This time, suspicious of outsiders, Egypt's judicial system has gone on the attack against foreign NGOs operating in the country. Although significant public furor over this, both here in the States, Egypt, and elsewhere, really has just recently surfaced, the attack on foreign-based NGOs really started a couple months ago. Back in late December, security personnel stormed the officies of 17 NGOs, such as Freedom House, NDI (National Democratic Institute) and IRI (International Republican Institute), trashing offices and seizing documents and computer hardware and interrogating employees for hours. Shortly thereafter, the justice department formally blocked 19 Americans working for NGOs in Egypt, including Sam LaHood, the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, from leaving the country.
Now, this month, Egypt has proceeded to charge 43 people, including LaHood and 15 other Americans, with "with crimes that included operating without registration and illegally accepting foreign funds – that is, U.S. government dollars - without the agreement of the Egyptian government." If Egypt's justice department doesn't change course, the charged will face a trial, which is scheduled to begin February 26, and could serve time in prison.
American officials have expressed surprise, exasperation, and anger at this turn of events. It's an unnecessary disturbance in Egypt-U.S. relations at a time when there's already rising uncertainty and trepidation between both sides. In some circles, the actions against the NGO workers have been interpreted as a form of hostage taking. Moreover, Washington sees Egypt as ungrateful. Organizations like NDI and IRI are in Egypt to provide democracy assistance to people, groups, and political parties, among others, a seemingly valuable tool for a country undergoing a turbulent transition to democracy. To U.S. political elites, it makes no sense, and is downright foolish, to demonize and target benign and helpful organizations.
With this in mind, a number of Congresspersons, such as Rand Paul, have called for the U.S to suspend its aid package of $1.5 billion to Egypt. Meantime, John McCain, who's demonstrated excellent leadership during this fiasco, has called for a calmer approach. In an effort to reduce tensions and resolve the crisis, McCain led a delegation to Cairo and met with Egyptian leaders, including Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, who heads the ruling military council, and members from the Muslim Brotherhood and its political faction, the Freedom and Justice Party. McCain has dialed down some of the more heated American rhetoric, expressing that the U.S. seeks to solve any differences through diplomacy.
According to McCain: "The way we approach this issue of the NGOs is with some guarded optimism that we will resolve this issue very soon....We met with Field Marshall Tantawi. He gave us his assurance that they are working very diligently to try to resolve the NGO issue....The speaker informed us they are working on a new NGO law to update the Mubarak era's rather restrictive and repressive NGO law." Further, he argued that "We don't think it helps progress, on this very difficult situation for American citizens, to make threats [to cut aid]. We are not making threats. There is plenty of time to make threats."
What is the role of the SCAF in this mess?
I have heard rumors that the SCAF has tried to dissociate itself from the NGO controversy. And the recent statements by Representative Gary Ackerman confirms what I have been hearing. Specifically, the SCAF claims that it was caught off guard, wasn't behind the actions against the NGOs and their employees, has no control over these events, and wants to let the judicial process play out.
Sure, the SCAF might not have initiated the aggression against the NGOs, and could have been unaware of what the justice ministry was plotting. And there are reports circulating that Minister of International Cooperation Fayza Abul Naga, a relic from the Mubarak era, is behind all of this. Supposedly, she's the one who launched the crackdown and is looking to undermine pro-democracy NGOs in Egypt. Abul Naga claims Freedom House, IRI, and NDI seek to "sow chaos, thwart the development of a strong and democratic Egypt, and turn the revolution to the interest of the United States and Israel.”
Even so, it's absurd to think that the SCAF bears no responsibility in this mess. It's the leadership: it's in charge of the country and is by far the most powerful political actor in Egypt. It is unlikely that the SCAF would permit groups and people to do things it doesn't want them to do. Consider this: "no mere civilian would be allowed to jeopardize United States military assistance worth $1.3 billion annually on his or her own initiative, as Minister of International Cooperation Fayza Abul-Naga has seemingly done." If it wanted, the SCAF absolutely could apply sufficient coercive or persuasive pressure on the justice dept to make the charges go away. And the SCAF knows this, it's acutely aware of what it can do in this situation. Still, it hasn't acted. At a minimum, then, the SCAF is permitting and allowing the war on foreign NGOs to continue and fester. By not vetoing or blocking the justice department, the SCAF has endorsed its moves. And at worst, of course, there could be some collusion between the SCAF, justice officials, and political elites like Abul Naga.
Obviously, all of this begs the following question: why might the SCAF collude with the justice department or ignore the legal proceedings? Will Marshall, a board member for the National Endowment for Democracy, another American organization that specializes in democracy assistance to foreign countries and groups, makes two compelling points.
One answer is that government’s action is popular, and the military would lose more by failing to defend Egypt’s “sovereignty” than by irritating Washington. Another is that the generals, no less addicted to conspiracy theorizing than other Egyptians, actually believes U.S. and European NGOs are stirring up popular unrest. Blaming domestic strife on foreign interference is an autocratic habit that dies hard in the Middle East.After a perusal of the popular blogs on international politics, like foreignpolicy.com and fareedzakariagps.com and nationalinterest.org, it's apparent that a number of analysts and scholars are concerned that the NGO controversy suggests a bad future Egyptian politics. Perhaps, but there are way so many variables that could impact Egypt, in either a good or bad way, that we really can't even begin to map out where Egypt is headed in the distant future. And it's almost impossible to say what these events mean for Egypt over the long-term. If we want to start to deduce any conclusions, it's better to concentrate on short-term politics in Egypt, a parameter in which many of the major players and structures should remain intact.
Looking ahead to the next few months in Egypt, here is a non-exhaustive list of items I'll be keeping my eye on. Will the SCAF get into more trouble? If so, what will be the repercussions? How will the activists and revolutionaries respond? How will the SCAF handle the process of turning over power to a civilian legislature and president? And to what extent will the SCAF, at the urging of the military, look to protect its interests from civilian oversight and interference?