The Middle East Channel

SCAF’s Assault on Egypt’s Civil Society

Civil society is an essential component of any democracy and it will be a key factor in determining the success of the democratic transitions now underway in the Middle East and North Africa. In his May 19 speech, President Barack Obama identified "a vibrant civil society" as one of four areas in which Egypt and Tunisia should set a strong example for the region. Speaking to a global forum in Sweden last month, Secretary Hillary Clinton described civil society as "a force for progress around the world," while noting that "in too many places, governments are treating civil society activists as adversaries, rather than partners." Sadly, nowhere is that now more true than in Egypt, where the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has steadily escalated a campaign against this community which is even more repressive than during the Mubarak era. 

Unlike neighboring Libya and Tunisia, in which civil society was almost nonexistent prior to the revolutions of this year, Egypt has thousands of longstanding civil society organizations. Under Mubarak, the vast majority of these groups avoided any political issues, human rights concerns, or criticism of the Mubarak regime, instead focusing on issues such as health, education, and family welfare. The small subset of these groups that dared to work on political issues or human rights abuses were often the target of government harassment, interference, and intimidation. In the weeks following Mubarak's fall, Egyptian NGOs were eager to play a broader role and to help guide the political processes during Egypt's transition. Unfortunately, frustration set in quickly as the SCAF appeared to entirely ignore the views of civil society in its decision-making process. Tensions grew throughout the spring as the SCAF continued to ignore the demands and recommendations of civil society actors and increasingly sought to undermine their reputation with the Egyptian public, primarily through stories in the state-run media implying that Egyptian NGOs are working on behalf of foreign agendas.

In recent months, the SCAF has dramatically escalated these attacks on civil society. On July 12, Minister of International Cooperation Faiza Abul-Naga announced that the government would establish a commission of inquiry to investigate the funding of civil society organizations. Only two weeks later, state-owned October magazine ran a cover story -- illustrated with a crude depiction of U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson burning Tahrir Square with flaming U.S. dollars -- that accused the United States of undermining Egypt's revolution by funding civil society organizations.

The most recent and alarming step in the SCAF's assault was revealed in a September 26 article in Al-Fagr newspaper summarizing the results of the government's investigation. The report not only detailed the amounts of funding received by numerous NGOs but also declared 39 organizations to be "illegal." This followed reports in official newspapers in August that some of the NGOs under investigation would be charged with high treason and undermining national security on behalf of "foreign agendas," charges punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

The list of so-called "illegal" NGOs include many of Egypt's oldest and most respected human rights organizations such as the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, the El-Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Torture, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, and the Hisham Mubarak Law Center. The list also includes three Washington-based organizations that work to support democracy worldwide: the National Democratic Institute (NDI), the International Republican Institute (IRI), and Freedom House.

These groups are now suddenly being classified as "illegal" on the grounds that they are not officially registered under Egypt's existing, restrictive NGO law 84/2002, which extends wide-reaching authority to the Ministry of Social Solidarity to control the activities, funding, and board membership of NGOs as well as to dissolve NGOs when deemed appropriate. Many of the "unregistered" NGOs are in fact legally registered entities in Egypt, but they are registered as civil corporations, law firms, or other legal entities that are supervised by less intrusive government ministries and laws. Although hundreds of Egyptian organizations are not officially registered under law 84/2002, it appears that the specific 39 declared illegal have been targeted because of their focus on democracy and human rights. During the Mubarak era, the Egyptian government often interfered with the work of these "unregistered" organizations, but it never went so far as to declare dozens of NGOs to be illegal and threaten to charge them with serious crimes on the basis of their registration status. Following Egypt's historic protests calling for basic political freedoms, it is deeply disturbing that the Egyptian military has targeted Egypt's democracy and human rights community in ways not even dared during Mubarak's despotic rule.

