Egypt and the NGOs
Feb 24, 2012
February 24, 2012
Number 02/12 #07
This Update features two pieces on the crisis between Egypt and the US sparked by the Egyptian government’s crackdown on pro-democracy NGOs in the country, and more importantly, what these events say about Egypt’s potential for progress toward genuine liberal democracy.
Stephen McInerney, director of the Project on Middle East Democracy, discusses the politics of the NGO case in some depth and makes a strong case that the future of Egyptian civil society may be at stake. He details the clear disingenuousness of the claims against the NGOs, and the way Fayza Abul Naga, minister of planning and international cooperation, is clearly using the case – along with a strategy of brinksmanship – to promote her agenda, with at least the acquiescence of the ruling military council, SCAF. Finally, he has a good discussion of how the Muslim Brotherhood is using the controversy – and the threatened cut-off of US aid to Egypt – to promote their preference to scrap the peace treaty with Israel. For this important yet worrying analysis of the Egyptian political realities connected with this case, CLICK HERE.
Washington Institute expert on Egyptian politics Eric Trager says the key question to be asked, and not just by the Americans, is whether the current military government is malicious or merely incompetent. He says this applies not only to the effort to blame foreign NGOs for fomenting chaos, but also is relevant to the soccer riots that killed 73 people in Port Said last month. In the end, he argues, “Whether the SCAF is wickedly targeting pro-democratic NGOs or simply unable to stop others from doing so” this a severe problem for Egypt’s future relations with the West. For the rest of what he has to say, CLICK HERE.
Finally, noted American scholar of Iran Abbas Milani reports on his own recent trip to Egypt and the conclusions he draws from it. He notes many signs of growing religiousity across the country, including the growing loudness of calls to prayer, the new ubiquity of zabibas, prayer bumps on the forehead, and the almost complete absence of women from the public area of rural areas, and their appearance almost always with the hijab in Cairo. He notes the huge decline in the economically vital tourist sector, efforts by newly-elected Islamist parliamentarians to pass laws likely to make this worse, yet meets a poor man who voted for the extreme Islamist Salafists – despite working in the tourist sector – in the hopes of benefiting in “the next world.” For Abbas’ account of what he calls Egypt’s “half-finished revolution”, CLICK HERE.
Readers may also be interested in:
- An account of the many extreme anti-Israel conspiracy theories now circulating in the Egyptian media – including supposed Israeli export to Egypt of chickens infected with bird flu, and “toxic jeans”.
- Barry Rubin points out the increasingly likelihood that an Islamist candidate could win the Egyptian Presidential elections.
- An interesting account of the struggle between Islamists and democrats and others inside Egypt published by Der Spiegel.
- News that the PA and Hamas have again agreed to delay the unity government they have been discussing over the 10 months. Plus another good piece on the divisions within Hamas by noted Israeli Arab affairs analyst Pinhas Inbari.
- Two interesting pieces on the apparent stability of the Netahyahu government in Israel – here and here.
- Photos of the bombs in radios that Iranians were allegedly trying to use to blow up the Israeli Embassy in Thailand.
- Some examples from the many stories and comments now appearing at AIJAC’s daily “Fresh AIR” blog:
Egypt Stands to Lose More Than Aid
Foreign Affairs, February 22, 2012
This weekend, the fracas over foreigners in Cairo is set to escalate when hearings begin against 43 workers (including 16 U.S. citizens) charged with operating without a license, receiving unauthorized foreign funds, and engaging in political activity. The drama is seven months in the making. Last July, Egypt’s Ministry of Justice opened an investigation into the activities and funding of numerous (possibly as many as 400) nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). The move came at the behest of Fayza Abul Naga, minister of planning and international cooperation. In the months that followed, her department refused to officially state or confirm any details of the wide-ranging probe. Then, in late December, Egyptian security forces raided the offices of several of the NGOs under investigation. And what began as an effort by one Egyptian minister to assert her control has turned into a game of international brinkmanship that has the potential to upend the security calculus of the Middle East.
