Egyptian security officials today stopped an American woman from boarding an international flight as part of its prosecution of pro-democracy non-governmental groups. The news is likely to disturb lawmakers in Washington where the Obama administration appears set to halt a $1.3 billion military aid package if U.S. democracy assistance activists are put on trial, a State Department official said.
“We are looking at that very seriously,” said Andrew Shapiro, the assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs. “No decisions have been made. Our hope is the NGO crisis is resolved. That’s the focus of our diplomacy.”
The financing “has served U.S. interests for a number of years, and Egypt remains an important partner,” he told Bloomberg. Still, “If we are not prepared to certify or waive the requirement, the aid cannot flow.”
Egyptian officials said Mary Elizabeth Whitehead was about to board a flight to Germany, when airport security held her back, AP reports:
According to the security officials, Whitehead was listed among seven Americans who are barred from travel by Egypt’s attorney general. …. An American official said, however, that Washington understands that Whitehead was not among the Americans on a no-travel ban, and that she also was not among those charged with wrongdoing.
The authorities imposed a travel ban on several foreign nationals, following security forces’ December 29 raids on seventeen pro-democracy NGOs, including three U.S.-based and government funded groups: Freedom House, the International Republican Institute, and the National Democratic Institute.
Despite a personal appeal by President Barack Obama to Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, the head of the military junta, to stop the prosecutions, there is no sign that he will (or, some suggest, can) do so. The dispute is undermining U.S.-Egyptian relations and potentially jeopardizing assistance to other transitions in the region.
At least 16 Americans – Egypt’s state news agency says 19 – are due to face trial this coming Sunday on charges of illegal use of foreign funds and operating without registration.
The trial will make it politically impossible for the State Department to officially certify that Egypt is proceeding along a democratic trajectory, an assurance that the U.S. Congress requires before it will agree to release the aid.
“We want to send a clear message to the Egyptian military that the days of blank checks are over,” said Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on the State Department and Foreign Operations.
Major U.S. defense contractors, including General Dynamics, Honeywell International and Lockheed have been lobbying against a cancellation of the aid package.
But no contracts dependent on the aid have been canceled yet, said Shapiro.
“Right now there is still enough in the pipeline that there’s been no cutoff in existing contracts,” he said. “At a certain time it would impact the ability to do those contracts.”
“Certainly, U.S. companies would take a hit,” he said. “Our policy has to be consistent with our values and certain times we pay an economic price for that.”
Egyptian officials claim that the prosecution is a legal matter and insist that the aid is as beneficial to the U.S. as it is to Cairo.
“It is being dealt with legally and it is not for the Egyptian government to get involved in the judicial process,” Foreign Minister Mohammed Amr said today, suggesting that the aid package is of mutual interest and benefit.
“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,” Stephen McInerney, executive director of the Project on Middle East Democracy, writes on Foreign Affairs:
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.
Some observers believe that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces gave a green light to the instigator of the crackdown, Minister of International Cooperation Faiza Abul Naga, with the intention of weakening the country’s nascent democratic forces and stoking xenophobic sentiment for populist political gain.
Abul Naga 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 Naga would have pursued the matter without consulting other members of the government. After all, Abul Naga 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.
“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,” McInerney adds:
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.
“[Abul Naga] is the point man,” U.S. Copts Association president Michael Meunier, who is also banned from leaving Egypt, told Trager. “The regime since 2004 has been using Fayza to point at the U.S. … [She] could have been removed any time.”
While many Egyptian democrats and civil society activists welcome foreign assistance, the powerful Muslim Brotherhood has taken a “contradictory” stance, says McInerney: insisting that it stands for a pluralist civil society, but endorsing the regime’s crackdown on foreign-funded groups and echoing claims of U.S. interference in domestic political affairs.
“Many Islamic forces are attacking the idea of having NGOs with western funding, thus the attack is even broader and more vicious than under Mubarak,” says a prominent Egyptian human rights advocate.
The official charges against the NGOs “ring hollow,” says POMED’s McInerney. The National Democratic Institute and International Republican Institute applied for registration and have been entirely transparent about their activities and programs:
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.
“Many observers have argued that the U.S. must maintain its assistance in order to preserve its leverage with the Egyptian military,” he notes:
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.
“The real issue,” writes Trager, “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.”
Whatever the conclusion, it is unlikely to restore the trust, integrity and utility of the U.S.-Egyptian strategic relationship:
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.
POMED is supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.