Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood insists it will not be “intimidated” by threats to withhold U.S. assistance in response to the government’s crackdown on pro-democracy groups, but observers believe the Islamist group is treading a fine line over the dispute.
The Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice party have publicly endorsed the prosecution of Egyptian and foreign-based non-governmental groups, even echoing the regime’s claims that their operations were designed to destabilize the country and undermine its democratic transition.
“We don’t owe anyone any favors,” said Gamal Hishmat, an FJP parliamentarian on the foreign relations committee. “Even with the threat to the U.S. aid, we are not intimidated in the way the previous regime used to be.”
But the movement is also striving to distance itself from an unpopular government and, it seems, to prepare public opinion for dashed expectations by portraying the standoff as a deliberate ploy to sabotage an Islamist-led government.
“Egypt is suffering from escalating economic and security crises which confirm the failure of the government,” the FJP said in a statement on domestic and foreign policy issues. “It has become clear that there is a desire to export (pass on) more crises to any future government.”
The Brotherhood has threatened to revoke the Camp David peace treaty with Israel if the U.S. withholds the aid package associated with the agreement.
“The absurdity of the case is that the generals are the biggest recipients of American aid in Egypt – and they are putting that assistance at risk by going after much smaller amounts the US is spending on promoting democracy,” notes one observer.
“Along the way, the generals are not only undermining Cairo’s crucial relationship with Washington,” writes the FT’s Roula Khalaf. “They are also sullying the image of the new Egypt, which looks as arbitrary as the old one, except with a lot more unpredictability.”
In a Cairo courtroom yesterday, prosecutors charged 43 defendants with illegal receipt of foreign funds and illicit political operations. The judge subsequently adjourned the proceedings until April 26.
“The charges made involve only the period from March 2011 to December 2011,” Negad al-Borai, a lawyer representing the accused, told Reuters. “These groups have applied for permits before that period.”
The investigation is part of an orchestrated offensive against emerging democratic forces critical of the regime’s conduct during the last year’s political transition, say Egyptian activists.
“It’s a witch hunt,” said Yehia Ghanem of the International Center for Journalists after leaving the prosecution cage. “We opened an office as a prerequisite to get registered here.”
Most of the groups and activists charged are Egyptian, but U.S. groups targeted in the crackdown include the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute, the International Center for Journalists and Freedom House.
An official from NDI said the group’s American staffers didn’t appear in court because they were not formally summoned. Most of the 13 Egyptians who appeared Sunday, including local NDI and IRI staff members, said they had not been officially summoned.
No foreign defendants appeared in the courtroom Sunday. All of the Egyptian defendants who attended the proceeding were kept in a prosecution cage, as is typical here, and pleaded not guilty to charges. They included the director of Freedom House in Egypt, Nancy Okail (above, reading – appropriately enough – George Orwell).
“This whole thing is not about saving Americans,” Okail said. “This is about Egypt’s relations with the world and the future of civil society.”
She fears that the prosecution will deter expatriate Egyptians from returning home to help the transition because it sends the message that “it’s bad to work on human rights or democracy building and if you have an opportunity to go back and help your country, you will be indicted.”
The Egyptian government has undertaken a successful public relations campaign to criminalize the work of NGOs in the minds of many Egyptians. The effort included a full-page story in the state-run newspaper in October accusing Freedom House of being a Zionist entity, code here for an agent of Israel.
In the government’s investigative documents, witnesses from the security forces accuse Freedom House and other NGOs that promote democracy of working in “coordination with the CIA.” The documents also say that the United States encouraged Freedom House and others to violate the law and that Freedom House “aims to control Egyptian society.”
The authorities insist that the prosecutions are a legal matter, but the politically-motivated thrust of the case was evident during and after the hearing:
A group of lawyers were in the courtroom as “citizens” seeking compensation for the “damage” they endured as a result of the groups’ activity. One of them, Osman el-Hefnawy, spoke of their plot to break up Egypt and of a “conspiracy against the whole of Egypt.”
Several theories are circulating that seek to explain the regime’s behavior, says Khalaf:
They range from claims that the military is convinced the NGOs are encouraging young liberal revolutionaries to push for an end to military rule, to suspicion that stirring up anti-US sentiment could improve the image of a military council tarnished by inept management of the political transition. There are even suggestions that the whole issue has been somewhat hijacked by remnants of the former regime, keen to prove that the military authorities are not in control of Egypt.
Worryingly, the country’s new parliament led by the Muslim Brotherhood is backing the crackdown….What makes the NGO case alarming is that it comes at a time when Egypt’s economy is in crisis. Foreign exchange reserves are depleting rapidly, which means Egypt desperately needs financial support from the International Monetary Fund and other foreign donors.
According to central bank data released earlier this month, reserves were $16.4bn at the end of January, down from $36bn in December 2010, just before the revolution. Foreign donors, however, need stability and predictability – attributes that the NGO case is proving are sorely lacking in post-revolution Egypt.