There is also tragic irony in the Egyptian military attacking human rights organizations for receiving foreign funding, when by far the largest recipient of foreign funding in Egypt is the military, itself. The headline in Al-Fagr this week declared that $225 million has been distributed to Egyptian organizations by the United States, Europe, and the Gulf countries since Mubarak's fall. But this amount pales in comparison to the $1.3 billion that the Egyptian military has received from the United States annually for decades. If the acceptance of foreign funds implied working to undermine Egypt on behalf of foreign interests, then the Egyptian military would be the guiltiest party of such crimes.

The $1.3 billion in annual military aid -- nearly 30 percent of the Egyptian military's budget -- should, in theory, give the United States significant leverage in its relationship with the SCAF. Although successive U.S. administrations have been loath to use military aid in this way, the SCAF should know that it is playing with fire. Even if the administration is reluctant to reduce this assistance, Congress may be less so, particularly in the current budget climate.

Whether the U.S. administration chooses to use military aid or another aspect of the relationship as leverage, it must demonstrate clearly to Egypt's military the seriousness of the consequences of this crackdown on civil society. Last week in his speech before the United Nations General Assembly, President Obama reiterated that, "We will pursue a deeper engagement with governments, but also with civil society - students and entrepreneurs, political parties and the press ... and we will always serve as a voice for those who've been silenced." Now, as the Egyptian military does its best to silence Egypt's civil society organizations, the administration should go beyond engagement with these groups to unequivocally stand up for their rights.

Stephen McInerney is executive director at the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED).

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The Middle East Channel

Iran negotiations have been a force multiplier

Speaking at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace earlier this month, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen stressed the need for the U.S. to maintain open channels of communication with the government of Iran.

"Even in the darkest days of the Cold War," Mullen said, "we had links to the Soviet Union. We are not talking to Iran, so we don't understand each other." Asked whether he was "specifically talking about military to military contact, or a broader set of engagement between the two countries," Mullen replied, "I'm talking about any channel that's open. We've not had a direct link of communication with Iran since 1979...Any channel would be terrific."

While President Obama made talking to Iran a central element of his foreign policy agenda upon taking office, no one expected that it would be easy. Over the last three years, Iran's leaders have done nothing to change that pessimism. Always skeptical of the prospect of negotiating with Iran, U.S. conservatives have criticized President Obama's engagement policy from the start. Most recently, in his first big foreign policy address last Tuesday, Texas Governor Rick Perry scolded President Obama for "wasting precious time on a naïve policy of outreach" to Iran.

Even some early supporters of Obama's engagement policy have lost hope. In a New York Times op-ed this summer, the Brookings Institution's Suzanne Maloney and Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations wrote: "Washington must appreciate that it is locked in a prolonged struggle for regional influence with one of its least predictable foes." In order to prevail in this conflict, the authors continued, "Washington must abandon any expectation that Tehran can be seduced or coerced to the negotiating table."  

These sentiments are understandable. Almost two years have passed since the U.S. last held direct face-to-face talks with Iran in Vienna, a meeting which appeared to produce a deal in which Iran would transfer 75 percent of its Low Enriched Uranium stock for conversion to nuclear fuel. Brokered by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), with the backing of Russia and France, and supported by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the deal soon fell apart after the Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei rejected it, and was therefore abandoned. Iran has still not suspended its uranium enrichment program, as required by U.N. Security Council Resolution 1696.

But while negotiations with Iran have not yet achieved their primary goal -- a solution to the standoff over Iran's nuclear program -- they have not been without important benefits.

Since President Obama agreed to talk directly to Iran almost three years ago, he has done more to isolate the Iranian government than President George W. Bush did in eight years in office. By engaging with the Islamic Republic, President Obama called its leaders' bluff. The Iranian government could no longer say that the U.S. is only interested in threatening and attacking Iran. Much to the disappointment of Iran's supreme leader Ali Khamenei, President Obama recognized the Islamic Republic and its leaders, and the U.S. government sat down and talked to their representatives.

