The letters NGO stand for Non-Governmental Organization. A Non-Governmental Organization is a body that engages in activities related to the welfare of society in which it operates but without being affiliated to any official institution or political party. This is the description of an NGO I have known since I was aware the term existed and there has never been a reason why I would assume that belonging to one could in any way be a criminal offence. But in Egypt, everything acquires a new meaning.
It is quite normal for a dictatorship to clamp down on any institution that makes people aware of their rights, advocates democratic reforms, or empowers minorities simply because it is quite expected from a dictatorship to do all what it takes to keep its citizens in the dark as far as how oppressed they are and how capable they are to topple their oppressors are concerned. I am not sure what is normal for a dictatorship that was technically toppled and realistically consolidated, but if a regime’s relationship with civil society is one of the many criteria for measuring the degree of democracy, then judging by the latest NGO showdown we are definitely still in a dictatorship both technically and realistically.
Several years ago, a famous NGO was closed down and its founder, a prominent human rights activist and a staunch critic of Hosni Mubarak’s regime, was sentenced to jail on charges of defaming Egypt for publishing a report on sectarian clashes in an Upper Egyptian village. This, more or less, laid the foundations for the “healthy” relationship NGOs should establish with the regime and which should basically revolve around the first painting a rosy picture of the second and that was apparently the only way they can both coexist happily ever after. Sounds totally logical! Any regime that has a lot to hide would do its best to turn NGOs into an enemy that for its own survival has to be subjugated rather than an ally that for the public good should be supported. In fact, you can judge the severity of violations committed by a regime by the intensity of its crackdown on NGOs.
For this very reason, the continuation of the diabolical depiction of any civil society related institution even after the revolution hardly took anyone by surprise and all those who saw the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces as an offshoot of the former regime and who followed the nonstop campaigns against revolutionary activists, freedom writers, and outspoken MPs would see the latest attack on NGOs as one more chapter in the saga. However, it was not the leveling of seemingly very serious charges against four NGOs and 43 of the their employees, both Egyptian and foreign, that saw our jaws dropping, our eyeballs popping out, and our minds boggled, but rather how all that was done and how we suddenly became the spectators of a third-rate melodrama in which an old gypsy-like woman, who turns out to be a midwife, storms into the church as the priest is about to finish his “speak now or hold your peace forever” to announce that the groom is the bride’s twin brother.
I will have to skip the fact that those NGOs have been working for years in Egypt and were actually given official permission to monitor parliamentary elections. I will also not talk about the illegal funding issue not only because of how hackneyed it has been and how incapable I am of understanding what makes one funding legal and another illegal, but also because this sounded like a terribly bland accusation compared to other much more sinister ones like possessing maps that reveal a plot to divide Egypt into four statelets and taking photos of restricted military sites. Apart from the fact that the those charges, unraveled by the two judges in charge of investigating the case and who set a precedent by making public the details of the indictment before the trial started, turned out to have not been part of the official accusations, which turned out to be nothing more than receiving donations without permission and operating without licenses, in the first place and nobody knows where they came from till now, it sounded a bit confusing to see the prosecutor establish five years as the maximum sentence for crimes that could amount to high treason for Egyptians and espionage for foreigners. Meanwhile, statements by the prime minister about Egypt never “kneeling” no matter how much pressure it is subjected to gave the impression that the country is up against some cosmic attack and pushed the audience to the edge of their seats as US threats to withhold the aid and speculations over the severing of diplomatic relations menacingly loomed in the horizon. Tension kept mounting when only two days after the trial started, the entire panel of judges withdrew from the case citing “discomfort.” The climax drew close as the new court panel, formed on the same day the old one pulled out, lifted the travel ban on the 14 foreign defendants, six of whom are American. One more twist of events was required and there was none better than an American aircraft landing at Cairo Airport, the very next day, and the credits rolled with the triumphant takeoff of the former guests of the criminal court dock.
Even the conspiracy-detection skills I have started developing lately have miserably failed me and I am not alone in this. With the exception of the military council that seems to have won the Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Director, the prime minister who must have acquired a great deal of fitness after such an intensive kneeling exercise, or the Muslim Brotherhood who look like they are now bosom friends with Senator John McCain, I don’t think one single Egyptian understands what that fuss was about or who exactly the members of the cast that gave such a lousy performance were. Everyone was left wondering whether the US was, like the authorities, an actor in the charade or, like us, a dumbfounded spectator and what the fate of the remaining Egyptian defendants, still facing the same charges, will be and how amazingly independent the Egyptian judiciary is.
It is almost impossible to know for a fact how this whole thing happened, but we have the liberty to make as many wild guesses as we can about why it happened. It is equally impossible to impose a rational interpretation on an absurd occurrence, so there goes my disclaimer. The military council, together with the government and possibly the parliament, was becoming increasingly annoyed at the continuous exposure of human rights violations and political blunders by NGOs, which were maybe expected to convey a more positive image of Egypt now that the regime is toppled and all sorts of elections are being held. When this proved to be wrong, another round of former-regime-like NGO clampdowns became necessary, but it couldn’t be done in the old fashion. There had to be a way that would make the authorities sound justified in their action while not being regarded as belonging to the pre-revolution school of undermining civil society. Sensationalism was the answer and nothing better than charging foreigners working on Egyptian soil and flirting with the popular outside infiltration scenario, therefore turning it into a case of sovereignty and national security, could have done the job of instigating the public against NGOs. The fiery rhetoric of officials and their striking indifference to antagonizing the world’s superpower served to make the story more credible and the threat more tangible. It was only when the choice of the foreign, especially American, factor that the plan backfired simply because it lacked the most basic of calculation skills to the extent that they assumed the U.S. would have its hands tied while watching its citizens banned from travelling and threatened with jail sentences for a crime they have not committed and there is so much the U.S. can do to put pressure on Egypt and see the un-kneeling prime minister prostrating. Between a rock and a hard place, the compromise was reached with the Americans, and the rest of the foreigners, untied from the rock and the Egyptians remaining in the hard place. This way, it is honeymoon as always with Uncle Sam and hell like never before with any Egyptian who worked or will work in any institution that monitors the transition to democracy or advocates political reform.
And as the film ends with the westbound plane loaded with homesick passengers breathing a sigh of relief and hitting friendly skies, a post-credits scene features the Egyptian defendants behind bars listening to jail sentences and hitting rock bottom.
The Rescued, the Scapegoat, and the NGO … now in theatres.
(The writer teaches English Literature at Cairo University. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org)