Heba Morayef: A guardian of rights in post-revolutionary Egypt

AhramNominated for Time’s prestigious top 100 list, Human Rights Watch country director talks about the ongoing fight for freedoms in Egypt (VIDEO)
From antagonising ruling generals to eating doughnuts with Mubarak ministers, meet Human Rights Watch Egypt Director Heba Morayef, once described by a US radio station as Egypt’s guardian of human decency.

A familiar face of civil society, Morayef, who prefers to hide behind her work, was propelled into the spotlight when she was nominated for Time’s Top 100, alongside internationally renowned comedian Bassem Youssef and President Mohamed Morsi himself.

Although slightly embarrassed that her name appeared on the potential list of “most influential people in the world” Morayef does admit that her presence there is a good sign.

“I think it’s interesting that one of the people on that list is from the human rights community – that’s something that President Mohamed Morsi, if he ever hears about it, perhaps should think on,” Morayef says from the control room of HRW in Cairo’s walled-in district of Garden City.

Growing up in Alexandria, from an Egyptian-Australian background, Morayef realised early on that unless you were involved in the Muslim Brotherhood “there wasn’t much going on politically there.”

She moved to Cairo to study politics and went on to specialise in international law before segueing into human rights.

The Mubarak era

In the dark pre-revolution days of 2010, Morayef joined Human Rights Watch, the only organisation to have the dubious privilege of being allowed access to Egypt’s notorious jails.

Her first gig was the infamous 2010 parliamentary elections – one of the final straws that pushed the nation to revolt – during which she was largely helping the now-ruling Muslim Brotherhood.

Back then a banned group under attack, Morayef worked on securing the release of members of the Islamist group arrested while campaigning. The Brotherhood, she adds, were very active in pushing for human rights, a fact now she says is “fairly ironic.”

At that time rights groups had very little access to the presidency; however, Morayef is one of the few who met with the ruling elite.

“We had a very surreal meeting with the assistant minister of interior, state security investigations…. where they just gave us the party line while serving us doughnuts, which then were not easy to come by in Cairo.”

The ministry was typically unresponsive but Morayef says 2010 was a special year as discussions about human rights were at the centre, particularly after the brutal death of 28 year-old Alexandrian Khaled Said, which prompted sustained nationwide protests ultimately leading to revolution.

During those tumultuous 18 days, Morayef admits she went to Tahrir Square “as an Egyptian… but I’m no frontliner.”

After Mubarak’s ouster, what followed for the human rights community, Morayef says, was a brief honeymoon period then the start of an ongoing rollercoaster.

Fighting for rights under military rule

“In the immediate aftermath… there was a new openness towards human rights organisations,” she says, describing her excitement at entering Cairo’s infamous state television building for the first time.

She was interviewed by state-run channel Nile TV, a place that during the Mubarak-era would have never embraced those pushing a rights agenda.

Then, in an unprecedented move in 2011, Human Rights Watch was allowed to meet with the then-ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

The closed council of generals, who had never previously interacted with civil society groups, did not take kindly to Morayef’s agenda.

“We talked about military trials, torture and trials against journalists and virginity tests,” she explains. Their initial response to the sexual assault of detained female protesters by members of the armed forces was to admit to HRW that it was a “normal procedure” that “happens in all military prisons in Egypt.”

“They weren’t used to dealing with us, General Mohamed El-Assar [now assistant defence minister] lost his temper twice and started shouting during the meeting.”

After this and following a backlash from the rights community, the army denied the accusations of assault and the doctors accused of performing virginity tests were acquitted.

The tide had clearly changed.

In November that same year, security forces raided the offices of 17 NGOs and a trial began. Forty-three mainly Egyptian employees were in the dock on felony charges and still face potential seven-year jail sentences.

This saw an ongoing clampdown on foreign funding that has seen organisations close or be forced to let staff go, Morayef adds, crippling civil society in Egypt.

 

The Brotherhood moving forward

Morayef was cautiously optimistic in June 2012, when the news broke that Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi had won the presidential election.

“I was hopeful because when it comes to torture and military trials, those were the issues that the Brotherhood suffered from the most; that was the context that I came to know them.”

Morsi appeared to move in the right direction when he set up a fact-finding committee in July of the same year.

However, almost one year on, the committee’s 700-page report has yet to be made public. Instead, the committee was forced to leak sections of the report, which documents the authorities ordering the use of live ammunition in Suez among other abuses, to the media, sparking international uproar.

