Mohammed Hussein Tantawi (photo: dapd)
Searches of NGO Offices in Egypt

Between the Fronts

The searches carried out of the premises of international and local nongovernmental organisations in Egypt are not only part of a campaign of repression against civil society, but also an attempt by the military council to restore its own credibility. By Matthias Sailer

If one were to analyse the reporting on the recent wave of searches conducted of the offices of nongovernmental organisations in Egypt, a pattern could be discerned centering on the repression of the work of human rights organisations and think tanks that take issue with the violence exercised by the Military Council.

This aspect is no doubt a central one, and the suppression of critical information on the Army one of the goals the Military Council is pursuing with the searches. Nevertheless, a close examination of the events also turns up a further point: the attempt by the military to restore its credibility, which has increasingly come under fire in past weeks.

Woman at the election ballot in Al-Arish (photo: Reuters)
Election success for the Muslim Brotherhood: in the third stage of the Egyptian general elections, the moderate Islamists triumphed. The "Party for Freedom and Justice" said it won 35.2 per cent of the votes

​​Conducting the parliamentary elections without centrally steered manipulation or force already aimed in this direction, and would have made it much easier to install a presidential candidate backed by the military, the Military Council thus demonstrating its support for more democracy in the country.

The innumerable images on state television of soldiers accompanying old and feeble voters to the polls corroborated this assumption. Things obviously turned out differently, though, and the true face of the military was revealed in the violent clashes in December.

Under time pressure

We can only speculate for now as to what prompted the change in tactics, the inner dynamics of the Ministry of the Interior and the Army being all but impenetrable. One logical explanation might be as follows:

After the Military Council was forced by the protests in November, about one week before the beginning of the general elections on 28 November, to move up the date for the presidential elections, which had originally been planned for late June 2012, there was simply no longer any realistic chance of building up support quickly enough for its own candidate or one who would be easy to control.

Violent clashes on Tahrir Square (photo: dapd)
Parliamentary elections in the shadow of violence: In a four-day clash at the end of December between opponents of the ruling Military Council and the security forces, 17 were killed and more than 900 injured

​​About the only thing the military could still do, was to exercise violent repression. Unleashing sweeping violence in order to disrupt the elections was not an option, however, as otherwise the Muslim Brotherhood, striving for power, would have mobilised their members against the Military Council.

It was easier by contrast to suppress the revolutionary activists of 25 January, who for their part were pushing for an even faster change in government, namely the immediate handing over of all executive power to a civil transition government: those who died during the sit-in in front of the parliament and cabinet building in December were by no means sufficient to fill Tahrir Square. The majority of the population felt that the best road to greater democracy was to first let the elections go down in a halfway orderly fashion.

Campaigns against military brutality

The coming weeks will show whether the military's massive show of strength turns out to be a miscalculation. Numerous campaigns have now been launched in the country informing citizens about military brutality.

As early as last December, a few newspapers and private media were already criticizing its aggressive conduct. If the general elections hadn't taken place when they did, there probably would have been renewed large-scale demonstrations against military rule.

Ever since the elections, however, the Military Council is under considerable pressure from one new player on the political stage: Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood.

Many politicians have expressed scepticism at the simplistic explanation by the Military Council that local groups with foreign financing are responsible for the violence, and they are insisting that these groups should then be named. The stories told by several members of the council remain as vague as ever, with no proof having yet been furnished of the alleged foreign influence.

NGOs as scapegoats

photo: dpa
A thorn in the side of the Military Council: on 29 December, Egyptian security forces searched the offices of several NGOs, including the CDU-affiliated Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Cairo

​​The recent searches of NGO offices are now working to restore the military's credibility in the public eye, because the state-run newspapers have presented the NGOs searched, such as the German Konrad Adenauer Foundation and the US National Democratic Institute, as illegally acting organisations. This lends credence to the Military Council's assertions that there are "visible" foreign elements intervening on Egyptian soil.

At least for less-educated Egyptians, this could have the effect of restoring faith in the military despite its recent show of force. Also doing their part to sow deep mistrust amongst the populace in Western motives are the state propaganda machine and the all-pervasive nationalism.

Playing right into the hands of the military's strategy, the opposition newspaper Al-Wafd recently published an article claiming that many opposition politicians and activists had been financed from abroad – charges based on a US embassy document published on Wikileaks. In the original, however, no mention is made of financing. It was ultimately a case of targeted manipulation.

Matthias Sailer

© 2012

Matthias Sailer is a political scientist whose work focuses on the Near and Middle East. He studied at the FU Berlin, the University of Oxford and the "School of Oriental and African Studies" in London, and is currently working as a journalist reporting from Cairo.

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor

Editor: Lewis Gropp/

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