A Project of the American Enterprise Institute and the Federalist Society

Egypt's Grip On Civil Liberties

The Washington Post

August 04, 2003

By William Fisher

The recent refusal of the Egyptian government to allow registration of two human rights organizations reminds us once again of some of the strange bedfellows who become America's "strategic allies" and who regularly receive massive aid from U.S. taxpayers. The billions of tax dollars the United States has sent to Egypt since that country pledged not to try again to destroy Israel demonstrate the primacy of "strategic interests" and "national security considerations" over principle.

Under a new law governing the activities of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), Egypt's Ministry of Social Affairs in June rejected the registration of the New Woman Research Center and the application of the Land Center for Human Rights to register a new affiliate. The New Woman Research Center, founded in the early 1990s, raises public awareness of women's rights issues, including female genital mutilation and domestic violence. The Land Center for Human Rights, founded in 1996, works on economic and social rights issues, primarily in rural areas. It has produced a series of reports on agricultural child labor and land tenancy issues, as well as environmental problems and other topics.

According to Human Rights Watch, "these two groups have been spotlighting important human rights issues for years. . . . By refusing to give them legal status, the government has confirmed that the new NGO law is intended to stifle civil society." The law, which passed the People's Assembly in 2002 despite widespread opposition from NGOs, significantly tightens state control over these types of organizations. It requires existing groups to apply for registration with the Ministry of Social Affairs, bars groups that the state determines to be "threatening national unity [or] violating public order or morals" and prohibits organizations from receiving funds from abroad without ministry approval.

The ministry must approve nominees to the governing boards of NGOs and can deny requests to affiliate with international organizations. The ministry can dissolve an NGO at will, as well as freeze its assets and confiscate its property without a judicial order. The law provides criminal penalties for unauthorized NGOs and for those who form "clandestine organizations." Human Rights Watch says of this law: "In Egypt as elsewhere, the state has a legitimate interest in registering civil societies, but in a way that allows citizens to exercise their basic political rights. . . . If the past is any guide, the authorities will use this legislation to pounce on any group whose activities cross the very low threshold for dissent in Egypt today."

Against this background -- and under considerable behind-the-scenes pressure from the U.S. government -- Egypt's ruling party has proposed creation of a new Council of Human Rights. According to the Egyptian government, the council would be completely independent of the government, would be headed by leading public figures and would have the power to investigate human rights violations. But many independent and opposition political figures, as well as Egyptian intellectuals, see it as a fox set to guard the henhouse.

Egypt is branded by such global organizations as the U.N. Human Development Report and Freedom Watch as undemocratic or authoritarian. And our own State Department's annual human rights report is highly critical of Egypt's record.

Why should all this concern the United States? Because our government considers Hosni Mubarak's Egypt a "moderating" force in the Middle East, a standing due largely to its efforts to help find a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its crackdown on Islamic fundamentalism.

Since the 1960s, Egypt has lived under a so-called Emergency Law. The 1981 iteration of that law has been used in Egypt's "war on terror" (long before that phrase gained worldwide currency). Under this draconian law, thousands of people are detained without charge on suspicion of illegal terrorist or political activity, and the Egyptian government infringes on citizens' privacy rights, restricts freedom of the press and curtails freedom of assembly and association. In combating terrorism, Egyptian security forces arbitrarily arrest people, mistreat and torture prisoners and subject them to prolonged pretrial detention. And in actions unrelated to the antiterrorist campaign, local police kill, torture and otherwise abuse both criminal suspects and others.

The importance of Egypt's vigilance against terrorism cannot be underestimated: It helps to protect the entire international community. The danger is that Egypt will throw away the baby with the bathwater -- that NGOs, especially those concerned with civil and human rights, can too easily find themselves tarred with the same brush as terrorist organizations. The loser in such cases is Egypt itself. NGOs provide myriad services that the Egyptian government can't or won't perform.

No one expects Egypt -- or any other Middle Eastern country -- to move from authoritarian state to democracy overnight. But the United States has had substantial aid programs there for more than 25 years. Is it not time for this country to impose the principle of "tough love" on Egypt and the kindred authoritarian regimes we support? Do we not have the right -- indeed, the obligation -- to demand that overseas beneficiaries of our largess begin to meet at least the most fundamental criteria of civil society -- beginning with a lot more respect for individual civil liberties?

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