The real departure point for Morayef, however, was Morsi’s November Constitutional Declaration, which rendered all presidential decrees as well as the Constituent Assembly from judicial appeal.

“We started hearing Morsi use the language of [Mubarak-era minister of interior] Habib El-Adly. He was taking the side of the police, no question of accountability – there were many speeches saying that the police played an honourable role during the revolution.”

A few weeks later, the draft constitution, which had been the subject of bitter debate, was pushed through.

Morayef was one of the few commentators frantically monitoring the lengthy voting process during the constitution-drafting body’s final session.

“That day was an insult to Egypt… I had been tracking all the different drafts since November, I was informally engaged with some of the committee and we had been doing legal analysis,” she explains.

However in the final hour, new language was introduced. One of the worst examples of this for Morayef was Article 31, which prohibits insulting the individual: “it is that broad, and everyone clapped.”

Bogged down in syntactic details, “they were discussing the position of commas.”

Legislative landscape

The most immediate threat to the human rights community now, Morayef says, is new legislation.

Two controversial draft laws governing NGOs and demonstrations are currently being discussed by the Shura Council.

Morayef’s cutting analysis of the demonstration legislation, a report ironically commissioned by former justice minister Ahmed Mekki himself, led the Shura Council to accuse Human Rights Watch last month of “meddling in domestic affairs,” an allegation, Morayef said, that Mubarak would frequently use to protect the police state.

“It is surreal,” Morayef adds, “to be arguing in 2013 for the rights of civil society and freedom of association to exist.”

The current manifestation of the NGO law is, in Morayef’s words, deeply restrictive and endangers the ability of both international and Egyptian groups to operate in Egypt.

“The law requires international organisations to apply to a committee upon which the Egyptian General Intelligence sit,” Morayef explains. “Once registered you have to apply for permission for every activity, including renting an office or travelling out of Cairo.”

The NGO law itself has raised larger questions about the problems between the remnants of the deep state and the Brotherhood in government.

The initial draft discussed in parliament just before it was dissolved in 2012 was authored by the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and Morayef says was less restrictive. After all, she adds, the Islamist group themselves will have to register under it: the ultimate guarantee of progressive legislation.

However, the language of 2013 version, which was largely drafted by the Cabinet, Morayef says comes from the Ministry of Social Affairs.

“We’ve compared the two and [the current restrictive draft] is copied and pasted from a Ministry of Social Affairs law which is very much representative of the security establishment.”

Taking its toll – hope on the horizon?

Two years on after the 18 day-uprising which toppled Mubarak, Morayef predicts a deterioration in human rights moving forward.

NGOs continue to document widespread abuses, including extra-judicial killings, political prisoners, torture, excessive use of force by the security forces and a rising trend of sectarian violence.

Yet no steps have been taken towards resolving these issues.

For Morayef, managing the expectations of those she is trying to help has been the toughest side of the job. Fighting for justice for the families of those killed by security forces, she cites as an example, is a long-term battle that rights groups are struggling to win.

However, the human rights community, she believes, has helped Egypt gain serious ground.

The combined effort of rights groups and revolutionary campaigns like No Military Trials for Civilians in documenting and publicising military abuses, she believes, contributed to a shift from military to civilian rule.

There are tentative signs of change on the horizon.

“I don’t think there are any guarantees against a return to authoritarianism,” Morayef concludes, “but ultimately people are no longer afraid. I think that is out best guarantee of continued mobilisation for social justice.”

The Trial: NGO staffers speak up about political dogfight

 

Behind the ongoing NGO trial case is a political spat between the US administration and the former Egyptian government, say defendants speaking out for the first time

The fate of Egypt’s civil society remains hung in the balance as the Egyptian government struggles to redraft controversial NGO legislation and civic associations await the verdict of the foreign NGO trial, which was recently adjourned for the tenth time.

Forty-three employees from five international NGOs are facing jail sentences for being part of unregistered organisations and hence received illegal funding.

The case bought to international attention Egypt’s civic association laws, among some of the most restrictive in the world according to global monitor the International Centre for NGO Law.

The infamous Law 84 of 2002 dictates that all NGOs must be registered with Egypt’s ministries, who have the right to monitor activity and funding, and to dissolve them. Administrative mistakes are punishable in criminal courts.

