Germany's Friedrich Naumann Foundation, kicked out of Egypt last week, is just the latest international organization to shut its offices. Cairo accused the foundation of unwanted interference, over protest from Berlin.
Egypt remains on track with its policy of restricting political education programs offered by international organizations.
Germany's Friedrich Naumann Foundation, affiliated with the Free Democratic Party (FDP), was forced to close its small liaison office in Cairo last week. The organization had already moved its regional office from Jordan to Egypt due to a de facto ban on its activities, and other foundations and organizations have also been pressured into leaving the country. The closure highlights the already strained relations between Cairo and Berlin and the continuing deterioration of freedom of expression and opposition on the Nile.
"This latest decision is another measure by the Egyptian government that inhibits an open, pluralistic dialogue in society," the foundation said in a public statement, adding that it regretted that no diplomatic solution had been reached. Last week, diplomatic efforts had entailed Berlin summoning the Egyptian ambassador to Germany, Badr Abdelatty, and asking him to reopen the office. The German Foreign Ministry stated that Germany's political organizations carry out valuable work in their host countries, and that they should be allowed to continue to do so in light of the increasing political pressure being put on civil society.
Waning support for NGOs
Pressure has been steadily mounting for years. For decades, the liberal Friedrich Naumann Foundation and many other international organizations have been committed to fostering civil society in Egypt, organizing seminars, conferences and workshops and supporting non-governmental organizations. Even after the government of longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak fell at the beginning of 2011, they continued their work.
However, authorities demanded at the time that foreign organizations reregister and be held to stricter conditions, the same conditions that Egyptian groups were subject to, in order for their work permits to remain valid. The foreign foundations have insisted they maintain their independent status, and all attempts to reach a German-Egyptian agreement for a new legal basis have failed.
Jana Warkotsch, Egypt expert at the GIGA Institute of Middle East Studies, sees two reasons for Cairo's stance. She points out that ever since current President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi took over, there has been strong resentment towards Western interference. "The attacks on the political foundations are a byproduct of the strong repression campaign against all forms of political dissent," Warkotsch explained in a DW interview. "They are aimed at national organizations, political parties, protest movements, civil society organizations and the foreign foundations that support them."
Work put on hold
In the escalating conflict in 2013, Egyptian courts tried over 40 employees of European and American organizations. According to the allegations, they had no licenses and had illegally transferred funds to Egyptian organizations. Even employees of Germany's Christian Democrat-affiliated Konrad Adenauer Foundation were targeted, and were forced to put their activities in Egypt on hold. The website of the Social Democrat-affiliated Friedrich Ebert Foundation, however, still lists events in Egypt for 2016.
At the end of 2014, the Friedrich Naumann Foundation was banned from all activities in Egypt, forcing the regional office to move to Amman, Jordan. Cairo was supposed to remain a small liaison office, meant to be a place where contacts in the region could be maintained, explained Rene Klaff, the head of the Middle East office of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation.
Very few Egyptian employees continued working there - initially, authorities had nothing against this. "Now that we've cut back to two employees, they tell us: You must leave the country," said Klaff, adding that he saw no concrete reason for this shift in opinion.
Political education programs have become impossible to preserve, said Klaff. "We can only work on the basis of a consensus with the host country. Until that has been restored, we must remain passive," he said.
Cairo lays the blame on Berlin
Egypt blames Berlin for not having reached an agreement on the legal basis for the foundation's work. The Egyptian embassy in Berlin revealed that Cairo had already made many proposals to solve the problem, but that the German side has not yet responded.
Klaff sees this differently. "The Egyptian side claims it wants to create the right conditions, but in fact, has not done this," he said. He is pleased that the German government backs the foundations and has summoned the Egyptian ambassador. "In diplomatic networks, there have been exchanges in which the German side has expressed its lack of understanding," Klaff confirms.