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Freedom’s March is uneven. Democracy is difficult. And today, Freedom’s March is being tested in the brutal crackdowns that have killed hundreds in Syria, Libya, Egypt, and elsewhere.
On Thursday, December 29, just days before the third round of parliamentary voting, Egyptian soldiers and police in full commando gear stormed 17 nongovernmental offices and shut them down. While preventing any outside contact and showing neither search warrant nor any court order, they seized computers, files, personal cell phones, and money, and then sealed up doors.
Among those invaded were the offices of three U.S. NGOs: the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, and Freedom House. These nonpartisan groups work to help build civil society and train political parties. They work with all parties and do not take sides in political campaigns. None tries to determine the winners or losers.
Eleanor Roosevelt helped found Freedom House after World War II to foster respect for human rights and freedom around the world. Ronald Reagan inspired the founding of IRI and NDI to help build the infrastructure of freedom around the world.
For months, Egyptian government prosecutors have been investigating alleged illegal foreign funding of local NGOs.
President Reagan warned that the United States cannot and should not try to determine the pace of Freedom’s March—that was up to the people living under totalitarian and authoritarian rule themselves. Furthermore, Reagan warned that America should not try to dictate the form a new democracy should take—that too was up to the people themselves, drawing on their own unique history, heritage, and habits. However, he did declare that there should be no doubt that America stands on the side of freedom and democracy for one and all. And Reagan called on Americans and other people living in freedom to help those living under repression to create the building blocks of free societies: a vibrant civil society, the rule of law, a free press, the right of association and assembly, political parties, platforms, and the tools to campaign in open, free, and fair elections.
But entrenched interests who have long enjoyed the positions, privilege, and prerogatives of power recognize the threat in allowing people to decide for themselves who will lead their country. It endangers their advantages. Transitions of power by their very nature are clear and present dangers to these entrenched elites. Perhaps that is why acts of repression have been growing in Egypt during this transition period. After the Arab Awakening manifest itself in large, peaceful demonstrations in Tahrir Square one year ago, Egypt’s longtime authoritarian ruler Hosni Mubarak relinquished power to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). The military had long played a dominant role in governing Egypt. It was hoped that, recognizing the new realities, the Egyptian military would stabilize Egypt’s transition from authoritarian rule to a new, representative government. It was felt that the U.S. government, which provides Egypt’s military with more than $1.3 billion of critical aid annually, would use that leverage to influence SCAF to play a constructive role.
Therefore, it has been alarming to witness 59 people killed in clashes between demonstrators and Egyptian security forces since late November. The thuggish actions authorized by SCAF shutting down the NGO offices are the latest repressive step. For months, government prosecutors have been investigating alleged illegal foreign funding of local NGOs. There are charges that more than 300 local Egyptian groups have received foreign money.
The authorities are succeeding in chilling the atmosphere, increasing the dread, and weakening the forces of freedom.
Freedom House called the raids an “unprecedented assault on international civil society organizations and their local Egyptian partners.” Freedom House went on to note that the raids “come in the context of an intensive campaign by the Egyptian government to dismantle civil society through a politically-motivated legal campaign.”
Due to extensive media coverage and condemnation as well as demands from U.S. and European officials, Egyptian officials agreed to return the confiscated materials and allow the international NGO offices to reopen.
Nonetheless, days after the raids, Egypt’s International Cooperation Minister Faiza Aboul Naga made clear that the authorities’ intimidation of foreign NGOs and Egypt’s nascent civil society was not over. She said that there have been complaints from the judiciary and the military about civil society groups accepting foreign money to “influence public opinion in non-peaceful ways.” She also said that “there are foreign civil society groups that began operating without permission, which is totally outside the law.”
What she did not say is that for years there has been a requirement for foreign groups to be licensed by the Egyptian government, but that filings go unanswered, leaving groups in legal limbo. For example, IRI initially filed for a license to work in Egypt six years ago and has neither been granted a license nor denied one. Meanwhile, IRI openly has carried on programs within Egypt. The Egyptian government even invited IRI to send observers to judge the January 2 and 3 parliamentary elections.
Despite the promises of the authorities, by close of business on Wednesday, the seized materials had not been returned to the violated NGOs, and Egyptian personnel working for the NGOs had been hauled in for questioning.
So even if the targeted international NGOs have their seized materials returned and can reopen their offices, the damage will continue. The shadow of ongoing repression grows darker. Egyptians are understandably wary of continuing to work with these groups because of fear of being targeted by SCAF. The authorities are succeeding in chilling the atmosphere, increasing the dread, and weakening the forces of freedom.
Reagan called on Americans and other people living in freedom to help those living under repression to create the building blocks of free societies.
Furthermore, we can be confident that Egypt’s thuggish acts and the response of the international community are being watched closely in Moscow, Beijing, and wherever authoritarian forces want to halt freedom’s march. If Egypt can get away with such repression aimed at bothersome Western NGOs, why can’t they employ the same abuse of state power in Russia, China, Venezuela, Zimbabwe, and elsewhere?
America cannot tolerate the sacking of legitimate NGOs. America cannot be quiet as the space for civil society is crowded out in Egypt. It is time for America to stop giving the Egyptian authorities a blank check. President Obama must speak out clearly in condemnation of this outrageous escalation of repression in Egypt. We must put appropriate conditions on our continuing aid to the Egyptian military, including the condition that the military stop its repressive actions against the people of Egypt and against NGOs, and that it transfers power consistent with the will of the Egyptian people.
Make no mistake. Moving from authoritarianism to a free democracy is neither quick nor easy. This is difficult, challenging, and perilous work. Success is not guaranteed. America cannot determine the pace of freedom’s march, but America can peacefully and constructively help those seeking liberty around the world. That is something Eleanor Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan understood. It is an opportunity and a responsibility America should accept.
Richard Williamson served on President Reagan’s senior White House staff, held ambassadorial posts under Presidents Reagan and George W. Bush, and served as President Bush’s Special Envoy to Sudan. He also serves on the Board of both Freedom House and the International Republican Institute.
It is time for America to stop giving the Egyptian authorities a blank check. President Obama must clearly condemn the outrageous escalation of repression in Egypt.
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