From Bad to Worse in Egypt

The repression of civil society is far worse than anything seen under Hosni Mubarak.

Egypt’s military rulers have spent the last several months provoking U.S. and European ire with their crackdown on civil-society groups. Last week they managed to ratchet up the diplomatic crisis further, by preventing a British aid worker from leaving the country on the eve of a visit by Martin Depsey, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Meanwhile, Egypt’s minister for international cooperation, Fayza Abul Naga, continues to accuse my organization, Freedom House, and other international groups of trying to “create a state of chaos and work to maintain it in Egypt.” All this comes more than a month after Egyptian authorities shut down the Cairo offices of 10 Egyptian and foreign civil-society groups, including those of Freedom House.

The ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has decided to ignore mounting U.S. and European criticism and escalate its crackdown. Following a politically motivated investigation, 43 people, including 19 Americans and six Europeans, are about to face criminal charges for their work supporting a democratic transition in Egypt.

The impending charges are part of a larger assault on civil society led by Ms. Naga and other holdovers of Hosni Mubarak’s regime. The state media’s smear campaign against American groups began last summer. About 400 Egyptian organizations reportedly are under investigation, and we expect to soon see more criminal charges against Egyptian civil-society leaders.

The repression of civil society is far worse than anything seen under Mr. Mubarak. In the past, Egyptian groups were routinely harassed and occasionally shut down, but they never faced the kind of large-scale investigation that is going on now. Similarly, foreign democracy-assistance organizations encountered some interference but were tolerated by Mr. Mubarak’s regime. They have operated openly, and have never before had their offices shuttered, their foreign staff prevented from leaving the country, or their staff threatened with criminal prosecution.

That a longstanding U.S. ally would treat American groups in this way is surprising. What is all the more stunning is that the SCAF is overseeing the assault on these groups, even though it receives $1.3 billion in U.S. aid annually, about one-fifth of its budget. This is $1.3 billion to the Egyptian military, not to the Egyptian people. Egypt also needs U.S. and European support to secure a $3.2 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund to stem its downward economic spiral since the revolution.

The SCAF has reneged on its promises to senior U.S. officials to allow the American groups to reopen their offices. Despite a mounting uproar among U.S. policy makers, the prosecutions in Cairo are set to move forward. These prosecutions target, among others, organizations connected to the governing parties of the United States and Germany. But even though Egypt’s military rulers have infuriated previously supportive U.S. Congressional leaders, they are doubling down on their bet that they can get away with this persecution of American democracy-assistance groups.

At a time of ongoing protests against military rule in Egypt, the SCAF seems determined to use its attacks on civil society to bolster its position. By accusing foreign groups like Freedom House of instigating unrest, the SCAF aims to distract from its own ineptitude and undermine the credibility of Egyptian pro-democracy activists, who have been pressing of their own accord for a transition to civilian rule.

Egypt’s military rulers are also carrying on their effort to crush the liberal camp in Egypt so they may portray themselves at home and abroad as the only alternative to an Islamist takeover—just as Mr. Mubarak did for three decades before his downfall. As the SCAF prepares to turn power over to a civilian government in a few months, liberals are the main impediment to a deal that will give it immunity for abuses committed over the past year and keep its economic holdings intact.

The SCAF’s brazen moves against international democracy-assistance groups are ultimately intended to isolate Egyptian civil society and weaken indigenous efforts for a democratic transition. If military rulers, subsidized by U.S. taxpayers, can shut American groups down, Egyptian civil society will become all the more vulnerable. Egyptians are struggling to complete the revolution they started a year ago and are looking to the international community to support their struggle.

Mr. Calingaert is vice president for policy at Freedom House, based in Washington, D.C.

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