Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel would be jeopardized if the U.S. withheld a substantial aid package, the Muslim Brotherhood said today. The warning came as Cairo’s ambassador derisively hinted that Washington was well aware of the aid program’s value – “to the U.S.”
But if Egypt’s – current and would be – government officials believe the U.S. dare not withhold its aid package following the crackdown on pro-democracy groups, they may be in for a shock.
In the U.S. Congress, which must approve the aid, there’s a growing sense that if “these are the folks we are going to be dealing within Egypt in the future, [we] might as well send them a message now,” says a senior staffer.
U.S. democracy assistance groups today blamed a holdover from Hosni Mubarak’s regime for the prosecution of civil society activists, which one official called “a clear effort to block a democratic transition.”
Addressing a hearing on “Egypt at a Crossroads” of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, they called on Washington to stop dealing with Faiza Aboul Naga, the minister for international cooperation, or cease military aid to Cairo.
Investigating judges brought charges against 43 foreign and Egyptian activists after security forces raided the offices of non-governmental organizations in December, confiscating equipment, cash and documents. The heads of four U.S.-based groups targeted in the raids – the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, Freedom House and the International Center for Journalists – testified before the hearing.
“Trial with the possibility of prison time for our staff appears the most likely outcome at present,” IRI president Lorne Craner told the committee. Aboul Naga helped initiate a covert offensive against pro-democracy groups, he said, violating Egyptian law by publicizing evidence against those under investigation, but yet to be charged.
The prospect of what Congressman Chris Smith called the “unconscionable and absurd” act of jailing “selfless” democracy activists has prompted the U.S. Congress to threaten to withhold up to $1.3 billion in assistance to Egypt’s military.
US-Egyptian relations have been damaged by the standoff, said Representative Gary Ackerman (D-NY).
“Until it is resolved or worse spirals out of control, it could very quickly legally foreclose our ability to provide any bilateral assistance,” he said. “If people here conclude that Egypt is not on a path of democracy, but is instead on its way to becoming another Iran, a bilateral relationship will not survive.”
But the Muslim Brotherhood today threatened that any cut in aid would jeopardize the Camp David peace accords with Israel.
The NGO dispute must not be allowed to jeopardize the U.S. aid package, which is an integral part of the 1979 treaty, said Mohamed Mursi (above, left), the head of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, the largest grouping in the newly elected parliament.
“The U.S. is a principle part of this agreement and its guarantor. There is no room for talking about aid except in the framework of discussing the peace deal,” he said. “Brandishing threats to stop this aid is out of place. Otherwise, the peace deal would be reconsidered or it could flounder.”
His views were echoed by Essam El-Erian (above, center), the party’s deputy leader and head of the assembly’s foreign affairs committee.
“We (Egypt) are a party (to the treaty) and we will be harmed so it is our right to review the matter,” El-Erian, a senior Brotherhood leader, told Reuters.
“The aid was one of the commitments of the parties that signed the peace agreement so if there is a breach from one side it gives the right of review to the parties,” he said.
But a fundamentalist cleric close to the group concedes that the Brotherhood’s posturing is little more than that, as Egypt is in no condition to go to war with Israel and the Islamists must prioritize voters’ economic needs and priorities to stay in power.
“Egypt cannot enter a struggle in the military sense and leave the affairs of building on the internal front,” Sheikh Yousef al-Qaradawi (right), told Shorouk newspaper. “Now the citizens cannot remain without work.”
The authorities in Cairo appear either confident or complacent in assuming that the financial assistance will be forthcoming, judging by the comments of Egypt’s ambassador to Washington.
The dispute over the NGOs would not upset the “clearly strategic relationship between the two countries,” Sameh Shukri told Ahram Online.
“Despite the views voiced in Congress and in the US media, the US administration remains fully aware of the value of the US aid program – not just to Egypt, but also to the US,” he said.
Egyptian officials, not least the instigator of the prosecutions, seem ignorant of Washington’s political dynamics and to have underestimated the backlash on Capitol Hill.
“We’re acutely aware of the fact that cutting off aid to Egypt is a major threat to the treaty, and it makes it a particularly difficult and scary situation to think what a withdrawal of aid could mean for Israel and the region as a whole,” said a senior Democratic staffer.
“But if we see pictures of American citizens in handcuffs or behind bars, all bets are off. Nobody could stop Congress form withholding the funding,” the staffer tells Zvika Krieger, senior vice president of The S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace and a fellow at the Truman National Security Project, who writes:
If the situation does indeed escalate, members of Congress will find themselves having to choose between defending American citizens and democracy in Egypt or protecting its most important leverage in the tumultuous country, particularly as it relates to the Egypt-Israel peace treaty. As one congressional aide put it, “The funding is one of the very few arrows left in our quiver.”