After tensions escalated in December, numerous members of Congress made clear that the actions of the Egyptian government could jeopardize the annual $1.55 billion aid package to Egypt — the United States’ second largest, after the $3.1 billion it gives Israel annually. Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.) introduced a resolution calling for an immediate end to the harassment and prosecution of NGO staff. Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) went much further when he introduced legislation that would suspend all U.S. aid to Egypt until the matter is resolved. On Monday, a group of U.S. senators including John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) visited Cairo to meet with Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi and other Egyptian leaders, trying to relieve some of the tension. They returned home with optimistic messages, suggesting that the Egyptian brass offered strong assurances of a swift resolution to the impasse.
It appears that some ranking members of the Egyptian military may have severely underestimated the backlash from Washington
How much faith Washington can put in those assurances, however, remains to be seen. Fueling the United States’ impatience have been Cairo’s confusing, and often conflicting, messages. Unlike the Mubarak era, when there were relatively clear lines of command, the past year in Egypt has been marked by the rapid emergence of multiple centers of power competing for political control. Egypt’s actual foreign policy has been almost indecipherable. For example, after security forces raided the NGO offices, top Egyptian officials, including Tantawi, Prime Minister Kamal Ganzouri, and Foreign Minister Mohamed Amr, were quick to assure the United States that the maltreatment of U.S. citizens would cease, that all seized materials would be immediately returned, and that the offices would be able to reopen. Six weeks later, those have proved to be empty promises.
Conversations in Washington reveal that U.S. officials, by and large, do not believe that their counterparts in Cairo are being intentionally deceptive — they assume that the Egyptians have simply promised more than they can deliver. For years, Abul Naga, who is one of the few top officials remaining from the days of Mubarak, has been opposed to any foreign funding that bypassed her ministry. And now she seems to be targeting U.S. influence specifically. Last week, the Egyptian press quoted Abul Naga as having portrayed the U.S. as trying to hijack Egypt’s revolution. “The United States decided to use all its resources and instruments to contain [the January 25 revolution],” the government’s official news agency, MENA, quoted her as saying, “and push it in a direction that promotes American and also Israeli interests.”
But her charges against the NGOs ring hollow. For instance, the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute have made more than reasonable efforts to comply with Egyptian law. Both groups applied for registration with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2005 and have communicated regularly with the authorities about their activities and programs ever since. Both groups were told repeatedly that their registration would be granted, but it never was and no explanation was given. This experience is characteristic of that of many other organizations that have focused on politically sensitive issues, while groups with more innocuous goals have had their registration granted promptly. It is disingenuous for the Egyptian government to refuse to grant U.S. NGOs registration on political grounds and then claim that the investigation against them is an apolitical matter for the judiciary. Moreover, that many other international organizations operate in Egypt today without official registration underscores the selective, political nature of these attacks.
Members of Egypt’s ruling military council have generally avoided the issue in public, perhaps in order to give them plausible deniability with Washington. Privately, they consistently argue to U.S. officials that they cannot intervene in independent judicial processes. But even if the generals are not the driving force behind the crackdown, it is quite unlikely that the investigation could have moved forward without their support. The military has held executive authority and ultimate decision-making power for the past year — all cabinet ministers were appointed by the generals and report to them.
Assuming that Abul Naga had to get the military on board before pushing forward with the NGO persecution, her case to them was simple and compelling. Egyptian democracy and human rights organizations are vocal critics of the military. As large protests have continued, it makes sense for the ruling cadre to cut off such organizations at the knees while also reinforcing the public narrative that the protests are the work of foreign agents seeking to sow chaos in Egypt.
Yet it appears that some ranking members of the Egyptian military may have severely underestimated the backlash from Washington. In both private conversations and public statements, Pentagon and State Department officials who have recently visited Egypt and discussed the crisis describe the generals as initially incredulous that such a minor issue (in their view) could actually threaten the aid package. U.S. officials attest that they have been successful since in conveying how potentially explosive the issue could be, but it is unclear how much that has changed anyone’s thinking in Cairo.
As for a resolution, one possible scenario is that Egypt’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs could grant registration to some of the targeted NGOs in the days ahead. This would clear the way for the courts to dismiss the charges against the NGOs or, perhaps more likely, for them to find those charged innocent. Such an approach could ease tensions while allowing Egypt’s generals to officially maintain distance from the case. Yet Abul Naga could easily derail such a plan; throughout this debacle she and her allies have repeatedly employed carefully timed public remarks and leaks to reignite tensions.
