CAIRO, Egypt — Egypt’s government on Monday refused to grant operating licenses to eight US-linked civil society groups, including the nonprofit headed by former US President Jimmy Carter, in what appears to be a widening of the crackdown on foreign-funded NGOs.
The Ministry of Insurance and Social Affairs, responsible for the registration of both local and foreign nonprofits, said the groups’ activities were deemed to be in “violation of Egypt’s sovereignty,” according to the Egypt’s state-run MENA news agency.
In echoes of a high-profile crackdown on foreign-funded NGOs earlier this year, the ministry said the organizations would “face serious legal action” if they continued to operate on Egyptian soil.
“The rejection of these organizations was not due to reasons pertaining to their slogans or the activities they said they planned to implement in Egypt,” an unnamed ministry official told MENA. “But after considering the mechanisms by which they intend to implement these activities the ministry felt that they were in conflict with the upholding of the state's sovereignty "
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In addition to the Carter Center, which monitored Egypt’s parliamentary elections last fall, the government rejected license requests from Coptic Orphans, a Christian development organization, and Seeds of Peace, a youth-based conflict resolution group.
In March, dozens of foreign and Egyptian civil society activists were put on trial for illegally receiving funds to subvert the state.
Egypt’s general prosecutor had said the groups failed to register with the proper authorities under the so-called “NGO law,” a regulation crafted under ousted President Hosni Mubarak. Critics say the law is oppressive because it opens organizations to surveillance by domestic intelligence agencies.
Egypt’s ruling military junta seized power during last year’s popular revolt. It has used the post-uprising instability to jail activists, and has sought to stifle dissent by blaming foreign powers for the country’s woes.
Many here fear the army generals will refuse to cede power following the election of a civilian president.
“This [recent ruling] is a political maneuver with no obvious legal implications,” said Amir Salem, a human rights lawyer. “They [the rejected organizations] don’t seem to be threatening state sovereignty, but they could be supporting the democratic process and that scares the government.”
Many of these organizations, including the Carter Center, intended to monitor Egypt’s elections next month. That may still be a possibility.
In what Salem speculated was a gesture to President Carter’s long-standing ties with Egypt — he brokered the historic Egypt-Israel peace treaty — the Supreme Presidential Elections Commission, a committee of high-ranking judges, announced Tuesday it would allow foreign organizations to monitor May’s presidential polls if they obtain the proper accreditation from three separate government bodies.
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The Carter Center’s Egypt field director, Sanne van den Bergh, said they are now in the process of applying for credentials to monitor the upcoming presidential polls, the first since Mubarak was ousted. The election is already fraught with legal mishaps and the last minute disqualification of at least 10 candidates.
She said they are “optimistic” the Carter Center will be approved to observe the elections, with the first round on May 23. President Jimmy Carter, on a visit to Egypt in January, lauded Egypt’s parliamentary elections as a “great and historic event.”
But the Presidential Elections Commission says its authorization for organizations to scrutinize the elections process is not a mandate to pursue any other activities inside Egypt.
It remained unclear if the commission’s ruling to allow foreign elections observers clashed with the decision made by the Ministry of Insurance and Social Affairs to disallow the Carter Center and other nonprofits to operate.
Van den Bergh said the government has yet to officially inform the Carter Center that their registration application was rejected, and they are “treating it only as a media report.”
“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has told us our application is still pending,” she said.
Salem said that under the law, the government cannot fault the Carter Center for observing the elections under the auspices of the commission.
“There is no law preventing the international observation of the elections,” Salem said. “So technically there will be no violation of the law if the elections commission accepts [the Carter Center’s] request to be international observers.”
Neither Coptic Orphans nor Seeds of Peace could be reached for comment.
When asked if there would continue to be a role for the Carter Center in Egypt following the presidential elections, van den Bergh said: “It’s too early to tell.”
Heba Habib contributed reporting for this article.