“Do I think the people calling for aid cutoff are serious? I do,” a senior staffer says. “Do I think they will win out? That really depends on what Egypt does.”
The “political maelstrom was not of our making,” said Ken Wollack, president of the National Democratic Institute, who refuted Egyptian officials’ “false and misleading accusations” that the NGOs were interfering in domestic politics or seeking to sow instability.
NDI has never trained or funded protest movements or political parties, and its programs are designed to support electoral processes, not to engineer political outcomes.
“Our goal is to support a transparent, democratic process that gives people the freedom to make choices,” he said.
The attacks on the four U.S.-based NGOs are “just tip of the iceberg,” said Lorne Craner, head of the International Republican Institute.
The prosecution is “part of a broader assault on civil society” that has disturbing implications for the “trajectory of Egypt’s democratic development,” as the authorities are targeting those Egyptian NGOs best placed to monitor and support a democratic transition, he said.
The hearing came a day after 29 Egyptian NGOs portrayed the investigation as a “politically motivated” probe that was initiated with “the goal of smearing civil society, especially human rights organizations, and painting them as collaborators with foreign agendas and conspirators against the country’s stability.”
Their views were echoed at today’s hearing.
Some 400 Egyptian NGOs are under investigation and face “relentless” pressure from the regime, said Freedom House’s David Kramer.
“The crackdown on civil society represents a clear effort to block a democratic transition in Egypt,” he said. “Essentially, in the minds of many Egyptians, the military has hijacked the revolution and what it represented.”
“Not even under Hosni Mubarak did we and our partners face such attacks,” he said. “Nowhere else in the world have any of our offices been treated as they are in Egypt.”
Speculation that a compromise resolution of the crisis would see accused foreigners released and deported, while prosecutions of local activists continued, was rejected at the hearing.
Any resolution of the crisis must include “the most vulnerable on the ground,” said Joyce Barnathan, president of the International Center for Journalists.
She also dismissed claims that the NGOs engaged in covert political activities, noting that the government-controlled Al-Ahram was a partner in their programs to help local journalists develop quality reporting and expand use of multi-media.
Several members, including committee chair Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, asked what the Muslim Brotherhood’s support for the regime’s crackdown says about prospects for democracy.
Transitions are always complicated, said NDI’s Wollack, but he remains “optimistic.”
“The political constellation in the new parliament gives room for hope,” he said. Some 30% of the popular vote went to liberal secular parties, a result that would have been deemed miraculous just a couple of years ago.
Furthermore, the Brotherhood-led Freedom and Justice party is not monolithic and includes non-Islamist elements, while both the Brotherhood and the FJP are pursing coalition arrangements with liberal and secular groups.
“The results of the election have raised concerns that extremist forces will take over Egypt,” said Freedom House’s Kramer. “While somewhat overblown, these fears would best be allayed by allowing civil society to play an active role in shaping the country’s future,” he said.
IRI’s Craner warned of the authoritarian learning taking place, as other regimes observe the authorities in Cairo interrogating and prosecuting pro-democracy activists “with impunity.”
Other autocratic regimes will learn and copy unless the U.S. “pushes back aggressively,” said Kramer. Egypt’s rulers are playing the anti-American card for populist purposes – as is Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
But the regime’s attempt to inflame and exploit anti-American sentiment is likely to backfire if it is taken to confirm that Egypt is becoming an unreliable ally and turning its back on the West.
“The fact is that the Camp David Accords aren’t necessarily safe even if we maintain our military aid to Egypt … [as] the Brotherhood will soon hold power,” said Eric Trager, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, addressing a subcommittee of the House Foreign Relations Committee this week.
“The aid is no longer an effective tool, which is why the military believes that it can prevent the son of a cabinet secretary from traveling without impunity, he said. “Making aid to Egypt a tool for leverage now will better position that aid to be used for leverage later, whether we’re talking about a crisis in Israeli-Egyptian relations or another crackdown on U.S.-funded NGOs.”
The logic is not lost on Capitol Hill or, one suspects, within the Administration.
“There are some who are dismissive of the SCAF’s influence, know their hands are tied, and their role in the country once the new government is formed in six to eight months is a big unknown,” said a high-level Hill staffer working on the issue. “Some of those folks on the Hill are saying that, looking at the way elections are going, and with people like Abul Naggah running things, these are the folks we are going to be dealing within Egypt in the future, so might as well send them a message now.”