While the P5+1 did not manage to convince the Iranian government to transfer 75 percent of Low Enriched Uranium in Vienna, the Obama administration's willingness to talk to Iran -- and Iran's refusal to make a deal -- enabled the U.S. to show the world (and, importantly, Iranians themselves) that it was Iran's leaders who were the impediment to reaching a deal. This move also brought Russia and China closer to the position of the U.S., as well as other partners who believed that tougher sanctions needed to be imposed on the Iranian government. The recent news that China has scaled back its investment in Iran's gas and oil sector should be particularly worrisome for Iran's leaders.

Obama's outstretched hand also made an impact on Iran's domestic politics. According to Iranian dissident Akbar Ganji, Obama's efforts to engage helped power the Green movement's challenge to the regime. "Obama offered a dialog with the Iran," Ganji said, "and this change in discourse immediately gave rise to that outpouring of sentiment against the Islamic Republic" after June 2009's disputed presidential election. Similarly, Nobel Peace Prize-winning Iranian human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi said that, by showing a willingness to engage with Iran, Obama showed Iranians and the world "that it is the Iranian regime that doesn't want to talk." The specter of American hostility is a treasured propaganda tool of the Iranian regime. By engaging, President Obama denied them the use of this tool.

Negotiations with Iran have also done much to boost the credibility of the U.S. and the rest of the P5+1 at the expense of the Iranian government. This was demonstrated after the revelation by the U.S. of a secret enrichment site in Fordo, in Central Iran. Had this revelation been made during the Bush era, it would have likely been met with considerably more skepticism. This time, however, the international community was much more receptive, precisely because of Obama's effort to reach out to the Iranian government. So was the IAEA, whose head at the time -- Mohammad El Baradei -- investigated the revelation and declared that Iran had operated on "the wrong side of the law".

Perhaps the biggest achievement of negotiations to date has been their facilitation of the imposition of tough international sanctions against the Iranian government and its nuclear program. As a recent IAEA report revealed, these sanctions have been instrumental in slowing the progress of the Iranian program. This view is now shared by former Israeli defense officials such as Gabi Ashkenazi, who in a speech at the Brookings Institution stated that sanctions were the best course of action against Iran. Meanwhile, in a recent visit to the IAEA, Israel's Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor acknowledged that sanctions against Iran could work. Another Israeli security official, speaking on background in an interview with the authors, said that, while Israelis initially "were skeptical about a possible positive outcome of the negotiations" in respect to the nuclear issue, "we recognize that they contributed to building international consensus." The fact that such statements are being made by officials of a country skeptical of sanctions speaks volumes.

In short, far from being evidence of "naiveté," President Obama's engagement policy has served as an important force multiplier for efforts to pressure the Iranian government. Rather than "validating the mullahs," as former Republican presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty charged, Obama's policy has in fact further isolated them. Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appeared at the United Nations last week politically diminished, and representing a regime that is more weakened and alone than it has been in years. And Ahmadinejad's ridiculous, conspiracy theory-laden speech to the UN General Assembly effectively killed whatever goodwill might have been generated by Iran's release of American hikers Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal two days earlier.

As the P5+1 continues to confront the challenges of Iran's nuclear program, it must also continue to use direct negotiations as its major tool. While experience supports a degree of pessimism about the prospects for a negotiated solution, abandoning the offer of talks with Iran would be the wrong move. Indeed, this would in fact relieve Iran's leaders of pressure. We lose nothing by this -- while we talk, Iran enriches. While we don't talk, Iran enriches. In addition to avoiding the sort of accidental flare-ups of which Adm. Mullen warned, keeping the door of negotiations open, while maintaining targeted sanctions, will keep open the space for Iran's leaders to compromise, and keep alive the chances of reaching the best possible scenario for the international community: finding a peaceful solution to Iran's nuclear program. True naiveté is believing that the problem can be adequately addressed through mere rhetorical bluster and threats of force, and continuing to shout at Iran across a chasm as the U.S. has done for the last 30 years.

Meir Javedanfar is the co-author of "The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the State of Iran" and teaches the "Contemporary Iranian Politics" course at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya, Israel. Matthew Duss is a National Security Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress in Washington, DC.

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