Many NGOs in Egypt remain unlicensed, often as a means of avoiding government control. If the 43 are found guilty, this would set a crippling precedent that could result in a mass crackdown.

While a new draft law — in its third incarnation since last year’s 18-day uprising — reportedly relaxes the government stranglehold on local NGOs, the situation for foreign NGOs remains unchanged.

This development does not bode well for the 43 in the dock.

Largely forgotten by international media after all but two of the international defendants were smuggled out of the country in April 2012 and cameras were banned from the court room, those involved are now willing to speak up about what really happened.

The case, they say, was always political.

Egyptian backlash at US “soft power”

“It was a fight between two countries, America and Egypt, and the defendants are in the middle,” says Sarwat Abdel-Shahid, lawyer for the National Democratic Institute (NDI), one of the US NGOs whose employees are on trial.

“The trigger was the disputed $150 million of USAID and whether any of this money should have been spent on democracy programmes,” explains a source close to the case who wished to remain anonymous. The US had previously withheld this money, the source continued, as Egypt failed to fulfil specific criteria.

Within a week of Mubarak’s ouster, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced a multi-million dollar grant, some of which would go to NGOs promoting “democracy and good governance.”

A 2004 communiqué between former Secretary of State Colin Powel and tthen Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit affirmed that the US government could fund chosen local and international NGOs directly.

Consequently, USAID bypassed the Egyptian government, confirming to Ahram Online that it “fully distributed” $65 million to civil society organisations (including unregistered groups) in April 2011.

The millions of dollars of funding enraged then Minister of International Cooperation Fayza Abul-Naga, explains Abdel-Shahid, “who wanted the money to go directly to the ministry and be distributed as it wished.”

In August 2011, Abul-Naga and the Ministry of Justice launched a “fact-finding mission” into unlicensed foreign-funded civil society organisations. State security warned that these groups could be charged with high treason.

“It was much bigger than the government thought it would ever be,” recalls Hafsa Halawa, a British-Egyptian NDI programme assistant, who is currently facing trial.

Within hours of 17 NGO offices being raided in December last year, photos were broadcast across international news channels.

“They stripped us bare five days before the elections, during which we worked,” adds Robert Becker, the only American NGO employee who stayed in Egypt to face trial.

The same government that had shut down their offices, Becker explains, gave NDI accreditation to monitor the parliamentary elections a week later.

During the second round of elections in mid-January, the employees were called in for questioning.

“I was interrogated for hours about events that took place in 2006, when I arrived in the country for the first time in July 2011, ” explains Becker.

Halawa says that she was asked “whether I thought the US had violated the Camp David Accords by giving out the $65 million package.”

Meanwhile, Rawda Ali, another NDI programme assistant, was questioned about the “destruction our organisation had caused to the Egyptian economy.”

On 6 February, the employees described finding out they were on a list of 43 individuals facing trial from a televised press conference.

“In my 21 years of being a judge I have never seen anything like this before,” comments Abdel-Shahid about the unorthodox public announcement. None of the defendants had been informed of the charges against them before it was said on air.

“[On TV] the prosecutor called us spies, said we were working for foreign governments to spread chaos,” explains Ali. “Mostafa Bakri called for our execution.”

Their names, passport numbers, addresses and telephone numbers were then put online.

Criminally indicted, the foreigners leave

It became clear that the organisations themselves were not on trial: the employees faced felony charges as individuals. Even though, Abdel-Shahid explains, being “unlicensed” is an administrative error which under Egyptian law should be a “misdemeanour.”

“It was a technical argument. The NGO Law carries a maximum jail sentence of three months and a LE1000 fine for employees, or six months if you set up the organisation,” added the source. “They looked hard into the penal code and manipulated it.”

Many of the organisations whose employees are still in the dock were functioning for years under the watchful eye of relevant Egyptian ministries.

NDI employees told Ahram Online how they had been applying for registration since 2006 and had a letter from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who they frequently contacted, approving their documents.

Under this informal agreement, the NDI trained the majority of Egypt’s political parties ahead of parliamentary elections.

The head of the Supreme Electoral Commission and Court of Cassation, who had lauded the NDI for their work, Halawa says, announced in February that the 43 accused were not permitted to leave the country as they were all facing criminal charges. In response, the US government threatened to withdraw all economic aid.

