CAIRO — A crackdown on U.S.-funded pro-democracy groups in Egypt and a bill before parliament that would further restrict nongovernmental organizations here are inhibiting development work and activism during a period many Egyptians hoped would be marked by greater freedoms.
A few months before Egyptians are to elect a new president, groups that have played key roles in the elections of emerging democracies elsewhere in the region are paralyzed by a widening criminal probe of such organizations, backed by the country’s ruling generals. Other nongovernmental organization (NGO) workers in Egypt are trying to keep a low profile, saying they worry about being named in the legal case or otherwise affected by the broader cloud of suspicion hanging over foreign-funded groups.
“This has become a huge impediment to the U.S.’s ability to deliver and to have an impact with its aid,” said Stephen McInerney, executive director of the Washington-based Project on Middle East Democracy. “This is casting a real shadow over all U.S. assistance to Egypt.”
Egyptian activists who are not targets of the probe say it has set an ominous tone for human rights and political freedoms in Egypt — two of the main goals of a popular revolt that toppled President Hosni Mubarak a year ago. The concerns triggered by the crackdown have been exacerbated by a draft law that would close the loopholes allowing NGOs to register as corporations or other types of private entities.
“The working environment has become poisoned by this crackdown,” said Hossam Bahgat, an Egyptian human rights advocate. “The consistent message of vilification of human rights has become much worse since these raids and these indictments.”
U.S. officials had reportedly held out hope that the ruling military council could be persuaded to end the probe of groups that include the Washington-based International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was expected to bring up the case in meetings with Egypt’s military ruler in Cairo on Saturday. A spokesman declined to provide details of the talks.
Despite the mounting pressure from Washington, however, the generals have shown no signs of backing down.
Protesters continue to demand the council’s ouster, most recently by calling for a mass strike Saturday, the one-year anniversary of Mubarak’s ouster. Egypt’s foreign reserves are running dangerously low and the tourism industry, a pillar of the economy, is in a tailspin. In the face of such woes, Bahgat and other critics say, the military-led government appears to be using the NGO investigation to bolster its popular support by portraying it as a principled stance against U.S. meddling.
“When presented this way, most Egyptians side with their army and against the Americans,” Bahgat said.
An American student and an Australian journalist were detained Saturday in the northern industrial city of Mahalla al-Kobra after being accused of paying Egyptians to go on strike, the Associated Press reported. The arrests reinforced fears that state media reports and government statements are fueling public xenophobia.
The criminal case against the NGOs has prompted threats from U.S. lawmakers and rebukes from members of the European Parliament. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said last week that the United States ought to suspend the nearly $1.5 billion in aid the United States is expected to give Egypt this year, unless the country’s military chiefs cease “using American citizens as scapegoats for the continuing upheaval in Egypt.”
An E.U. parliamentary delegation, meanwhile, announced Friday that it was canceling a planned visit to Cairo, saying in a statement that the “authorities’ legitimacy is questionable.”
The criminal case against 43 employees of nongovernmental organizations, including 16 Americans, has overshadowed a broader struggle over the appropriate amount of government oversight of such groups. The military-appointed cabinet recently presented a draft law to parliament that would impose tougher restrictions on NGOs than the draconian ones they were subjected to during the Mubarak years.
The former government, which tolerated little dissent or political competition, viewed foreign-funded organizations as a threat to Mubarak’s authority and pushed back against Washington’s attempts to support political pluralism and activism.
Kareem Elbayar, an Egypt expert at the Washington-based International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, said the draft law and the criminal case appear to be a prelude to a sweeping crackdown on civil society. The state-owned al-Ahram newspaper reported Saturday that investigators are looking into the funding sources and activities of additional NGOs.
“There’s a broader chilling effect,” Elbayar said, adding that even people working in noncontroversial fields such as development have grown wary of the liability of foreign funding. “Groups are now afraid to conduct their activities. A number of them have instructed staff to stay at home. The implications go far beyond political groups.”
The law currently before parliament would give the government the power to dissolve organizations, restrict the sources of foreign funding that have been the lifeline of pro-democracy and human rights groups and impose stiffer criminal penalties for those who violate the law.
During the first hearing on the bill in parliament last week, NGO representatives protested, calling it a regression. The chairman of the human rights committee, Mohamed Anwar el-Sadat, said the discussion was a good starting point.
“It’s important to have a balanced law that meets the ambitions of the NGOs and respects the national security of the state,” he said.
Whether the law proceeds as drafted will depend heavily on how the parliament’s dominant bloc, made up of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political party, will handle it. Experts say they worry Brotherhood members could back the law just as they have supported other government initiatives over the past year. Prominent Brotherhood leaders have in recent weeks spoken in favor of the NGO crackdown, echoing the government’s narrative that foreign groups are working to destabilize Egypt.
“The Muslim Brotherhood has been very supportive” of the governing military council, McInerney said. “They could move and support something like this.”