POMED Notes: Egypt at the Crossroads, Part II
On Thursday, The House Committee on Foreign Affairs was in session in order to hear testimony from the presidents of the four American NGOs involved in the recent government raids in Egypt. Testimony was heard from the President of the International Republican Institute Lorne Craner, President of the National Democratic Institute Kenneth Wollack, President of Freedom House David Kramer, and President of the International Center for Journalists Joyce Barnathan. Chairman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen presided over the hearing.
For full event notes, continue reading below or click here for the PDF
Chairman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen opened the hearing discussing the concerning developments which have come into fruition over the past year, the most fearful being the “Egyptian government’s treatment of pro-democracy NGOs.” Ros-Lehtinen stated that the treatment of NGOs was “politically motivated” and worse than the way they were treated under the Mubarak regime. “The activity of these NGOs have nothing to do with ‘destabilizing’ Egypt,” as so accused by members of the Egyptian government. The NGOs activities are purely to assist the Egyptians in their transition to democracy, said Ros-Lehtinen. Other developments concerning Chairman Ros-Lehtinen include religious minorities “facing persecution” and elements “questioning the utility of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty.” Continuing to provide assistance to Egypt while these disdainful behaviors continue, we will “be sending a number of unacceptable messages,” said Ros-Lehtinen. She stated that the Executive Branch and Congress must “make it clear” that the Egyptian government must “immediately return all assets and funds that were seized in the raids of the NGOs, allow them to reopen their offices, and resume their work. It [the government] must ended the politically motivated investigations and prosecutions” of the NGOs and “comply with the international human rights standards” in addition to providing the NGOS with freedom of operation throughout the country. She stated that the handling of this situation will “color the way” in which assistance is given to Egypt and affirmed that the SCAF bears ultimate responsibility for the “strain on relations.”
Lorne Craner was first to testify. He urged the committee to understand the situation facing the NGOs not in isolation but as “one symptom of increasingly troublesome developments in Egypt.” He applauded Egypt for the holding their first fee and fair elections, but said that other “important components of democracy” fall much short of other democratic transition in the region. Egypt, after experiencing development of several political parties and rapid growth of civil society organizations, experienced an attack on civil society on December 29. Egyptian security services, armed with AK-47s, stormed the NGOs offices, kicked down one door at IRI, detained staff, and confiscated cash, equipment, and program documents. Craner stated that today more than 400 NGOs are under scrutiny and having employees called in for questioning. Questioning sometimes lasts for four hours or more. The attacks should be seen, said Craner, as the “tip of the iceberg” in an “ongoing effort to silence independent Egyptian civil society.” Craner said it is critical that U.S. policymakers condemn “with one voice” the attacks on civil society and the regulations/laws that hinder their activity. Craner explained that the Egyptian Ministry of Justice is “not following their own legal standard.” “No legal document pertaining to charges or reflecting the scope of the investigation against civil society groups has ever been shared with anyone at IRI,” said Craner. Craner explained that the U.S. must support demands for “transparency, accountability, and freedom” at the “critical crossroads” in Egypt. He said decision makers must be “steadfast in providing an enabling environment for political parties and civil society to build democratic societies.”
Kenneth Wollack expressed his hope that NDI can continue their work in Egypt and solve the current “misunderstandings” through constructive dialogue. According to Wollack, since the Egyptian investigative officials, “accompanied by armed men” entered the NGO offices, the situation “has regrettably” deteriorated. “None of the equipment, documents, and money confiscated by the security forces has been returned. A number of our employees are forbidden to leave the country. some have been subject to hours of interrogation,” said Wollack. Furthermore, “investigative judges” have recommended that charges be brought against 15 of NDI’s employees. The charges state that NDI, “received and accepted fund and benefits from a non-Egyptian organization in order to commit the crime prescribed under Article 98©/1 of the Egyptian Penal Code, being the direct receipt, from NDI’s headquarters in the USA of the sum of eighteen million US dollars, of which fourteen million US dollars were received in April 2011,” and that NDI, “established and operated, without a license from the Egyptian government.” Media reports have claimed that NDI possessed “maps” that “purport to divide Egypt” when in fact the maps identified where elections would be held, that NDI has made payments made to certain political parties “to undermine the sovereignty of Egypt.” Wollack stated that NDI has remained completely transparent, continued to attempt to register with the Egyptian government, and continue their work. Wollack denied any accusations that NDI provided any sort of funds to political parties or changed the outcome of any election. Wollack emphasized his belief that the investigation being conducted does do not “resemble a normal and fair judicial process” and affirmed their commitment to developing civil society in Egypt.
