A Year after the Revolution: Egypt and the U.S. Battle over Democracy (JCPA) (Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs) Jacques Neriah 02/05/12)
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In a move former President Hosni Mubarak’s regime did not dare to
make, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) ordered Egyptian
soldiers and police to raid the offices of non-governmental
organizations (NGOs) in Cairo on December 30, 2011. At least 17 U.S.-
based and local groups receiving foreign funding were targeted,
according to activists and Egyptian state media. Among the U.S.-based
groups targeted were the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the
International Republican Institute (IRI), loosely associated with the
U.S. Democratic and Republican parties. The offices of local Egyptian
NGOs targeted in the raid were reportedly sealed with wax, in a move
rights groups say was aimed at stifling domestic dissent against the
Both U.S. pro-democracy groups, who say they take a neutral political
stance, run programs to train members of nascent political parties in
democratic processes. The work of NDI had fallen prey to what
Egyptian pro-democracy campaigners say is a war between remnants of
Mubarak’s inner circle and a rapidly developing civil society.
Since April 1, 2011, NDI has trained around 14,000 Egyptians in
advocacy, voter education, and election monitoring, and has brought
speakers with experience in democratic transitions to Egypt,
including the former leaders of Poland and Chile.
Some Egyptian media pointed to American money poured into NGOs last
year, to attempt to prove the existence of a U.S.-sponsored plot to
subvert the course of change in Egypt. The U.S. ambassador to Cairo
had spoken of “close to $40 million” invested in organizations
including NDI and IRI.
The U.S. State Department said it was “very concerned” and urged
authorities to stop the “harassment” of NGO staff. “This is not
appropriate in the current environment,” U.S. State Department
spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said, adding that senior U.S. officials
(including President Barack Obama and Secretary of Defense Leon
Panetta) had been in touch with Egyptian military leaders to express
their concern over the raids.
Egypt’s military has vowed to investigate how pro-democracy and human
rights organizations are funded and has repeatedly stated it will not
tolerate foreign interference in the country’s affairs.
Documents and computers have been seized as part of the
investigations and one report said that the IRI’s doors had been
sealed with wax.
Reacting to the unusually severe reaction of the U.S., Egyptian
authorities reassured the U.S. they will stop the raids on the
offices of NGOs and that property seized in the raids would be
returned to the groups, including the two U.S.-based groups.
Nevertheless, the Egyptian Authorities claimed that the raids were
part of a probe by Egypt into allegations of illegal funding from
abroad. Evidence suggested some groups were violating Egyptian laws,
including not having permits to operate legally in Egypt. However, it
seems that the steps undertaken were being orchestrated by the ruling
generals to try to secure leverage over Washington while rallying
support around anti-American sentiment and undermining the reputation
of their most vocal critics in the Egyptian NGO community. These
raids may be seen to be part of a broader move by the ruling military
council to silence dissent after months of criticism of its human
rights record. In recent months the military government has found
itself the focus of protests, as activists questioned its commitment
to democratic reform.
In August 2011, Egyptian authorities had announced the opening of an
investigation into the alleged illegal funding of Egyptian NGOs with
funds from abroad. Judicial sources said at the time that the survey
was directed toward funds of U.S. origin. The survey comes as critics
of the United States, close allies of the Egyptians for many years,
are becoming more vocal against the government. Like other Western
countries, on many occasions Washington deplored the violent
repression carried out by security forces against demonstrators in
recent weeks. Also in the firing line of the United States is the
Egyptian army’s continuation of repressive legislation inherited from
the old regime.
In the two months following the raids, none of the equipment,
including computers and paper files, seized from both IRI and NDI has
been returned to the organizations. U.S. State Department spokeswoman
Victoria Nuland told reporters the situation is “unacceptable,” and
called the foreign-funding charges “a very aggressive propaganda
effort to scare the Egyptian people.” Faiza Aboul Naga, Egypt’s
minister of international cooperation and a stalwart of former
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, announced that the organizations
were promoting political instability in Egypt, and that they would
remain under investigation by the public prosecutor.
