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– by Eva-Maria Verfürth
© Yasser Alwan
Some Egyptians have a clear idea of what role the military is playing
Last August, Germany signed a “transformation partnership” with Egypt’s transitional government. The agreement includes financial support for several democracy promoting projects. Some of the money is channelled through Germany’s political foundations. These foundations have close links to the parties in the German Bundestag, and part of their mission is to promote democracy and civil society activism all over the world.
Nonetheless, police officers and public prosecutors raided the Cairo office of Konrad Adenauer Foundation (KAF), which is close to the German Christian Democrats in December. They took along computers and paper files. Andreas Jacobs, who heads the office (and contributed a comment to D+C/E+Z 2011/7-8), had to appear in court. KAF did not get any written explanations. The offices of 16 other Egyptian and international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) underwent similar searches.
The event caused alarm in Germany. The Foreign Office in Berlin summoned Egypt’s ambassador. Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle’s spokesperson made an official statement. Development Minister Dirk Niebel said he considers the political foundations’ scope for action abroad the most important indicator for freedom.
Indeed, Germany’s federal government takes the work of the political foundations seriously. The foundations rely on public money and private donations. They enlighten the public about political affairs. Since they are ideologically tied to German parties, they are in a good position to cooperate with parties, parliaments and interest groups in foreign countries. They have a track record of supporting the transition from authoritarian rule to democracy in countries as different as Portugal, Chile and South Africa.
Because of the raids in Cairo, the US administration expressed concern too. Several US-based NGOs – including the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute – were affected. In late January, Egyptian authorities did not allow some staff members of these organisations to leave the country. When D+C/E+Z went to press, some of them had moved into the US embassy compound in Cairo, fearing arrest.
As early as November, Egypt’s Ministry of Justice had stated that several civil rights groups were getting illegal money from abroad. Accordingly, the 17 NGOs are now accused of receiving illegal funding and of operating without licence. The KAF denies any illegal activity and states that it documented all funding diligently.
In this time of change, there is some justification for Egypt’s law enforcers to keep an eye on what funds flow into the country and who benefits. It is irritating, however, that they cracked down on 17 institutions that – as the Cairo Institute of Human Rights Studies has pointed out – primarily promote democracy and human rights. It is typical of authoritarian rule to over-regulate political activities in order to be able at all times to level charges of breaching technical formalities against anyone who might oppose the government.
At the moment, it is impossible to tell whether the Military Council ordered the searches. Egyptian activists seem convinced it is. They say they have been blamed of staging protests and planning a coup for quite a while. At the end of December, 31 civil rights organisations issued a joint statement, according to which the raids were “part of a broader campaign launched by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to smear and stigmatise all rights activists and numerous forces involved in the revolution.”
The real victims of this sort of arbitrary state action are not the internationally active institutions, which may even benefit from such events in PR terms. The real victims are civil society organisations in Egypt, which have reason to feel intimidated by the police and public prosecutors.