Raids on the Cairo offices of civil society organisations accused of receiving unauthorised foreign funds are part of a wider campaign by Egypt’s ruling military council to silence its critics, say rights groups.
"The goal of this campaign is clear to everyone, which is gagging us from exposing the violations and oppressive practices which are still being committed until this moment," the Arab Network for Human Rights (ANHRI) said in a statement.
Egyptian security forces raided the offices of at least six non-governmental organisations (NGOs) last week. The operation targeted the Arab Centre for the Independence of the Judiciary and Legal Profession (ACIJLP), and the Budgetary and Human Rights Observatory (BAHRO) – two Cairo-based NGOs that were compiling evidence of corruption and rights abuses by Egypt’s military rulers.
Prosecutors also seized mobile phones, laptops and documents from the offices of German political foundation Konrad-Adenaeur Stiftung and three U.S.-based organisations: the National Democratic Institute (NDI), International Republican Institute (IRI), and Freedom House. The rights and pro-democracy groups were among those observing Egypt’s ongoing parliamentary elections.
David Kramer, president of Freedom House, described the raids as "an escalation of repression unheard of even during the Mubarak regime." He accused the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which assumed control of the country in February, of "attempting to scapegoat civil society for its own abysmal failure to manage Egypt’s transition effectively."
Activists who participated in the revolution 11 months ago claim Egypt’s military rulers have continued – and in some cases exceeded – the repressive tactics that Hosni Mubarak employed during his 30-year rule. They accuse SCAF of brutally suppressing peaceful demonstrations, prosecuting its critics in unfair military trials, and expanding the scope of Mubarak-era emergency laws.
The generals have also come under fire for the treatment of women during protests. Military police were recently caught on video viciously beating women in the streets, while a court ordered the army to cease using humiliating "virginity tests" on female detainees.
"Since the revolution, the military has attacked anybody who goes into the streets to protest against the regime," says Negad El-Borai, a prominent Cairo-based lawyer and rights activist.
The raids last week are part of a long-running smear campaign against NGOs working in the field of human rights and democratic empowerment, he says. They follow a spate of allegations by government officials that a number of NGOs and political groups operating in Egypt received unauthorised funding from foreign entities attempting to destabilise the country.
SCAF officials have gone so far as to say the violence on the streets of Cairo both during and after the 18- day uprising that toppled Mubarak was incited by saboteurs paid with funds channelled through NGOs.
Last month, justice minister Adel Abdel Hamid announced that a judicial investigation found that over 300 NGOs received direct foreign funding in recent years. Some of the entities did not have permits to operate in Egypt.
Legislation passed in 2002 requires all civil society organisations to obtain a permit from state authorities before receiving funds from abroad. The government tightened NGO registration procedures in 2006, passing a draconian law in 2010 that further restricted their activities and gave state security the final say on foreign funding.
"Egypt does not oppose foreign funding of NGOs as long as it complies with Egyptian and international laws. However, the funding must be for development, not political purposes," Fayza Aboul Naga, minister for planning and international cooperation, said in November.
Aboul Naga, who was appointed by Mubarak and has survived four cabinet changes since his ouster, accused the U.S. government of directly funding 14 American and 12 unlicensed Egyptian NGOs.
Washington has admitted to as much. In June, U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson said the United States had spent 40 million dollars in Egypt to promote democracy since the revolution. She said 600 Egyptian NGOs had applied for funding.
El-Borai argues that the military is less concerned about organisations receiving foreign funds than it is about limiting the reach and resources available to NGOs engaged in supporting principles that threaten its rule.
"It’s very clear that this is a campaign against civil society groups calling for democracy, citizenship and a civil state," he told IPS. "When (security forces) raided offices, it was these groups and not organisations receiving money from the Gulf (Arab states) that got shut down."
According to Al-Akhbar state newspaper, the Ansar Al-Sunnah Al-Mohamedeya group received over 50 million dollars from Qatari and Kuwaiti institutions since the revolution, making it the biggest recipient of foreign aid in the country. The paper alleged that the donations went to promoting the ultra-conservative Islamic Salafi movement in Egypt.
Al-Akhbar also reported that an institution created in memorial of Mubarak’s deceased grandson received nearly 15 million dollars from the United Arab Emirates and Oman. The opaque charity is believed to be controlled by the "feloul", that is, the remnants of the old regime.
El-Borai says the idea that NGOs should not be funded from abroad is absurd when the Egyptian military itself receives about 1.3 billion dollars a year in U.S. aid. He asks if Washington will continue to approve this funding when it sees how it is used to intimidate and imprison civil society.