As if the raids were not enough to irritate the American
administration, three Americans barred by authorities in Egypt from
leaving the country have sought refuge at the U.S. embassy in Cairo
as tensions sharply escalated. Egyptian authorities are preventing at
least six Americans and four Europeans from leaving the country,
citing an investigation opened after security forces raided the
offices of ten international organizations. Egyptian officials
defended the raid as part of a legitimate inquiry into the groups’
work and funding. Those banned include Sam LaHoud, son of U.S.
transportation secretary Ray LaHoud, who heads the Egypt office of
U.S. officials have warned that restrictions on civil society groups
could hinder aid to Egypt, which would be a major blow to the country
as it struggles with economic woes and continued turmoil since the
popular uprising that led to Mubarak’s ouster last year. Egypt’s
military has been locked in a confrontation for months with
protesters who demand it immediately hand over power to civilians.
Recent U.S. legislation could block annual aid to Egypt unless it
takes certain steps. These include abiding by its 1979 peace treaty
with Israel, holding free and fair elections, and “implementing
policies to protect freedom of expression, association and religion
and due process of law.”
The U.S. is due to give $1.3 billion in military assistance and $250
million in economic aid to Egypt in 2012. Washington has given Egypt
an average of $2 billion in annual economic and military aid since
1979, according to the Congressional Research Service. Congress has
approved this year’s payout, but it has also set conditions,
including requiring that the secretary of state certify that the
Egyptian government is supporting the transition. Aware of this
condition, on February 4, 2012, after having met with Egypt’s foreign
minister Mohammed Amr, Secretary of State Clinton issued a new
warning to Egypt that the failure to resolve the bitter dispute over
the status of non-governmental pro-democracy groups may lead to the
loss of American aid to the country:
We are very clear that there are problems that arise from this
situation that can impact all the rest of our relationship with
Egypt….We do not want that. We have worked very hard this past year
to put in place financial assistance and other support for the
economic and political reforms that are occurring in Egypt….We will
have to closely review these matters as it comes for us to certify
whether any of these funds from our government can be made available
under these circumstances.
In this context, Egypt’s military leader sacked the general
responsible for media affairs to bolster an image tarnished by
killings of protesters and accusations that the men in uniform are
undermining Egypt’s democratic revolution. The change is the first in
the military council since the generals took power from President
Hosni Mubarak during the popular uprising last February.
Although it defused a violent confrontation by ushering Mubarak out,
the military has also tried to crush subsequent protests by force,
killing dozens. It has only grudgingly agreed to hand over power to a
civilian president by June, and tried to protect its privileges and
avoid civilian oversight.
The generals are not trusted by many young pro-democracy campaigners,
who suspect they want to curtail civilian power by exploiting the
fragile security situation.
Dozens died when the army tried to suppress protests on the streets
of Cairo in November and December and video images of soldiers
mistreating injured demonstrators sparked widespread anger. The army
said troops were also killed. Army spokesmen blamed the violence
on “invisible hands” determined to sow chaos among Egyptians and
undermine the achievements of the uprising against Mubarak.
Egypt’s military ruler Field Marshall Tantawi has tried to improve
the military’s public image, calling on Egyptians to unite behind the
army and ordering the formation of a committee of generals to ensure
positive media coverage.
Twelve months after the popular uprising erupted in Egypt,
captivating the world and dislodging its authoritarian president, the
question remains whether Egypt is on the right path and whether the
revolution has delivered on its promise. The unity of last year’s
revolution has given way to new realities and widening differences
among Egyptians. The investigation against the NGOs shows how far
Egypt has to go before such organizations can operate as freely as
they do in much of the world, highlighting what Egyptian activists
describe as the persistence of the Mubarak-era mentality – one of
fear of allowing too much debate.
A year later the regime is still very much in place and the biggest
mistake was entrusting the military with the keys to the revolution
after it assumed power. The military has managed to outmaneuver other
forces in the country (Islamists, revolutionary youth, liberals, the
business elite and even foreign governments) by creating conditions
on the ground whereby everybody discreetly feels the military should
play a role in safeguarding the political process despite calls for
its complete marginalization from political life. This is the new
Egyptian reality and this is what the U.S. is realizing when
confronting the SCAF on the NGOs and the process of democracy.
Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, a special analyst for the Middle East
at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, was formerly Foreign
Policy Advisor to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Deputy Head for
Assessment of Israeli Military Intelligence.
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