David Kramer explained the sincerity of the situation and stated that Egypt is at a crossroad and the “future of Egypt’s transition is at stake.” He emphasized the importance of the international community in the U.S. to concentrate not only on the U.S. organizations facing persecution, but the some 400 additional Egyptian NGOs facing prosecution. “Let me state clearly that we do not view this situation as a legal matter involving rule of law,” said Kramer. He said that Freedom House never did anything illegal or improper. In fact, said Kramer, they have made every effort to comply with everything the Egyptian government has asked of them. He continued attesting to the fact that many Egyptians feel that the SCAF has hijacked the revolution and “what it represented.” Kramer maintained that “each day that passes in which our offices remain closed” makes the situation worse, and stressed that the U.S. organizations not “be given special treatment while Egyptian civil society remains under attack.” Kramer believes that the U.S. interests in this matter stem reach way beyond the American-Egyptian relationship. “Regimes around the world are following very closely what the Egyptian authorities are able to get away with,” said Kramer. Kramer concluded the recent attacks on civil society make certification of “the Egyptian government is taking steps to move toward civilian government and protect civil liberties” impossible. He advised that the U.S. should sever any relationship it has with the Ministry for Planning and International Cooperation.
Joyce Barnathan explained the nature of her organization, clearly stating that its only interest is to ensure that journalists uphold the highest standards of reporting. She voiced her concern over the unjustified arrests and of the Egyptian journalists who are facing charges. One of the Egyptian employees simply does clerical work, but is face the most serous charges of them all. She stated that ICFJ would continue to refrain from taking any political positions over this or “any other issue.” “We don’t tell governments, political parties or candidates what to do in Egypt, the U.S., or anywhere.”
The question and answer session began with a question from Chairman Ros-Lehtinen. She inquired who initiated the crackdown if it was state-sponsored, and how the Muslim Brotherhood’s statement that they released produced a reaction from the Egyptian public. David Kramer responded confirming that the Minister of Planning and International Cooperation, headed by Fayza Abul Naga, has been the face of the crackdown but there is “clear indication” that the SCAF could have ended the raids on the day which they were perpetrated. “The SCAF has the power to end this fiasco,” said Kramer, “it is a concentrated campaign that is being allowed by the military leadership.” “Abul Naga maintains that the work of the organization has been tied to Israeli interests,” said Lorne. Kenneth Wollack stated that the armed men who raided the offices of the NGOs “refused to identify themselves”, “refused cooperation”, and “refused to take inventory” of what they confiscated. No one has received any documents officially charging them with any crime. Also, the press, including the state run media, has released “inflammatory information.”
Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA) asked if any indictments have been issued. The panel confirmed that no such indictment has been formally issued. Berman asked about the current status of the facilities in Egypt. Barnathan responded that the offices remain closed. Kramer reiterated and added that none of the confiscated materials had been returned. “All offices remain sealed,” said Craner. Wollack responded to a question about what a “satisfactory solution” and “ways congress could be helpful” by asking congress to “insure the personal safety of the staff members and helping [NDI} to continue their work. Kramer asked for an ending of the investigation and dropping of all charges.
Rep. Christopher Smith (R-NJ) asked if any of the members had been tortured or degraded or if any international body has raised an issue. Craner responded saying that the U.N. had not raised an issue, but said “everything that can be exerted, including UN assistance, would be helpful.” Wollack said that though the interrogations went for hours, the employees had been treated well. Kramer addressed questions about “stirring up of religious conflict” saying that the “smothering of civil society” is bound to raise tensions. He confirmed that he was not aware of torture.
Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY) inquired as to why the U.S. image is so bad amid the Egyptian population. Kramer addressed the question stating that “propping up of authoritarian leaders hurt our long term interests.” He asserted that Israel or the U.S. had nothing to do with the uprising. Rep. Dan Burton (R-IN) asked if he majority Islamist parliament would implement sharia law and if this would affect minorities. Wollack responded saying that the parliament, which reflects the will of the people, “has left us room for hope.” He stated that the Freedom and Justice Party and the Liberal parties are not made up strictly Muslim Brotherhood and Liberals, respectively, but rather coalitions have been formed and “there will be grounds for operation.”
Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) asked if any of the organizations had ever had members detained in other countries. The panel, with the exception of Wollack, collectively responded no. Wollack cited two instances where NDI employees were detained under suspicions and subsequently released. “The SCAF has neutered the liberal parties and thus misrepresented the choices available to the people of Egypt,” said Kramer. Rep. Gerald Connolly inquired about what “sparked” the actions of the government in reference to the raids. Wollack responded attributing the action to an internal struggle over which group is going to control the U.S. assistance. Rep. Gus Bilirakis asked if the NGO were targeted because of assistance given to certain groups. Kramer responded advising that aid given over the last 10 years to Egypt should be audited as part of a press campaign, the investigation closed, and registration with no strings attached. Rep. Brad Sherman asked why military aid is given at all. Kramer addressed the question saying, “We had a partner in Egypt. That partner is gone. Our policy was based on that partnership. We need new policy.”