El-Bourai on his Twitter account.”

"We are still not sure of anything," said Emad Mubarak from the Freedom of Expression Center, "however their excuse could be that they are auditing the files after accusations that many NGOs are receiving foreign funds."

In August, a group of Egyptian NGOs sent an urgent appeal to the UN Special Rapporteurs on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association, the Rights to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, and on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders. It is unclear what action the UN body took.

Thirty-nine Egyptian NGOs participated in the appeal, submitting a complaint condemning the campaign against civil society associations and the incitement to hatred, as well as government attempts to further restrict the activities of these organizations and the investigations launched by the Supreme State Security Prosecution.

In November, 2011, these 39 human rights and development organizations drafted a new law to regulate NGOs and sent a copy to then Prime Minister Essam Sharaf.

The proposed law provided for the autonomy of Egyptian civil society organizations from the state and its administrative apparatus. At the same time, it guaranteed the transparent operation of these organizations in terms of their activities and sources of funding. Under the proposed law, civil society groups and NGOs could be established by notification at a primary court, and the Ministry of Justice would be the competent administrative body. The law also provided for the freedom to join and form international and local networks and alliances. No action has been taken on this draft law.

ANHRI said that, “Since their formation human rights organizations have been at the forefront of proposing laws to liberate civic action. This law is one of many proposed since 1985. In 2009, during the Mubarak era, an alternative law was proposed by the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies and the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights; however, it was disregarded by the regime.”

The group added,” In light of the continuation of the Mubarak regimes policy towards civil society organizations, including interference in civil society operations by the administrative and security sectors, the undersigned organizations now proffer the same law in a new initiative joined by several more groups. In addition, a media campaign has been launched to smear civil society, particularly human rights groups, in order to damage the credibility of their reports and their criticisms of the human rights record of the SCAF and its government.

ANHRI went further. It said this campaign has recently “taken more deplorable measures even than what was attempted by Mubarak himself. The undersigned organizations propose this law as a democratic alternative to the current law, passed in 2002, which gives arbitrary powers to the Ministry of Social Solidarity and Justice and permits daily intervention by the security apparatus in the operation of civil society associations and NGOs.

The group said its alternative law was “drafted with due consideration for international standards, aiming to rectify the current law’s incompatibility with such standards, as this incompatibility was a constant source of criticism of the Egyptian government, especially during the UN Universal Periodic Review of the human rights record in Egypt conducted by the UN Human Rights Council in 2010.”

It noted that one of the recommendations to the Egyptian government was to “pass legislation that allows NGOs to accept foreign funding without prior government approval, legislation that allows for increased freedom of association and assembly, and legislation allowing labor unions to operate without joining the Egyptian Trade Union Federation”.

The 39 signatories to the letter of objection said that, after the January 25 Revolution, they “hoped that civil society would be freed from the bureaucratic grasp of the state and its security apparatus and that it would be given the opportunity to perform its patriotic role by entrenching democratic norms, respect for human rights, and social justice in post-revolution Egypt.”

However, they added, “this hope soon faded in light of the unchanged mindset of the regime and its failure in administering the transitional phase. In fact, the investigating authorities currently looking into the activities of human rights groups are relying on reports prepared by the dissolved State Security Investigations of the Mubarak era – the very apparatus whose practices were one of the main reasons Egyptians revolted to bring down the regime.”

The signatories concluded, “It is a bitter irony that the interim government and the SCAF are using the same justifications espoused by the extreme right-wing Israeli government led by Benjamin Netanyahu to force through legal amendments to limit the freedom of human rights organizations in Israel on the pretext of protecting Israeli national security. This is the justification cited by the Egyptian regime in its current assault on human rights groups—“protecting Egyptian national security”—to use legal, administrative, and security means to harass human rights groups with the goal of covering up crimes committed by the regime.”

“While Israel hopes to silence those defending the rights of the Arab minority and Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, the Egyptian regime seeks to silence those who decry its practices, such as the use of excessive force against unarmed demonstrators, the referral of civilians to military trials, torture by the military police, the Maspero massacre of Copts, and other crimes,” they said.

NDI and IRI were created in 1983 as two of the four core institutes of the US National Endowment for Democracy, which was established by Congress in that year to act as a grant-making foundation, distributing funds to private organizations for the purpose of promoting democracy abroad. The two organizations correspond to the political parties bearing their respective names.

Freedom House was established in 1941 with the quiet encouragement of then President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Its initial mission was to encourage popular support for American involvement in World War II at a time when isolationist sentiments were running high in the United States. Today it is best known for the publication “Freedom in the World”, the Freedom House annual survey of global policies and civil liberties, which it began in 1973.

The 39 signatories to today ANHRI statement included such groups as the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights the Association for Human Rights Legal Aid, the Human Rights Association for the Assistance of the Prisoners, the Center for Trade Union and Workers’ Services, the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, the Group for Human Rights Legal Aid, the Land Center for Human Rights, the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights, and the Hisham Mubarak Law Center.

What does all this mean in terms of the January revolution? The Public Record asked an American aid consultant who has lived in Cairo for 25 years. He told us it’s not absolutely safe to use his name, but this is what he told us:

“The smear campaign conducted by the SCAF against civil society groups is appalling. No one has a clue about what they’re thinking, but they’ve apparently swallowed Mubarak’s whole story about non-profit groups being responsible for Egypt’s unrest. The fact is that these organizations are the last line of defense against authoritarian, capricious and senseless limitation of these groups’ abilities. With SCAF in charge, we really didn’t need a revolution!”