The US-based Carter Center declared it is closing its office in Cairo, and that it will not deploy an observation mission to monitor the upcoming parliamentary elections, in an official statement late on Wednesday.
The Carter Center opened its Egypt office in 2011 following the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak, but after three years cited major concerns over a polarized political scene that is becoming increasingly narrow regarding freedoms for political parties, civil society and the media.
“The current environment in Egypt is not conducive to genuine democratic elections and civic participation,” said former US President Jimmy Carter. “I hope that Egyptian authorities will reverse recent steps that limit the rights of association and assembly and restrict the operations of Egyptian civil society groups.”
The center referred to the state’s crackdown on dissidents, opposition groups, political activists and journalists, as well as restrictions to the rights of association, assembly and expression. They specifically highlighted the contentious protest law passed last year, criticizing it for putting major restrictions on the freedom of assembly.
The statement also referred to arrests of members of the ousted Muslim Brotherhood group.
“The restrictions on democratic freedoms mean that citizens and political parties face extreme limitations on debate and participation and that political campaigning could be extremely difficult — and possibly dangerous — for critics of the regime,” the statement further explained.
In what seems to also be a major reason behind the Carter Center’s decision to close down its office in Egypt, the statement referred to the recent speculation over the NGO Law.
In July, the Ministry of Social Solidarity declared it would take swift action against any NGO that did not comply with the provisions of Law 84 (2002), and issued a deadline for groups to adjust their legal status accordingly. The declaration was issued alongside proposed amendments to the law that were lambasted as repressive by various civil society organizations.
The amendments mandate that NGOs must register to gain official status, thus rendering them subject to the state’s administrative authority. However, critics point out that this contradicts Article 75 of the Constitution, which stipulates that civil organizations are to be established only through notification.
The bill also introduces a new coordination committee to oversee NGOs, which effectively gives representatives of the Interior Ministry and the National Security Agency a seat at the table of every board meeting. The committee reserves broad rights to object to sources of funding, and can even veto nominations to an organization’s board of directors and reverse its decisions.
The draft legislation includes prohibitions against disturbing the public order and morals, taking part in political activity and undertaking field research without permission. It specifically targets NGO funding sources, treating them as public funds, in a major violation of international standards.
“It now appears that the strict law imposed during the Mubarak era [the NGO law] will be enforced more vigorously than in the past. Particularly troubling is the potential impact of the NGO law’s renewed imposition on rights-monitoring organizations,” the statement said.
“In the current context, it is unclear whether the Center and other international observation organizations would now be required to register as NGOs in order to conduct operations. Likewise, it is not clear whether electoral authorities would accredit the Center and ensure meaningful access to observe the upcoming elections. In light of these uncertainties, and in the political context of narrowed space and polarization, the Center has decided to close its office and end operations in Egypt.”
The Carter Center has deployed major observation missions in all elections since the January 25 revolution.