On January 22nd, 2022, Egypt’s human rights issues made headlines when Biden refused $130 million in security assistance that had originally been promised to them, citing human rights concerns. This decision follows pressure from both U.S. lawmakers and human rights activists to no longer overlook Egypt’s major violations of democratic principles. Although Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi released a few political prisoners in September, his government has continued to crackdown on political opponents, and international activists believe that Egypt’s democracy is continuing to deteriorate. According to the Biden administration, the remaining $130 million is contingent on Egypt lifting Case 173, an ongoing investigation into Egypt’s human rights advocacy organizations.
The main international objections to Sisi’s actions have been focused on Case 173, which has already led to prosecutions of employees of at least twelve NGOs. The Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, as well as countless other organizations, have been calling for the case to be dropped ever since it initially was opened in 2011. Egyptian authorities already admitted to fabricating accusations against several human rights organizations, and defendants in the case have continually been facing travel bans, asset freezes, and relentless media campaigns against them.
Effectively, therefore, Egypt’s continual pursuit of Case 173 is taking away the right of NGOs to organize to oppose the government without the threat of legal retaliation. The question then arises of how important the right to organize is to a democracy. Is Case 173 solely responsible for Egypt’s qualification as no longer democratic, or is it simply reinforcing the democratic erosion already occurring? And furthermore, is Biden’s focus on Case 173 merited, or are there larger concerns?
Although the United States counts the right to organize as one of our fundamental rights in the Bill of Rights, many political scientists that have attempted to define democracy do not include it as an integral factor. In 1942, when Joseph Schumpeter defined democracy, he created a minimalist definition, claiming that a democratic nation is any nation where individuals acquire power through a competitive struggle for the people’s vote . Nowhere in his definition does Schumpeter include who can vote, or whether their rights are protected by their democratic government. Under this minimalist definition of democracy, therefore, Case 173 on its own cannot make Egypt no longer a democracy.
In Robert Dahl’s Polyarchy (1971), he argues that an ideal democracy allows citizens to formulate and signify preferences, and to have those preferences weighed equally . He includes the right to join and form organizations as a crucial element of the freedom to signify one’s preferences. Yet, Dahl ultimately concludes that no country has truly met these three criteria, and these are rather standards for measuring the achievements and possibilities of governments that claims to be democratic . When looking at real countries, the main factors for measuring democratization are whether a country has public contestation and participation in their elections , factors that are relatively unaffected by Case 173. Dahl would thus believe that Case 173 takes Egypt farther away from being a truly ideal democracy, but it doesn’t directly affect their ability to democratize.
A 2020 Pew Research study revealed that, while most people value their right to form civil society organizations, they don’t consider it particularly important relative to other democratic principles. The study surveyed people from 34 nations across the globe, and asked them to mark whether they considered various democratic principles to be “very important” for their country. 82% of people valued a fair judiciary, 74% valued gender equality, and 68% valued free religion, but only 55% said that the right for human rights groups to operate freely was very important, making it the second-lowest rated principle.
These theories make it clear that the existence of non-governmental organizations is not necessarily essential to a nation’s ability to democratically represent their people. NGOs are, however, incredibly important when a democracy is threatened. As Ozan O. Varol establishes in Stealth Authoritarianism (2014), non-profit organizations and independent groups function as “public watchdogs,” and are important for providing objective information and commentary on their governments. Varol explains that crackdowns on NGOs accepting foreign funding like Case 173 can be signs of stealth authoritarianism and democratic erosion . In theory, a democracy without any NGOs could exist, but it would be significantly more fragile and easier to erode.
Case 173 makes Egypt less democratic by restricting the rights of NGOs, but it isn’t the largest threat to democracy in Egypt. Case 173 in itself is not what is making Egypt undemocratic: rather, it is the extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detentions, jailing of journalists, and the torture and inhumanity occurring within their prison system that is going unchecked because of Case 173.
Between 2015 and 2020, the Egyptian government has killed at least 14 people without trial. Since Sisi’s election as president, Egypt has ranked amongst the world’s top jailers of journalists, surpassed only by China and Turkey. They have also been restricting the media, and targeting LGBTQ+ people with violence. The last Egyptian presidential election, in 2018, involved hardly any competition against President Sisi; after his main challenger was arrested and his campaign manager beaten up, Sisi ended up receiving 97% of the vote.
Given everything else going on in Egypt, Case 173 is far from their biggest threat to democracy. There seems to be universal agreement that right to form NGOs and human rights advocacy groups, while helpful for protecting a democracy, is not the most important democratic principle. Biden’s decision to make Egypt’s funding contingent on dropping Case 173 will not be enough to protect Egypt or the Egyptian people: to truly defend Egyptian democracy, much more drastic measures need to be taken. Case 173 is certainly harmful, but only because it further enables the democratic erosion that is already taking place. Achen, Christopher H., and Larry M. Bartels. Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government. Princeton ; Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2016.  Dahl, Robert A. Polyarchy; Participation and Opposition. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971.  Varol, Ozan O. “Stealth Authoritarianism.” Iowa L. Rev. 100 (2014): 1673.