In an abrupt and unannounced move on an otherwise uneventful afternoon on 29 December, Egyptian security forces and judicial investigators raided as many as 17 offices
belonging to several Egyptian and US non-governmental organisations (NGOs) suspected of "conspiring against the state."
The move, which was denounced in local and international media, prompted worries that the raids on US-based NGOs could lead to an eventual rift in Egypt-US relations.
Investigations, meanwhile, remain ongoing amid a tense media atmosphere. Many rights workers, for their part, say that even ousted president Hosni Mubarak had never presumed to make such a brash move throughout the course of his 30-year tenure.
But while some analysts say the lawsuit is merely a "stunt" by Egyptian authorities aimed at pressuring Washington to maintain its annual aid package to Egypt, the incident has nevertheless raised concerns about the possible challenges that Egyptian rights organisations could face in the near future.
Critics argue that, if Egyptian authorities are prepared to threaten their relations with Washington simply in order to bolster their claims against local rights groups, then this bodes ill for the relative freedom of all NGOs operating in Egypt.
Several prominent international rights organisations, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have strongly condemned the ongoing crackdown on human rights and pro-democracy organisations by Egyptian authorities – even after Mubarak's ouster.
A common charge in international rights reports on Egypt is that the ruling military council and its appointed governments have continued, even extended, the Mubarak-era practice of suppressing press and civil society freedoms.
Sameh Abou Zeid, the judge presiding over the investigation into NGOs accused of illegitimate foreign funding, told a press conference in early February that investigators had evidence proving that some local NGOs, along with several foreign ones, had received "unauthorised" foreign funding. Abou Zeid, who was previously a State Security prosecutor, also said the committee would soon be issuing new warrants to search the offices of those NGOs charged with operating illegally in Egypt.
"During the Mubarak era, the process of registration was carried out selectively by the ministry of social solidarity in order to exclude human rights and pro-democracy organisations," said Sherif Alaa, project manager of the Egyptian Association for Community Participation Enhancement, a registered organisation established in 2003. "To get around this, they operated as private, non-profit organisations. Yet both types are the same before foreign-funding entities, enabling them to obtain funding and operate normally in the country."
After Egypt's current rulers changed existing laws to facilitate the establishment of political parties and trade unions, authorities now insist on amending the Mubarak-era NGO establishment law – but in a way that rights groups view as more restrictive than it had been under the former regime.
"Even with registered organisations, the ministry constantly rejects proposals to regulate the funding of certain projects having to do with political rights," Alaa said.
"Many established rights organisations have willingly chosen not to register at the ministry under the current law, since this would restrict the scope of their work," said Gasser Abdel-Razek, associate director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), established in 2002.
In January, Egypt's social solidarity ministry issued a draft law to regulate organisations working without a ministry permit, stating that, unless these organisations obtained approval from the ministry, they could no longer operate as private, non-profit organisations.
The draft was submitted before parliament's legislative committee in February for discussion, but the committee has not yet issued its final decision on the proposed law. The committee did, however, express initial disapproval of the bill.
"The solution is simple," said Abdel-Razek. "We need a law that guarantees the independence and freedom of civil society bodies. But it is now in parliament's hands to draft this law."
The charge now being levelled by government officials involved in the case, led by International Cooperation Minister Fayza Abou El-Naga, is that the accused US rights organisations were, in fact, conspiring to bring down the Egyptian state. Notably, some local rights organisations faced similar allegations even before the US organisations had.
The EIPR and its head rights lawyer, Hossam Bahgat, was among a blacklist of organisations and activists referred by prosecutors last September to a probe into their bank accounts – a milestone in the government's post-revolution confrontation with rights groups.
"Local rights organisations are now too many to contain. As institutions, they are part of the state. How could the state's own institutions conspire to bring it down?" asked Abdel-Razek, in an effort to explain why the government would include US organisations – which had operated without incident under the Mubarak regime – in the new illegal funding lawsuit.
"Some of those organisations accused by the government received invitations from the government itself to monitor the recent parliamentary polls," noted Abdel-Razek.
Many civil society workers believe that the human rights groups most at risk of suppression are those that take legal action against rights violations by the country's new rulers.
Human rights groups with legal offices – such as the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre, the Arab Network for Human Rights, the Egyptian Organisation for Social and Economic Rights, and the EIPR, all of which are led by lawyers – became the legal arm of last year's revolution. After the uprising, these organisations joined forces to realise revolutionary demands through court orders after the ruling military council showed increasing reluctance to address popular grievances.
Rights lawyers from these organisations, along with others, formed an umbrella group called the "Front for the Defence of Egyptian Protesters." The group's telephone hotline numbers – which offered protesters' legal representationin case of arrest – were posted on social media even before the 25 January uprising. Their work continued after the revolution, when they legally represented thousands of activists, many of whom had been hauled before military tribunals.
These rights organisations won a victory last October when a court ordered authorities to allow Egyptians living abroad to vote in Egypt's first post-Mubarak parliamentary and presidential polls. The issue of expatriate voting came up shortly after Mubarak's ouster, lingering for months as authorities resisted reform. By court order, however, the ruling military council eventually approved a law granting voting rights to millions of Egyptians living overseas.
In the meantime, investigations into "illegitimate" NGO activity remain underway – and so does the possibility of further action against certain targeted Egyptian rights groups, which nevertheless plan to continue their work despite the current unsettling circumstances.
"The strongest response to such a campaign is that we continue to work to our full capacity, continue pursuing lawsuits against the government and military council, and continue submitting memos to parliament," Abdel-Razek concluded.