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German NGOs stuck in a rut in Egypt

Kate Brady
June 14, 2017

Four years since the arrest of two German political foundation employees, efforts to resume work on democracy in Egypt are failing. NGOs and foundations are facing increasing repression from autocratic states worldwide.

Ägypten Präsident Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi
Image: picture -alliance/Sputnik/Vitaliy Belousov

Since June 4, 2013, German political foundations - as well as those from the US and other European countries - have only been able carry out their work in Egypt in accordance with a restrictive legal frame or not at all.

At the time of the initial clamp-down, 43 members of foreign nongovernmental organizations were sentenced to prison terms of between one and five years, including two members of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation (KAS), affiliated with Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU). The two employees were accused of illegal money transfers and unlicensed work and later sentenced in absentia to two and five years in prison.

- 'Absurd' sentences in Cairo for Germans

- Foreign NGOs must close in Egypt, court rules

Four years later, there has been little progress in those organizations resuming their projects, with all German political foundations having altered their work or left Cairo all together.

Ägypten Angela Merkel & Abdel Fattah-al-Sisi
Image: picture-alliance/Anadolu Agency/Egyptian Presidency

A supplement to the culture accord, agreed upon in March during Merkel's visit to Cairo, however, is an important first step to secure the future work of foundations, Thomas Birringer, Head of the Middle East and North Africa team at the KAS, told DW. The KAS is no longer present in Cairo.

Read more: Egypt agrees to reducing restrictions on political foundations, says Germany's Merkel

While supporting the accord, Birringer added that the judgments concerning their two employees have not yet been resolved. "This is still an issue for KAS and will remain so until the rulings are repealed," Birringer said.

The Hanns Seidel Foundation, which is affiliated with the Christian Social Union - the Bavarian sister party of Chancellor Merkel's CDU - said they too welcomed the supplementary agreement, highlighting, however, that the accord still remains subject to ratification by the Egyptian Parliament.

Nothing has changed

But Rene Klaff, head of the regional office of Middle East and North Africa of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, said that the March deal doesn't suffice.

"Even when the protocol is enforced, we will still be unable to work politically," Klaff said. As opposed to political work, the agreement refers to scientific and cultural spheres in which the foundations might work. "Whether we can work in economical affairs remains to be seen."

The Friedrich Naumann Foundation withdrew from the Egyptian capital one year ago and currently holds a regional office for the Middle East and North Africa in the Jordanian capital, Amman.

From the archives - As far back as 2011, raids were being carried out on NGOs in Egypt:

Outrage over Egyptian raid of NGO offices

Under new legal parameters, political foundations are also required to submit an annual plan to Egyptian authorities which must receive the seal of approval from the government of Egypt's President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi.

Chairwoman of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, Barbara Unmüssig, said the new requirement goes against the spirit of the Green party-affiliated foundation.

Opinion: A heavy blow to Egyptian civil society

"We want to work in freedom and without repression," she told DW. Despite never being formally registered as a political foundation in Egypt, the Heinrich Böll Foundation previously led projects in partnership with other NGOs, with particular focus on human rights and the environment. These too have been curtailed.

Egyptian authorities 'skeptical'

According to Klaff, a combination of political, financial and juristic reasons have all led to the situation in which German and other foundations find themselves.

"Of course, the political foundations work to improve democracy, and focus particularly on citizen rights, civil society and freedom of expression. These are all aims of which the Egyptian authorities are skeptical," Klaff said.

Egypt Adenauer-Stiftung in Kairo
The Konrad Adenauer Foundation is affiliated with Chancellor Angela Merkel's CDU partyImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Nicole Renvert, associate fellow at the German Council of Foreign Relations (DGAP), said the restrictions were initially an individual problem targeting merely US NGOs that were giving money to pro-democracy groups.

"The German political foundations were at first accidentally caught up in these proceedings," Renvert told DW. "But we see a new development here which clearly affects them too. We're witnessing a tightening of regulations in many authoritarian countries right now. But we'll fully comprehend the serious effects only in the coming months."

The Trump effect

While the Egyptian government also receives support from the likes of US President Donald Trump, Renvert said the situation isn't going to improve for the German foundations.

During el-Sissi's first state visit to the US under the Trump presidency in April, Trump said the Egyptian president, a general who ousted his democratically-elected predecessor in 2013 and was later elected to the position, had done a "fantastic job," adding that he was "very much behind" el-Sissi.

"There may well be lessons to be learnt when we see the effects of [the] visit," Renvert told DW. "In his support for el-Sissi, Trump has given the Egyptian government the freedom to do something they probably wouldn't have dared to prior to el-Sissi's visit."

Egypt's Al-Sisi in Washington

Similarly, Friedrich Naumann's Klaff also warned against Trump's influence.

"Traditionally, the US - both in its rhetoric and its politics - has prided itself on striving for democracy and freedom of speech. However when there is no longer any worth or importance placed on these values, that becomes a kind of and endorsement of policies against civil rights," Klaff told DW.

The behavior of other authoritarian states such as Russia could also be playing a role in Egypt's actions, Birringer of the Konrad Adenaur Foundation told DW.

In May 2015, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed the country's undesirable organizations law as a follow-up its 2012 foreign agent law. Under the legislation, prosecutors have the power to extra-judicially declare foreign and international organizations "undesirable" in Russia and shut them down.

Read more: German NGOs worried about Russian partners

Under Pressure: German political foundations in Russia

"Authoritarian states are looking to each other to see what they're doing. Worldwide there are concerns of growing repression," Birringer said.

Looking ahead, the foundations must now wait for parliamentary approval from Cairo before March's supplementary accord can be implemented even with its flaws.

"This ratification is by no means assured and, in our view, due to Ramadan and the upcoming summer recess [from parliament], it will probably be fall before this is signed," Thomas Reiner of the Hans-Seidel Foundation said. "Now, the ball is in Egypt's court."

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