Call the Generals' Bluff

by Sherif Mansour, Foreign Policy Magazine

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On Monday, Feb. 6, the Egyptian Justice Ministry indicted me and 42 other employees from five different NGOs operating in Egypt, referring our cases to the country's criminal court. They have accused me of being an "American-Egyptian fugitive" and claim I am being charged with "managing a branch of an international organization without a license from the Egyptian government" and "receiving and accepting money from international organizations through direct funding for implementing activities which is forbidden by law and violate the sovereignty of the state."

For the past five years, I have been an employee of Freedom House, managing programs that empower young advocates of democracy and human rights in Egypt and the Middle East. I was born in Egypt, and I started my human rights career working at the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies, Egypt's oldest human rights organization, where I led a national coalition of NGOs to monitor the elections in 2005. I moved to the United States in 2006 to escape President Hosni Mubarak's increasing harassment, including media attacks and security interrogations. Yet of my 10 years of work as a human rights activist, during which time I have been repeatedly defamed and wrongly accused, these latest charges have been the most ridiculous.

The Egyptian government's claims that this case is about respecting the "rule of law" or protecting "state sovereignty," as reported in the state-run Al-Ahram newspaper, are dangerously misleading. The laws the government is using against us are remnants of the Mubarak political system, designed to oppress, intimidate, and control civil society. They were passed by a rubber-stamp parliament that came to power through sham elections. These laws violate basic standards of freedom of association and contradict Egypt's obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which it is a signatory. (For example, the NGO law of 2002 requires NGOs to get prior approval for all funding and gives the government complete control over monitoring and approving their activities.) Only in a democratic system, where people have a representative government, does the rule of law have real meaning.

The political motivations and vindictive nature behind these accusations are overwhelmingly clear. The case against me, as well as the other NGO workers, was initiated by the only senior official from Mubarak's cabinet to remain in power. The investigation is part of a wider crackdown on Egyptian civil society that has taken place over the past six months. The current case against the international NGOs, including Freedom House, covers almost five years of operations that have provided technical support and advocacy for local democracy and human rights groups in Egypt. Much of this support helped local NGOs and activists who challenged Mubarak -- a man the ruling military council has put on trial in the name of the Egyptian people.

Although it would be easier to disregard these political charges as I sit in the comfort of my office in Washington, if the Egyptian government arrests our local staff and starts court proceedings, my colleague Charles Dunne -- the other Freedom House "fugitive" in Washington -- and I have agreed that we will have to fight this battle to the end, including going to Egypt to defend not only ourselves but the rights of all those who are being unfairly persecuted. Despite the obvious risk of jail time or worse, we would rather appear in front of an Egyptian court than be convicted of false crimes in absentia. It would be a small price to pay to support the independence of Egyptian civil society.

Currently, activists around Egypt are accelerating their efforts to stop attempts by counterrevolutionary forces to steal their revolution. All across the country, they are in the streets, voluntarily and without hesitation, paying with their blood and, in some instances, with their lives. They are fighting to make sure that the old Egypt, with its repression and corruption, does not find its way back. It will not be easy for me to turn down an opportunity to do the same, especially if I am called by name to make the choice. I simply cannot look myself in the mirror or think about facing my family and friends who have already sacrificed so much if I don't help prevent the revolution from being hijacked.

Egyptians will continue to seek their freedom with or without foreign support. Freedom House and other organizations simply provide them with the support to make that happen in a peaceful and rapid manner. By providing training, exchange programs, and small grants for nonpartisan democracy and human rights advocacy, as well as by sharing best practices from other experts, we have helped Egyptian civil society fulfill its crucial role in the democratic transition.

Nearly a year ago, on Feb. 16, 2011, I was present when U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton launched the "Strategic Dialogue with Civil Society" initiative, which aims at ensuring that U.S. diplomats around the world keep closer contact with the people of the countries they are in. I told Clinton directly that Egypt might be run by military rulers who do not understand the role of civil society. "We need to hear it clearly from State Department that … recipients of foreign aid" -- the government of Egypt -- "should not decide what the civil society should do or are able to do," I noted. My message remains the same today.

After the events of the past few months, with U.S. organizations and citizens clearly targeted despite the United States' billions of dollars in military and economic aid to the Egyptian state, the ball is in America's court. It is time to make it clear to the Egyptian military that Congress and the White House will stop subsidizing repression in Egypt with U.S. taxpayer money, including the $1.3 billion in annual military funding. Leverage is useless if one chooses not to use it. But more importantly, it's time to take a moral stand. The military council thinks it can literally get away with impunity and cynically keep taking Americans' money. I say we call the generals' bluff.

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