There is one more important faction in Cairo to consider: the Muslim Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice Party, which now boasts a plurality of seats in the Egyptian Parliament. The People’s Assembly has only been in session since January 23 and has yet to pass any legislation pertaining to the NGO crisis. Eventually, however, it will be up to the parliament to decide whether to pass a more permissive NGO law in line with international standards.
So far, the signals from the Brotherhood have been contradictory. On one hand, it is in the group’s interest to support a freer environment for NGOs, considering the large number of Islamist associations aligned with the movement. This was reflected in a recent op-ed by Brotherhood General Guide Mohammad Badie, who wrote, “All political, intellectual, social, cultural and economic trends and forces in the country — along with civil society — must be allowed to operate and express their views.” On the other hand, some Brotherhood leaders are taking a hard stand against foreign funding, unsurprising given that the movement is funded almost entirely by its Egyptian members and supporters.
As lawmakers, however, Brotherhood members have also made comments about what a change in the U.S.-Cairo aid relationship could mean. On February 12, Essam el Erian, vice chair of the Freedom and Justice Party and chair of the Foreign Relations Committee in the new parliament, made news when he pronounced that an interruption of U.S. aid would be a violation of the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty and would open the door for Egypt to change other terms of the treaty. That is no small claim. For more than three decades, that agreement — including the billions in aid every year from the United States — has served as a foundation for security arrangements throughout the Middle East.
Many observers have argued that the U.S. must maintain its assistance in order to preserve its leverage with the Egyptian military. But this crisis is exactly the moment to use this leverage. The fate of civil society in Egypt and beyond is very much at stake. If the second largest recipient of U.S. military aid can attack pro-democracy organizations with no real consequences, authoritarian governments worldwide will be emboldened to follow suit. As such, the administration should take a tougher line, making clear that military aid will certainly be interrupted unless the attacks on NGOs are halted and all charges are dropped. The White House deserves credit for having made support for civil society an important pillar of its approach to strengthening democracy worldwide. Now is the time to demonstrate the strength of that commitment.
Stephen McInerney is Executive Director of the Project on Middle East Democracy.
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The New Republic, February 18, 2012 | 12:00 am
The Egyptian government’s decision to investigate pro-democracy NGOs for criminal activity and the subsequent imposition of travel bans on democracy workers didn’t just ruin the plans of the six Americans now stuck there—it sparked a severe crisis in relations between Cairo and Washington. But how the Obama administration responds hinges on a question that it feels has not yet been answered: Is Egypt’s current government deliberately instigating conflict, or just incapable of managing its own affairs?
Though Congress has been pushing to withhold some portion of the annual foreign military funding—currently at $1.3 billion per year—that the U.S. has given Egypt since 1987, the White House has been understandably cautious. It’s not just that the White House is hesitant to lose good relations with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the military junta that has ruled Egypt since Hosni Mubarak’s ouster last February. The real issue is that the Obama administration doesn’t yet believe that the SCAF is directly responsible for the inquisition against the NGOs, ascribing blame instead to Egyptian government officials whose actions are supposedly beyond the SCAF’s legitimate control. There won’t be a clear response from the White House until it has determined to its satisfaction whether Cairo has been acting maliciously, or just incompetently.
Washington isn’t the only place where this question is being asked. The question vexes practically everyone with an interest in Egypt—Egyptians most of all. In the aftermath of a recent massacre at a soccer game in Port Said, in which 73 people were killed, Egyptians were deeply divided over whom to blame. Egypt’s youth protesters, including many of the forces that catalyzed the January 2011 revolt that toppled Mubarak, argued that the SCAF had orchestrated the violence. “They are using the same scenario that Mubarak was trying to threaten us last year, when he said either me or chaos,” Shadi El-Ghazali Harb, a leader in the Coalition of Revolutionary Youth, told me. “In the previous match, the [fans] were chanting messages against the SCAF, so it was a punishment for them as well.” As proof of the SCAF’s direct instigation of the massacre, the youth activists noted that the gates that normally separated the two teams’ fans from one another were left open, while the exit gates had been welded shut, trapping those fleeing the onslaught. Moreover, activists observed that Port Said’s governor and security chief were conspicuously absent from the match. “They always attend such matches,” said Harb.
