8-16-2011By Quinn O'Keefe
Senior Associate, Human Rights Defenders
The U.S. government is really taking it on the chin in Egypt these days. The current Egyptian government and members of the press that had previously been supporters of the Mubarak regime are now criticizing the United States for providing financial assistance to non-registered human rights and civil society organizations. While the USG has a lot to atone for in Egypt—such as, its protracted cozy alignment with the Mubarak regime to the detriment of the Egyptian people—supporting local efforts to promote human rights and democracy is something in which U.S. officials should take pride. Rather, the United States should stop mumbling its message in Egypt, and should start making itself clear that when it comes to promoting human rights and those who defend them in Egypt, the U.S. has no intentions of backing down.
After all, what the United States is doing in Egypt is far from unique. It is an international standard that independent human rights organizations should have access to foreign support, including financial support. While governments should control organizations that misuse funds or break other laws, some countries abuse this power and restrict freedom of association to such an extent that human rights and independent civil society organizations are unable to carry out their legitimate activities or even exist. In those cases – and Egypt has long been one of them – providing funds to organizations that are not officially recognized by their government is the only option for providing human rights and democracy activists with the support they badly need.
Egypt restricts independent civil society organizations through overbearing laws governing NGO regulation and operation, a carryover policy from the Mubarak regime that the interim government has been happy to continue. As the pro-democracy and human rights groups have become more critical of the military, the interim government has begun to cry foul against the USG and the non-registered organizations it is financially supporting. Last month, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces opened an investigation into local non-registered organizations that have received USG support. They claim to be looking for alleged espionage and undue foreign interference, specifically from organizations such as the well-known pro-democracy group the April 6 Movement. This most recent crackdown was sparked, in part, by the testimony of Ambassador Anne Patterson during her recent confirmation hearing. She noted that the USG had already distributed $40 million to promote democracy and civil society, a statistic that outraged Egyptian leadership.
Unfortunately, the U.S. Department of State has been clumsy defending its decision to provide financial assistance to unregistered human rights and pro-democracy groups in Egypt. Rather than making clear that this is it is these organizations’ right to receive foreign assistance, the United States remains caught up in the politics of foreign interference and name-calling. Just last week, USAID recalled its Mission Director amid increasingly bold statements by the interim government calling the USG’s foreign aid to pro-democracy groups foreign interference. Though the U.S. Embassy maintains that the Director was recalled for other reasons, his recall at this critical time for the Egyptian people does not exude confidence from a Mission embroiled in controversy for its aid decisions.
This clumsiness and hesitance in the USG’s statements and actions could be a result of the nation’s newness to the practice of openly offering support to non-registered Egyptian human rights and democracy groups. Before the Arab Spring, the USG would not openly provide funding to non-registered organizations in Egypt, kowtowing to the Mubarak regime to the detriment of civil society and human rights promotion. Because of this policy, the USG lost a lot of support from local human rights and youth activists. It will take time for the U.S. to rebuild that support.
Even so, its recent financial support for non-registered groups on the ground is an excellent step in the right direction and it’s better for it to come late than never. The USG is complying with international standards and its own guiding principles when it makes financial assistance available to non-registered Egyptian human rights and civil society organizations, and it should continue this support until the country’s overly restrictive registration laws are reformed so that human rights and civil society organizations can register and operate without undue government interference.