The same judge then briefly reversed the felony charges, allowing the travel ban to be lifted for two days — long enough for a US government plane to evacuate all the internationals, bar one.

“On 2 March, the day after they had left, the judge threw us back into felony court … New court, new cage, new judge,” explains Halawa.

When asked how they felt about the departure of their international colleagues, there was an awkward silence. “Let’s just say I was surprised when I saw the video footage online of the plane leaving,” Halawa says carefully.

The exodus of the foreigners, who were mostly senior members of staff, had a significant impact on Robert, as he is now being charged as a manager not an employee, which could carry a heftier jail sentence.

“I wasn’t in charge. I had four bosses above me,” he told Ahram Online. “But I’m the most senior one left here in Egypt … I was just a political party trainer.”

The NDI fired Robert when he refused to leave the country.

“How dare we come to Egypt, operate and hire Egyptian staff, convince them it is a good organisation to work for and then abandon them?” he adds.

The NDI is still paying the salaries of their Egyptian employees; their bail money was covered by the USAID grant. However, after the foreigners left, “everyone was less worried.”

“I can honestly say since 26 January [2012] my direct boss has not been in touch.” Halawa explains. There have been emails and text messages, they add, but that is it.

Sham trial?

The prosecution witness statements and evidence submitted illustrate the real motive behind the charges.

“Abul-Naga gave a two hour historical testimony of Egypt-US relations over funding economic aid,” recalls Halawa. “She dug her own grave by admitting that it was all about the US Congress’s unilateral decision to move the money.”

Abul-Naga accused the defendants of allegedly colluding with opposition movements within the security forces to instigate the events of 25 January, Ali describes.

When the judge asked Abul-Naga, what her testimony had to do with the individuals on trial, she reportedly admitted to not knowing who they were or why they were there.

Hangover from former regime

The judge, however, has been fair, the employees and lawyers affirm. A change in leadership from military rule to a democratically-elected civilian president is also considered to be a positive sign.

“I think the motivations behind the case, are probably gone,” comments the source. “It was a political masquerade, an argument between a former Egyptian government and the current US administration.”

The source expects the outcome to either exonerate the Egyptians and charge the foreigners who refused to face trial, or acquit the 43 on the grounds that their work had the assent of the government.

However, the situation remains precarious.

Egypt’s new minster for international cooperation, Ashraf El-Araby, told Ahram Online that he believed that the NDI and IRI’s (International Republican Institute’s) registration applications were rejected by the ministry.

“When the two NGOs applied and they did not get a response, that clearly meant ‘No,'” El-Eraby concludes, potentially thwarting the defendants’ claims that they were unofficially registered as the government knew about their activities.

Another fear is the consequences of the “massive state media spy campaign which ran when this first broke,” Halawa explains. “A verdict of ‘not guilty’ could be interpreted as giving the US what they want.”

A brighter future for Egypt’s NGOs?

The outcome of this trial will significantly impact Egyptian civil society at a time when the legal definition of an NGO in Egypt and the issue of government control over civil society organisations continue to be battled out in the political arena.

Following the media witch-hunt, many organisations have kept a low profile, with some civil society groups putting vital foreign funding on hold, as they await the verdict.

Meanwhile, the fundamental issues that sparked the controversy have not been resolved.

Speaking to Ahram Online, USAID affirms that it “does not directly channel funding through the Ministry of International Cooperation or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs,” but rather operates its programmes and activities “through bilateral agreements with the government of Egypt.”

These agreements — and consequently not Egyptian law — “articulate how US government assistance is carried out in Egypt.”

This contradicts Minister Al-Araby’s statement to Ahram Online that the “American government understands our demand to halt transferring these funds to the unlicensed NGOs.”

The communication breakdown and fundamental difference in approach to aid could see US and Egyptian governments at loggerheads again. The question is, will more NGOs be caught in the crossfire?

The third man: Egyptian fears of the foreign plot

 

 

Unidentified ‘third party’ from an unknown foreign plot, the state says is set to destroy Egypt (Photo: cogdogblog/Alan Levine)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Foreigners are, apparently, at it again: threatening the stability of Egypt by implementing destructive foreign agendas.

This February, 29 foreign aid workers face trial and an Australian journalist was threatened with deportation and now faces a travel ban while his American student friend has been detained, all for allegedly being involved in conspiracies to ‘destabilise’ the country.

