Via The American Interest, by Ashraf Khalil:

Plus ça change, Egyptian Style

 

It was the summer of 2000, and the situation for Egypt’s fledgling civil society community was looking dire.

 

Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a prominent sociologist, had just been dragged from his home and jailed by longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak. The 61-year-old academic was held without formal charges for weeks and then prosecuted for a nebulous array of crimes, including financial improprieties, forgery, accepting foreign funding without government permission and seeking to ruin Egypt’s international reputation. “All that was left out was drug dealing and rape”, Ibrahim joked in an interview shortly after his first release from custody…

 

… Ibrahim spent three years in and out of jail before finally gaining his freedom on appeal. His case was accompanied by a vicious media smear campaign depicting local NGOs like the Ibn Khaldoun Center as tools for sinister foreign interests. Despite his eventual exoneration, Ibrahim was never quite the same person after his legal ordeal. He emerged from prison frail and suffering from a degenerative nerve condition. He spent much of the next decade in self-imposed exile…

***

Twelve years later, Egypt is in the midst of an historic transformation… Egypt can now boast its first ever democratically elected civilian president, longtime Muslim Brotherhood official Mohamed Morsi.

 

But having a leader who is technically elected by democratic means doesn’t presuppose that a society can suddenly acquire democratic habits. Some things still haven’t changed in Egypt, including the government’s obsession with controlling the local NGO community—and especially any kind of overseas funding its members might receive. In a very real sense, Egyptian history is repeating itself. Once again local NGOs and civil society groups are scrambling to make their budgets in the face of a bureaucracy that seems determined to choke off international funding. The problem, it turns out, wasn’t just Mubarak or his ministers; it was, and remains, a deeply entrenched security state and government bureaucracy that continues to view NGOs, and particularly human rights organizations, with hostility and suspicion.

 

“It’s surprising the amount of damage a righteous bureaucrat that thinks he or she is defending Egypt can do”, said Heba Morayef, head of the Egypt office for Human Rights Watch. “The bureaucracy has always been infiltrated or outright controlled by the security services and that bureaucracy remains fundamentally suspicious of (human rights) groups.”

 

The first disturbing sign that hostility to the civil society community didn’t end with Mubarak’s reign came in late December 2011, when police mounted surprise raids on the offices of several international and local NGOs, including the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute. The latter two faced charges of operating without government authorization, while the Egyptian NGOs were charged with illegally accepting foreign funding. The raids touched off an immediate firestorm of international criticism, especially since the defendants included several U.S. citizens like Sam LaHood, the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood…

 

… But the emphasis on LaHood and the foreign NGOs somewhat overshadowed the effect the raids had on Egypt’s homegrown civil society community. A handful of local NGOs were hit at the same time, including one of Egypt’s most historic organizations, the International Center for the Independence of the Judiciary…

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The situation was eventually defused by what seemed to be a backdoor deal between the SCAF and the U.S. government. The travel ban against the American defendants was quietly lifted, the U.S. government paid their bail, and most of them were flown out of the country amid circumstances that remain mysterious. One American, Robert Becker of the National Democratic Institute, insisted on staying and facing trial along with his Egyptian staff members. The court case against the foreign NGOs is still technically active, but nobody seems interested in pursuing it too vigorously…

 

As with the Saad Eddin Ibrahim case a decade earlier, the overall effect has been to scare Egyptian NGOs away from applying for much-needed foreign grants—and deter international donor organizations from offering them.  “The donors have suffered a big shock and the clients are afraid to apply”, Amin said. “It won’t appear right away. Around the end of the year, you’ll see organizations reduce their activities and not start new projects…”

 

IMG_4425… At the time of the NGO raids, many observers here believed that the arrest warrants did not actually originate with the SCAF. The generals, it was widely believed, were simply caught up in a situation they didn’t create and then proceeded to make things worse by publicly lashing out at criticism from Washington and creating a trans-Atlantic staring match over sovereignty and national pride. Instead, the blame was largely placed on Fayza Aboul Naga, the Minister of International Cooperation and a holdover from the Mubarak era. Aboul Naga had long been obsessed with controlling the flow of foreign money into Egyptian civil society; she had survived multiple cabinet reshuffles during the Mubarak era and remained in the cabinet even after the revolution…

 

“The problem with NGOs and foreign funding is that we have very few people willing to stand up publicly and strongly for us”, Abdel Razek said. “In my opinion, the best we can achieve now is an approval system that is clearly defined with a set time limit for (government) approval…”