Earlier this year, Egyptian authorities notified the Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture--an organization that has spent 23 years undertaking urgent work with survivors of torture and other forms of violence in Egypt--that it must close its doors. The "administrative closure order" came with no details or substantive justification. This action on the part of the Egyptian government has been part of a disturbing trend to intimidate and restrict activities of human rights groups in Egypt.
These unsettling developments in Egypt mirror shrinking space for human rights and civil society organizations in many other parts of the world. In fact, the central theme in the State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices released a few weeks ago highlighted "the striking, systemic, and global attack on civil society being undertaken by governments around the world." The report detailed major sustained crackdowns in country after country in all regions of the world. The report also emphasized what the United States government is doing to fight back against this trend.
As outlined by my CVT colleague Emily Hutchinson recently, in our work to achieve greater strategic effectiveness in the work of human rights and civil society organizations, CVT has witnessed this crackdown first hand. In addition, a common thread among all of our healing projects is that activists and leaders are often those specifically singled out for abuse, whether it is to punish them for their work or to signal to others what will happen if they continue their works.
CVT recently communicated our concerns about the Egyptian government's attempts to restrict the activities of human rights groups in Egypt to Secretary of State John Kerry. In his response to us, Secretary Kerry wrote that he shared our concerns and outlined measures the U.S. government had taken to raise its concerns with the Egyptian government. While we applaud those steps, they clearly have not been enough, as the Egyptian authorities' crackdown continues.
Perhaps Secretary Kerry's efforts to stem this disturbing trend might have been more successful had they been part of a clear and consistent message to the Government of Egypt that such a crackdown would have important consequences for U.S. - Egyptian relations. But at the very time the Egyptian government was clamping down, as mass arrests reached tens of thousands, and torture of detainees was rampant, the United States government announced in March 2015 that it would be resuming military aid to Egypt. That aid--totaling $1.3 billion and making Egypt the second-largest recipient of U.S. military aid--had been halted in October 2013, when the State Department announced that because the Egyptian military had deposed a democratically-elected leader, U.S. military aid would be suspended until Egypt made "credible progress" toward democratic reforms.
Clearly, that has not happened.
The latest State Department's human rights report strongly criticized Egypt for a range of human rights violations by security forces and military authorities, including torture and the ever-smaller arena for human rights groups to work in the country. Despite the language in that report, I suspect that Egyptian authorities are not worrying that the Obama Administration's protestations will be followed by serious pressure to curb the abuses. Whatever those pressures have been, there has been no letup in the suppression. Indeed, the Egyptian government might even feel emboldened to continue their crackdown on Egyptian human rights organizations.
Given the turmoil in the region, the United States may feel that there are special security considerations that require the U.S. to temper its public expression of concerns about Egypt's worsening human rights record. As recent history has demonstrated, that approach is short-sighted. The U.S. should press harder for an end to the crackdown, which has included dropping probes into NGOs' funding from foreign sources, potential travel bans on activists, asset freezes and harassment of human rights activists. A timid response will only encourage an even harsher clampdown.