Fears of a foreign-led plot against Egypt are not new, nor are they accidental.

“All successive Egyptian governments, since 1952 onwards, have used xenophobia to create a sense that there is a conspiracy in Egypt,” explains Hossam Abdalla, an Egyptian political commentator and activist. “They rule in the name of defending the nation and condemn anybody who is anti-them as pro-foreigner or acting with a foreign agenda.”

The “foreign hand” – in particular a financial one – remains one of the key weapons the state uses to shift blame, discredit a movement or justify heavy-handed security measures.

Mubarak honed this tactic during his 30 years in power and first used it against the revolution on 1 February, when he hinted at unknown spoilers who had “exploited” honest protesters. State media then broadcast bizarre phone-ins from people claiming to see Turkish-Iranian intelligence, Afghan spies and Israeli agents.

As the telephone networks were shut down, the army sent text messages to the public urging “local men to… protect our precious Egypt.” The revolution was portrayed as a foreign invasion.

On 2 February, Omar Suleiman spelt it out to a panicked nation. In a televised interview, he said that protesters had been manipulated by “outside forces” and that the revolution was a conspiracy.

“This was the turning point,” explains Josh Leffler, an American TEFL teacher based in downtown Cairo. “After the Battle of the Camel, I was detained by our local people’s committee, who know me and lived next to me. I see them every day.”

The BBC, Channel 4, Al Jazeera and ABC networks reported that their journalists had been attacked or detained. Groups tried to storm the Hilton hotel while “foreign-looking” people – including Egyptians – were being rounded up off the street.

“After my flatmate was chased through downtown by thugs with knives, I spent two days at home in my flat. My friends called to say don’t go outside,” recalled Kristin Jankowski, a German writer for the Goethe-Institut in Cairo.

However, as soon as Mubarak stepped down, the atmosphere changed. “It went from this hostility to being welcoming again,” Josh added.

Since the 18 days, suspicion of foreigners and “foreign looking” Egyptians continues to peak and trough in correlation with what is being peddled by the state media. One word from the military regime or state media and the xenophobia on the streets escalates with a bewildering ferocity.

But why, in a country where tourism is one of the most important industries – generating at its peak over $12 billion in revenue – can the state trigger xenophobia so easily?

“Our issue with foreigners is as long as Egyptian history,” explains Abdalla, tracing the problem back to the Pharonic era. “There has always been an entrenched sense that everyone around Egypt is a threat – they want to take what is ours, the riches of the Nile. This fear is embedded in us.”

This is not without reason. Egypt was subject to hundreds of years of foreign occupation, including Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, Persian, Ottoman, French and British – all of whom exploited Egypt’s natural resources.

“In the early 1880s, there was a feeling that Egypt was becoming dominated by foreign influences,” explained AbdelAziz EzzelArab, professor of political economy at the American University in Cairo. This, he says, was partly due to the international debt crisis of the 1870s.

During this time, Egypt was spending two thirds of its revenue on servicing its debt, allowing disastrous deals like the £4-million purchase of Egypt’s share of the Suez Canal by the British.

When Egypt became a major player in the world market as a supplier of cotton, this feeling was intensified. Foreigners based in Egypt largely controlled its exports, contributing to a feeling of “encroachment” and financial jealousy from local landowners who called for “economic nationalism”, EzzelArab said.

This led to the creation of Bank Misr in 1920 (a bank run by Egyptians for Egyptians operated using Egyptian money) and the 1947 Egyptianisation laws, which attempted to impose limitations on foreign capital and foreign employees in companies operating in Egypt.

International influence on the Egyptian economy has had perceived – and very real – negative consequences for the country. One example was the 1991 injection of cash from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The implementation of the provisos to the loan, called the “structural adjustment programme,” resulted in the percentage of people living under $2 a day doubling and levels of absolute poverty rising from 16.7 per cent to almost 20 per cent. Egypt is due to accept another LE3.2 billion IMF package this year, which many critics oppose.

“When Egypt was the richest of all the Arab nations, we always absorbed foreigners,” said Abdalla, adding that economic insecurity only seems to encourage xenophobia.

Fear of invasion has also been a contributing factor, particularly as Egypt has been invaded several times within living memory, including Israeli troops getting within 120 kilometres of the capital in 1973.