Others, however, blamed local security forces. In a statement following the assault, the Muslim Brotherhood didn’t denounce the SCAF—they called on it for help, asking it “to address the involvement of the police apparatus that could have prevented this disaster, but instead contented itself by acting as a spectator.” Meanwhile, a parliamentary fact-finding committee, headed by an MP from the Salafist Nour Party, blamed local security authorities in Port Said and the Egyptian Football Authority (EFA), noting that the EFA, “did not perform thorough searches and allowed fans holding solid objects, lasers and weapons to enter the stadium.” The parliament’s subsequent efforts to hold the government accountable largely absolved the SCAF.
The debate over the prosecution of pro-democratic NGOs follows the exact same pattern. On one hand, there is ample evidence of the SCAF’s direct involvement in this crackdown. When Egypt’s public prosecution office first raided the NGOs on December 29, military personnel reportedly backed the operation. “It was organized and in favor of polishing the image of the army in front of the people, so everyone feels scared and feels that they cannot live without them,” said Hossam Eldin Ali, director of the Egyptian Democratic Academy. Moreover, the state-run media—which falls under the SCAF’s control—has repeatedly supported the raids. In this vein, the top headline in Tuesday’s edition of the official daily Al-Ahram read “American Funding Aims to Spread Chaos in Egypt.” Finally, after the initial raid, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, who chairs the SCAF, reportedly promised U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta that the targeted NGOs would be permitted to reopen—thus implying the SCAF’s authority over the situation.
But there are also good reasons to doubt the SCAF’s direct culpability. For starters, the investigations followed from complaints made by Minister of International Cooperation Fayza Abul Nega, one of the government’s few holdovers from the Mubarak era. Abul Nega has long demanded that her ministry have oversight over NGOs, and she was quick to express anger when, shortly after last year’s revolt, Washington gave approximately $54 million to pro-democracy groups unregistered with the government. It’s not far-fetched to believe that Abul Nega would have pursued the matter without consulting other members of the government. After all, Abul Nega takes pride in provoking confrontation with Washington, and recently called American criticisms of her actions “a medal on my chest.” The SCAF, meanwhile, has asked her to dial back her rhetoric.
Now that investigations are underway, however, the SCAF says that it cannot legitimately intervene without undermining the Egyptian justice system, flawed though it may be. In defending that position, the SCAF cites the letter of U.S. policy. The most recent conditions on foreign military funding to Egypt, which was signed into law in December, require the government to support “due process of the law.” The SCAF now argues that stopping the investigations would be tantamount to undermining that provision.
Ultimately, most of the SCAF’s explanations amount to mere obfuscation. Even if it cannot interfere with the investigation into NGOs for which Abul Nega advocated, the very fact that it has retained a notorious anti-American official as Minister of International Cooperation demonstrates the military’s malice. “[Abul Nega] is the point man,” said U.S. Copts Association president Michael Meunier, who has also been prevented from leaving Egypt. “The regime since 2004 has been using Fayza to point at the U.S. … [She] could have been removed any time.” Indeed, Egypt’s cabinet has been reshuffled three times over the past twelve months—and Abul Nega has been among the few constants.
In the end, an evil SCAF and an incompetent SCAF yield the same outcome: rising tensions between Washington and Cairo, and an Egyptian government that continues to feed its people the myth that U.S.-funded organizations are fomenting local chaos. Of course, given the geopolitical centrality of Egypt to Middle Eastern affairs, Washington still needs a working relationship with Egypt’s military. But the SCAF’s lack of discipline, or lack of common sense, has undermined the value of this relationship significantly. Whether the SCAF is wickedly targeting pro-democratic NGOs or simply unable to stop others from doing so, one thing ought to be clear: Washington’s relationship with it is no longer worth $1.3 billion.
