This past week marks the first anniversary of an unprecedented assault on civil society in Egypt. In December 2011, the Egyptian authorities raided the offices of 11 human rights and democracy organizations, including those of Freedom House in Cairo. The raids came after an aggressive, months-long smear campaign in the Egyptian media against foreign-funded nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). These attacks particularly targeted local and international human rights defenders, defaming their activities, casting doubt on their intentions, and accusing them of threatening national security.
The smears developed into a formal investigation during the last two months of 2011, as NGO workers were summoned for interrogation by prosecuting judges appointed by the Ministry of Justice. The office raids were backed by armed security forces, and staff were held incommunicado for several hours while their computers, documents, and cash on hand were located and confiscated. They were also forced to submit the passwords for their computers and e-mail accounts. A month later, the public prosecutor announced that 43 NGO workers, including 17 Americans, were being indicted on charges of operating an organization and receiving funds from a foreign government without a license.
Before those charges were filed, the details of the investigation were obscure. No one could tell how many individuals and organizations were under suspicion, as they were instructed by the judges not to utter a word about the investigation or face imprisonment. Although the case was ostensibly focused on the NGOs' lack of legal registration and licensing, the nature of the staff interrogations was highly political. The crackdown was led by then minister of international cooperation Fayza Abul Naga, a holdover from the Mubarak regime. Her media statements as well as later testimony in court alluded to the organizations' supposed threat to national security without providing a single piece of evidence. This lack of transparency continued to characterize the whole process until Abul Naga left office to make way for a new cabinet formed by recently elected president Mohammed Morsi in July 2012.
The reality is that these organizations had been operating in full transparency, and most had officially applied for registration at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), but their applications remained pending for years. In the case of Freedom House, our registration package was formally accepted by the MFA three days before the raid. Under the Mubarak regime, Law 84, which governs the registration and operations of the NGO community, was most often used to restrict civil society activities and limit their effectiveness. Typically, foreign NGOs were never granted full registration in order to leave them in legal limbo and vulnerable to government crackdowns. While such actions were to be expected under the Mubarak government, they were a disappointment (and a serious warning sign) coming from a temporary government that was supposedly guiding the country toward a democratic future. The situation has not changed under the Islamist-dominated government of President Morsi. In fact, the same rhetoric of blaming any unrest in the country on foreign meddling, which was used by Mubarak and later by the transitional military regime, has been employed anew by President Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood supporters-again without a single shred of evidence to support their allegations.
A year later, the legal proceedings against the NGOs have not been resolved. Since February 2012 the case has been adjourned every month, with the next hearing scheduled for January 10, 2013. The defendants who remained in Egypt have been attending the abortive hearings, at which they have to stand, sometimes for hours, in a cage within the courtroom. The lives and careers of all 43 defendants, including those now outside the country, are under threat, with a prison sentence of up to five years looming if they are convicted. The confiscated documents, computers, funds, and other equipment have never been returned.
But the gravity of this ordeal is not limited to the staff or organizations immediately affected by it. The legal case has had a severe chilling effect on Egypt's civil society at a time when its functions-holding Egypt's new rulers accountable and advocating for full human rights and democratic freedoms-are more important than ever. Foreign organizations have an important role to play in strengthening the capacities of local NGOs, transferring knowledge on democratic transitions, monitoring elections, enhancing civic participation, and linking Egyptian civil society groups to international networks of solidarity and support.
The legal case started under the transitional government of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which clung tenaciously to its own prerogatives while permitting institutional and judicial disarray to fester. When power was transferred to Morsi in June 2012, the lack of improvement was not limited to treatment of foreign-funded NGOs. Indeed, the Egyptian government under Morsi's leadership is foundering, lurching through a series of unilateral decisions, decrees, and constitutional declarations, some of which were issued one day and rescinded the next. Egypt's new constitution was passed last month in a rushed process amid turbulent clashes between secularists and Islamists. There was no proper local or international monitoring of the referendum on the charter. This has all happened in the absence of a strong and empowered civil society.
The success or failure of Egypt's transition will have a significant effect on the rest of the Arab world, and the country's current economic, social, and political challenges are all but overwhelming. No single political force will be able to handle these problems on its own. In the near term, elections for a new parliament will take place in two months, and a great deal of work needs to be done to guarantee a sound, free, and fair political contest. Civil society has a crucial role to play at this time and beyond. But as long as the legal and political environment remains hostile to NGOs and whatever international support they can muster, Egypt will be deprived of the benefits of this essential pillar of democracy.