December 29, 2011

David J. Kramer is president of Freedom House.

A months-long campaign against civil-society groups by Egypt’s military leadership came to a head Thursday when Egyptian security forces raided the Cairo offices of Freedom House and several other international and local nongovernmental organizations. These attacks were a major setback to the hopes that emerged this year with the revolution in Tahrir Square. If corrective measures are not taken, the attacks will severely damage Egypt’s long-term stability and prospects for a more democratic future.

The protests in January and February that led to the resignation of Hosni Mubarak offered hope to the Egyptian people for the first time in decades. Coming on the heels of the movement that brought down Tunisia’s longtime ruler, Zine el-Abidine Ben-Ali, the revolution reflected Egyptians’ pent-up frustration with endless human rights abuses, rigged elections and lack of real economic opportunity.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces assumed control of the country and earned early praise for its relative restraint amid the massive protests in downtown Cairo. It was not long, however, before the military chiefs engaged in the kinds of human rights abuses common under Mubarak: brutally attacking demonstrators; stirring religious tensions between Muslims and Coptic Christians; prosecuting regime critics in military tribunals; and assaulting female protesters, including through the infamous “virginity tests.” It also maintained the much-hated “emergency law” under which Mubarak had ruled for three decades.

Essentially, the military hijacked the revolution.

Suppression of activists and NGOs, including foreign groups, is standard operating procedure for authoritarian regimes, as events in Russia, Venezuela, Belarus and China show. Governments that constrain NGOs almost invariably impose greater restrictions on the media, political parties and the judiciary. Concerns that, left unchecked, Egypt’s military council would move in that direction are reasonable.

The military rulers have clung to power while seeking to enshrine their political supremacy in law. Protests in Cairo turned violent this month as military and security services employed lethal force to put down demonstrators.

Egyptians who turned out in Tahrir Square months ago have grown increasingly angry with the military council, while the council has searched for scapegoats to argue that foreign forces — particularly civic groups that support civil society and free and fair elections — have sought to launch another revolution and cause turmoil. Freedom House is among the favorite targets of these absurd accusations.

The raids on Freedom House and others — state media report that 17 offices were stormed — constitute an unprecedented assault by Egyptian security forces on international civil-society organizations and their local partners, a number of which have exposed abuses by Egyptian authorities. Not even under Mubarak did we and our partners face such attacks.

The timing is noteworthy. In a few days, Egypt is to conduct the third and final round of elections for the lower house of parliament. In the first two rounds, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and the more extreme Salafists secured more than 60 percent of the vote. Military actions against demonstrators and NGOs will weaken liberal, democratic forces, leaving Egyptians with an unpalatable choice between continued military autocracy or a theocratic state.

The military rulers’ actions show that they do not intend to permit the establishment of genuine democracy and that they are, instead, attempting to scapegoat civil society for their failure to effectively manage Egypt’s transition. Put another way: Egypt’s military rulers are responsible for creating the very conditions that could drive the country toward fundamentalism and instability, and they are blocking the accountability and transparency that Egyptian society fought for and that was integral to ending Mubarak’s rule.

Freedom House and similar organizations are in Egypt to respond to the indigenous demand for help in promoting civil society, the rule of law and people-to-people exchanges. The international community — the United States in particular — must respond aggressively to Thursday’s raids. The military’s human rights abuses and appalling treatment of civil society must end immediately. Washington continues to provide the Egyptian military with $1.3 billion annually to fund arms purchases and training. The Obama administration should tell Egypt’s military council unambiguously that assistance will end unless such behavior ceases. The United States must not subsidize authoritarianism in Egypt even as Egypt’s rulers prevent NGOs from implementing democracy and human rights projects subsidized by U.S. taxpayers.

Egyptian authorities must return confiscated property; permit the reopening of all offices of NGOs closed in the raids; and allow the unfettered operation of local and international NGOs as they work to expand respect for human rights and help the Egyptian people’s efforts to form a more just, open and democratic political system. Until those steps, at a minimum, are taken, the hope that arose in Egypt this year will be lost for good.