Harassment in Egypt

January 15, 2012

ON DEC. 29, Egyptian security forces and troops launched an unprecedented raid on 17 offices of American and U.S.-funded civil-society groups, including stalwarts of democracy promotion such as the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute and Freedom House. Computers and other equipment were confiscated, and local staff members were issued summons for interrogation. Egyptian officials seeded local media with stories that portrayed the nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) as part of an international conspiracy to interfere in the country’s politics.

To its credit, the Obama administration reacted quickly. The State Department publicly condemned the raids and called on the government “to immediately end the harassment of NGO staff, return all property and resolve this issue immediately.” U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta got on the phone to senior officials; the next day officials said that Mr. Panetta had been assured by the head of the ruling military council, Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, that the groups would be allowed to reopen their offices and their property would be returned.

Two weeks later, however, the U.S. NGO offices as well as those of several Egyptian groups remain closed. Their computers have not been returned, and staff members are still being summoned for interviews with prosecutors who say that they are conducting a criminal investigation. In short, the Egyptian government is openly flouting the administration’s demand for a quick reversal of its harassment.

U.S. officials say that they are still pressing the issue hard. But in public, the administration’s rhetoric has been softening. On Jan. 2, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said, “It is frankly unacceptable to us that the situation has not been returned to normal.”

Ten days later, the matter was still unresolved after Deputy Secretary of State William Burns met with Mr. Tantawi. Said Mr. Burns: “We are hopeful for a quick and fair resolution, and we will keep working at this.” Egyptian authorities are insisting that the NGOs register under laws passed but never enforced by the deposed authoritarian regime of Hosni Mubarak, which would allow the government to control funding.

The significance of this dispute is difficult to overstate. U.S. funding for pro-democracy NGOs in Egypt — about $40 million this year — pales beside the $1 .2 billion set aside for the Egyptian military. But the aid is vital to nurturing a free political system — and to countering the huge flow of money from Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states to Islamist groups.

The officials campaigning against U.S. groups and funding, such as International Cooperation Minister Faiza Aboul Naga, a Mubarak regime holdover, are trying to preserve their own powers by demonizing liberal civil-society groups and the United States.

At a minimum, any Egyptian government that follows Ms. Aboul Naga’s policies ought to be denied military aid. That’s why it is fortunate that Congress, over the administration’s objections, conditioned the 2012 funding for Egypt on a certification that the government was carrying out a democratic transition. Such a certification ought to be impossible until all the NGOs are allowed to reopen and harassment of their Egyptian partners ceases. Administration officials say they accept that; let’s hope that, through tough words or softer ones, Egyptian authorities are getting the message.

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