The creation of the self-proclaimed Jewish state in 1948 was a major turning point. “As long as you have two great world powers, the European Union and the USA, whose primary foreign policy objective is to protect Israel,” Abdalla explained, “Egyptians will remain suspicious of foreign motives.”

When you combine a real threat with decades of Egyptian rulers returning to these historical events in order to cultivate imagined threats for their own purposes, the result is explosive.

Nationalism plays a part in xenophobia. In the creation of an “us,” there must be a “you”: globally, national identity is never separated from the fear of the other.

A specifically Egyptian sense of national identity, EzzelArab says, was trail-blazed by late president Anwar Sadat, who “wanted to reclaim the name of Egypt and relieve the Arab burden,” a holdover from Gamal Abdel-Nasser’s unification with Syria.

During the 1970s, the fledging state media peddled Sadat’s party line, which emphasised the sacrifices Egypt had made for other Arab countries.

National Egyptian pride was defined alongside mistrust of outsiders who had exploited and deceived her.

Fast forward to the January 25 Revolution, when there is another major shift in national identity.

The “nation” becomes a fully functioning informal community living together in reclaimed public spaces in which Egyptian cultural norms were rethought and reworked.

Tahrir Square in the early days was “a million people… in one city square who were together trying to imagine a different country… entering it was like crossing a border,” late journalist Anthony Shadid said in April 2011. Egyptian identity, he said, became “broader.”

Rather than focusing on a selfhood determined by geographical borders, the people in Tahrir Square were united by universal human values. National pride was redefined as a humiliated people fighting for their rights, against those who spent decades advertising themselves as the true Egypt.

It’s no coincidence then that protesters wave the Egyptian flag, the ultimate emblem of nationalism, despite the fact that the original design is a military one instated by Nasser in 1953 and updated by Mubarak in 1984 (Egypt did not adopt a revolutionary flag like Syria and Libya).

The ongoing revolution became, and continues to be, a battle for the Egyptian identity: the regime versus the revolutionary collective.

This was complicated, after Mubarak stepped down on 11 February, by the state’s co-option of the inevitable outpouring of national pride. State radio stations played nationalistic songs ad nauseum. Official billboards cashed in on the heroic revolutionaries.

The ruling military council also used Mubarak’s tactic of denouncing the street protests as foreign plots.

In mid-2011, foreign funding became the main excuse to target other revolutionary frontlines. The current crackdown on NGOs started in August 2011, when the government threatened to charge foreign-funded groups with high treason, conspiracy against the state and compromising national security.

Following comments made by International Cooperation Minister Fayza Abul-Naga that US funding of civil-society groups represented a desire to “abort any chance for Egypt to emerge as a modern democratic state,”  state-run media ran front page pieces entitled “American funding aims to spread anarchy in Egypt.” The Arabic word for anarchy also means “chaos.”

The irony that the Egyptian Armed Forces receive $1.3 billion in annual military aid from the US was apparently lost on them.

Protesters, who continued to face a torrent of state media accusations that they were “thugs,” “spies,” or not the same revolutionaries as those of the 18 days, had to prove that they were Egyptian to avoid being discredited. The fear non-Egyptians often feel is that their presence in protests, as a foreigner, could undermine this.

How to show solidarity with the ongoing revolution without becoming that distraction, is a painful dilemma outsiders face, particularly when friends or family are in the frontlines.

“A march is a very important visual sign that a real movement is out there. If onlookers are already confused by the revolution, it’s not helpful to see a foreigner participating,” explained Sophie Fahmy, 29, a British filmmaker who is married to an Egyptian. “Even though my children will have Egyptian citizenship, so this fight over the future of Egypt is of personal importance to me, if people might misinterpret what I’m doing, I won’t chant.”

Some foreigners do take part in the clashes. One British activist based in Cairo, who wished to remain anonymous, explained how he clears tear gas canisters and picks up the wounded. “International solidarity has a role in defending the revolution,” the activist said. “Insular struggles are more likely to be defeated or co-opted, while internationalised struggles can be more transformative.”

However, getting too involved can backfire. In November, three American students were paraded in front of Molotov cocktails on state television, after one of them tweeted about joining the clashes with Egypt’s security forces on the flashpoint Mohamed Mahmoud Street.

On Wednesday, former minister of interior Habib El-Adly, in the midst of the ongoing Hosni Mubarak trial, said that “foreigners,” not the security forces, had clambered onto buildings and shot at protesters during the 18 days. Hamas and Hezbollah, he insisted, were to blame.