Eric Trager is the Ira Weiner Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
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I arrived in the Egyptian town of Edfu on a Friday in early February. The temple there, a wondrous reminder of the Egyptian pharaohs’ obsession with eternity and architectural monumentalism, was eerily quiet and empty of tourists. But the silence was more than filled by the blaring sound of the Friday sermon, broadcast over loudspeakers at unavoidably high volume. Between verses of the Qur’an, the voice waxed violent about the “American massacre of innocent Muslims in Iraq.” There is a correlation, I’ve noticed, between the volume of mosques’ loudspeakers in a country and its radical Islamists’ ambitions and aggressive claims to power. Thirty-three years ago, one of the first hints of rising religious despotism in Iran was the sudden increase in the volume of loudspeakers in every neighborhood mosque. Piety was no longer private and voluntary, but public and mandatory.
I was spending just over two weeks in Egypt as part of a Stanford alumni tour of the country—a few days in Cairo, the rest up and down the Nile, through towns and villages still bearing signs of the parliamentary elections. The entrance to every town and village was guarded by units of the army, and occasionally by a bevy of armed locals. A surprisingly large number were sporting a black mark on their foreheads, called zabiba in Arabic—a sign that they pray and prostrate themselves so often that a callus has developed on their foreheads. In Egypt, as in Iran, a callus of piety used to be a true rarity, but in both countries today they are indispensable tools of political ascent. It is hard to find a member of the Egyptian parliament—or Iran’s for that matter—that does not sport a zabiba.
For the few blocks from the boat to the Edfu temple we had to use a weather-worn carriage, pulled by a sickly horse and driven by Mahmoud, a man who said he was under forty but looked much older. His few remaining blackened teeth betrayed long years of malnutrition and ill-health. On the way to the temple and back, Mahmoud talked pleadingly about his economic plight and the difficulties of feeding both his horse and his family of four. No tourists, he said, which meant no food. When I asked him which party he had voted for in the last election, he told me—with sardonic resignation—that he had voted for the Salafis. They won’t do anything for me, or my horse, he said, but at least they might create a sense of Islamic community in this world and help with salvation in the other.
Tourism had accounted for at least half of employment in Egypt, but the tumult of last February’s uprising and the instability that has defined Egypt ever since have brought tourism to a grinding halt. Despite the resulting economic hardships, the first order of business for the new parliament’s radical Salafi members was to demand segregated beaches and a countrywide ban on alcohol. The resolution did not pass, but Salafi forces had already succeeded in shutting down many bars in the country long before last February. If Lawrence Durrel’s brilliant Alexandrian Quartet is still an engaging reminder of the rich cosmopolitan life of Alexandria, where Copts and Jews, Muslims and Europeans lived amicably together, Alaa Al Aswany’s novel The Yacoubian Building chronicles the gradual change in the country’s cultural makeup in the decades before the fall of Mubarak. The closure of bars might be discernible only to an informed observer; more stunning and impossible to miss is the change in the visual fabric of Cairo and other towns and villages. Outside Cairo, women are virtually absent from the public domain, and in Cairo it is increasingly difficult to find a woman not wearing some version of the hijab. Even the negab—where a black veil covers not only the entire woman’s body, but hides her face and eyes—is becoming more and more prevalent.
To be sure, the rising political influence of religious fundamentalism is not the only challenge looming for Egyptian liberalism. On the one hand, there is the military’s top brass, which were widely seen as liberators last year but now appear reluctant to turn over power. And there are also the twin scourges of poverty and governmental incompetence. On the edges of Cairo, on the way to the pyramids—those masterful reminders of architectural genius—I found easily the most remarkable symbol of lawlessness, corruption, or failure of governmental oversight: thousands of multi-level, clumsily constructed, illegal, half-finished brick buildings. The locals call it Ashwa’ewat (accidentally grown) and estimate that several million people dwell in this urban jungle. The neighborhoods have no electricity, no sewage system, and no garbage collection. Police or even military do not dare enter the areas. Virtually every one of these illegal buildings looks and is half-finished—a metaphor, perhaps, for the unfinished business that is the democratic transition in Egypt.
Abbas Milani is a contributing editor for The New Republic and the Hamid and Christina Moghadam Director of Iranian Studies at Stanford, where he is the co-director of the Iran Democracy Project. His latest book is The Shah.