Last week, Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim claimed that unknown “third parties” were responsible for the excessive birdshot injuries in February clashes between protesters and security forces, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

For the moment, it seems, the Egyptian government will keep blaming the “third man” and imagining ever more creative conspiracies.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

NGO crackdown: Frontline of the ongoing revolution

Operating as a nongovernmental organisation (NGO) in Egypt is no mean feat. Aside from the fear of further crackdowns following last week’s raids and what civil society groups are calling a government-led “smear campaign,” advisory council spokesperson Mohamed El-Khouly on Wednesday urged Egypt’s ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to issue a law further regulating the already carefully monitored activities of NGOs. Most groups are on guard.

“This is just the beginning,” says Khalid Ali, a prominent lawyer whose organisation, the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights, was not visited in the recent raids. “There are rumours that 100 NGOs will be subject to investigation, with some saying as many as 400 will be targeted.”

The fear of investigation is so keenly felt that Ahram Online has received several reports of civil society groups sending staff members home for the week, encouraging workers to remove all personal belongings from offices, and duplicating and securing key files and documents.

Many groups who initially spoke out against the police raids on NGO offices are now declining to comment. On Tuesday, the German government announced it would send a special envoy to Egypt because the German Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung Foundation had been raided.

In the latest development, prominent civil society workers and activists (including some whose offices were raided) are set to take legal action against Egypt’s Al-Wafd newspaper following unfounded allegations published in its online edition that the groups had received American funding. The offending article referenced a US diplomatic cable, recently published by online whistleblower Wikileaks, which documented several meetings between Egyptian NGO activists and American diplomats.

“There’s no mention of funding whatsoever in the cable,” says Ghada Shahbender of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights (EOHR), whose name appears in the Wikileaks document. “I never denied meeting with Americans. I will continue to meet with them every chance I get to push our pro-democracy demands.”

“On more than one occasion at these meetings I have personally criticised American foreign policy double standards in dealing with the region,” she said. “This comes in the context of a harassment campaign by the state aimed at discrediting human rights advocates and organisations that report on state crimes.”

Daily News Egypt reported on Tuesday that the editor of Al-Wafd’s online news portal, Adel Sabry, had admitted to inaccuracies in the article on a television talk show. Nevertheless, the piece, entitled ‘‘Wikileaks announces the names of those who got American funding”, remains online.

Interestingly, the Egyptian police website (http://www.egypolice.com), an informal webpage run by the media office of the Ministry of Interior, picked up the Al-Wafd story and – despite both parties having access to a translation of the Wikileaks document – simultaneously published a post entitled, “Urgent and surprising… Wikileaks announces on its website the activists and politicians that had American funding.” The fact that a website claiming to represent one arm of the Egyptian security apparatus is taking the (factually incorrect) state party-line of a supposed “opposition” party newspaper is concerning.

Ali believes the action taken against NGOs is likely to escalate. “They may even take some groups to court and imprison NGO workers,” he told Ahram Online. Ali also fears his organisation will be targeted as it is mentioned in a recent government fact-finding report.

The report was first mentioned in July 2011 by Minister of Planning and International Cooperation Fayza Abul-Naga and commissioned by Minister of Justice Mohamed Abdel Aziz El-Guindi. The document, which was leaked to El-Fager newspaper in late September, purportedly identifies 39 Egyptian and American civil society groups that are operating “without a license from the Ministry of Social Solidarity (for the Egyptian organisations) or from the foreign ministry (for the American organisations).”

The list includes the three American NGOs – the National Democratic Institute (NDI), the International Republican Institute (IRI) and Freedom House – that were raided last Thursday.

However, as NDI director Julie Hughes told Ahram Online, obtaining these licenses can be difficult. The NDI has been attempting to register for six years, she explained. They were finally told in June 2011 by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that they would not be granted a licence for “political reasons.”

“The authorities want most of these organisations to be registered because, when you register, the agreement comes from State Security, so you’re under their jurisdiction,” said Ali. “The authority’s objective is to force all NGOs and organisations to work under their authority.”

Ghada, whose organisation is licensed, agrees: “We are monitored and controlled by the Ministry of Social Solidarity under legislation passed in 2003 that gives the government complete control over NGOs. We object to this, but the EOHR nevertheless operates within their guidelines.”

Foreign funding has also been another reason to target NGOs, which, again, must be approved by the Ministry of Social Solidarity. In August, the Supreme State Security Prosecution launched investigations into foreign funding allegations, warning that groups could be charged with high treason, conspiracy against the state and compromising national security through the implementation of foreign agendas.

This is despite the fact that the Egyptian Armed Forces receive $1.3 billion in annual military aid from the US in an agreement that links Egypt to Israel’s US aid package.

“Most NGOs have foreign funding because there is very little money in Egypt,” one civil society worker who wished to remain anonymous for fear a backlash, told Ahram Online. “The Ministry of Social Solidarity will only fund projects that are in line with government politics, ruling out certain topics. We tried to run a project on prostitution, but they don’t want to be seen backing immoral people, so we didn’t get the funding.”

Bypassing legal means of funding can sometimes be the only way to work effectively on the ground, civil society workers say, forcing NGOs to violate the law and encouraging corruption. The legal situation for these NGOs leaves them in a precarious position, as outlined in a complaint letter written by civil society groups to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCR) following the recent crackdown on NGOs.

The 2003 legislation, which the letter says is systematically vague and has not been updated since the fall of the Mubarak regime, states that NGOs can only be created with approval from the Ministry of Solidarity (see Article 6). Article 17 of the law confirms that all receipt of funds must go through the ministry, while articles 34 and 42 give the Ministry of Social Solidarity and the security apparatus the right to object to board elections and disqualify candidates from the board. It also gives them extensive rights to dissolve civic associations.

The document cites the treatment of the New Woman Foundation as a recent example of ministry interference in the work of NGOs. The ministry was able to reject a prestigious international award the foundation had received on the grounds that the foundation was advocating for a new law conforming to international standards, which the ministry claimed was outside the remit of NGOs.

The letter sees this action as symptomatic of the “authoritarian” behaviour of the ministry and is in “clear violation of Article 22, paragraph 2 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.” The letter also condemned the minister’s request to Egypt’s central bank to allow him to monitor NGO bank accounts, saying this represented a breach of account confidentially “upheld in Law 88/2033.”

The purpose and details of last week’s raids on NGO offices remain unclear.

Abu El-Naga, who appears to be the spokeswoman for the crackdown, gave no clear explanation as to why this particular group of civil society organisations had been chosen. The initial number of offices targeted was set at 17, but was then reduced to ten in the national and international media. Until now, Ahram Online has only been able to confirm seven. No official list has been issued.

Ahram Online can confirm that the targeted organisations are the NDI, the IRI, Freedom House, the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung Foundation, the Arab Centre for Independence of the Judiciary and Legal Profession (ACIJLP), the Budgetary and Human Rights Observatory and the Future Centre of Judiciary Studies.

There are some obvious political motives behind the choice. The three American organisations are on the NGO hit-list drawn up by the Ministry of Justice. The Budgetary and Human Rights Observatory has been campaigning against the secrecy of the military budget – a controversial topic and one of the main features of the SCAF’s supra-constitutional proposal. Nasser Amin, ACIJLP director and Helwan parliamentary candidate, recently filed a court case because of potential vote rigging.

The Egyptian authorities may also have used the raids to send a message to Washington. At the very least, including American NGOs and a German foundation would help support the domestic party line that the government was cracking down on organisations with “foreign agendas.”

Civil society groups also question the use of paramilitary troops rather than normal police officers and the bizarre behaviour of the security forces, which included confiscating a water boiler, inspecting bathrooms and looking at a roof. Several of these groups have been operating since 2005 – so why raid them now? Then, in a televised interview with Abul-Naga, the government claimed the SCAF had no knowledge of the raids.

The actions last Thursday are not new. “This crackdown on Egyptian civil society has been happening for years,” said the anonymous NGO worker. “People who have been working for land rights in Egypt have been consistently tortured and imprisoned, from as far back as the 90s. It’s only new in the sense that we’re now supposed to be ‘post-revolution’.”

She emphasised that, since Mubarak stepped down, NGOs had become bolder in their work, which, she says, the SCAF rightly identifies as having contributed to the revolutionary process. Ghada agrees, seeing the raids as an extension of the security forces’ behaviour in November’s and December’s clashes in Cairo: “We have yet to see reform,” she said. “Events of the last quarter of 2011 show the SCAF is trying to abort the Egyptian revolution.”