Egypt’s government is preparing to “back down in a stand-off with Washington over U.S. funding for civil society groups” rather than risk jeopardizing aid worth billions of dollars, Reuters reports.
The authorities will lift a travel ban imposed on pro-democracy activists in exchange for U.S. support in securing favorable loans from the International Monetary Fund, Egyptian officials said, as military delegation visiting Washington canceled talks with U.S. senators after being recalled to Cairo.
“The travel ban will be lifted and the escalation will cease,” one of the officials said on condition of anonymity. “Egypt needs the loans and the IMF funds to come through, but better terms are needed.”
The second official said: “A more manageable IMF deal and maintaining the military aid are high priorities for the generals.”
If confirmed, the climb down may entail significant loss of face for the military, which had adopted an openly obdurate stance on the dispute.
“We no longer have to worry about Washington because we have the power,” a military source close to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), told The Media Line.
“I think we have recognized that the military can maintain our current power without having to deal with Washington because they understand that our relationship with Israel is more important than a few crackdowns on NGOs,” the official said.
Some 44 foreign and local activists, including nineteen Americans, have been referred to a criminal court, charged with managing unlicensed non-governmental organizations and receiving foreign funds without official approval. The prosecutions followed December’s raids on local Egyptian NGOs and the U.S.-funded National Democratic Institute (NDI), International Republican Institute (IRI), and Freedom House.
But it remains unclear whether the investigation will be suspended or foreign nationals allowed to leave Egypt while local activists bear the brunt of any backlash:
What [journalist Ashraf] Khalil fears most are the consequences for a half-dozen Egyptian pro-democracy groups that have also been accused of receiving foreign money. They are not the ones in the spotlight, he said. But they are the ones who will feel the wrath of authorities the most.
The military delegation was scheduled with senators including Carl Levin, the Democratic head of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and John McCain of Arizona, the panel’s senior Republican, according to two Senate aides who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The Obama administration and senior members of the U.S. Congress warned that the regime’s crackdown on civil society threatened its annual $1.3 billion package of U.S. military aid.
“We have underscored how serious a problem these actions are. We have said clearly that these actions could have consequences for our relationship, including regarding our assistance programs,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney.
But the military may have been looking for a reason to avert a conflict with the U.S. over an investigation instigated not by the SCAF, but by former regime elements.
“American aid wasn’t really in major jeopardy to begin with, and the Egyptians have to know that the NGO issue is only making it easier for critics of the Egyptian government to call for halting aid – especially on Capitol Hill,” a U.S. official said.
Some democracy advocates believe the administration might have averted the standoff if it had sent more forceful signals at an earlier stage.
“The likelihood of the aid being cut in some way or delayed has been increasing by the day almost,” said Steve McInerney, executive director of the Project on Middle East Democracy.
“I think the administration underestimated the seriousness in previous months,” he said. “There were lots of signs these raids and charges were coming.”
The government claimed that it could not interfere in an investigation conducted by the judiciary without undermining the separation of powers and rule of law.
“We really have no choice but to follow through with the legal process; we know that this would bring about a cut in US aid to Egypt, but we cannot do otherwise,” a “concerned” Egyptian official told al-Ahram:
“Americans cannot preach to us night and day about the need to abide by the rule of law and then ask us to break the law to serve their interests,” said one official. Another Egyptian official said that out-of-court settlements could “theoretically be reached within a legal framework,” but that the issue had now gone beyond that stage.
Attempts to reach an out-of-court settlement were “suffocated by the direct and repeated threats made in Washington to cut military aid to Egypt to retaliate against the investigation of American individuals,” according to foreign affairs ministry spokesman Amr Roshdy.
Egypt is only ensuring “a correction of the situation, protection of national security and assertion of sovereignty,” said Fayza Aboul-Naga, the minister of planning and international cooperation.
The U.S. violated agreed protocol by financing unregistered groups and ignoring an annual funding cap of $20 million, she told the state-run Middle East News Agency.
“We noticed that unregistered organizations and private companies were being funded,” she said. “The controls aren’t an Egyptian invention, but are in all countries. As a matter of fact, we are more flexible than the States.”
“They know they are working illegally and without license,” said Ambassador Marawan Badr, an aide to Aboul-Naga.
Military officials may be set for a conflict with the Mubarak holdover Abul-Naga, who this week insisted that Egypt “has not and will not close the file on violations committed by NGOs”, with the current prosecutions:
Sources close to the investigation told Ahram Online that the volume of evidence compiled was too significant to overlook, and that some evidence pointed to attempts by the NGOs to interfere in Egypt’s internal affairs.
“One of the things that were found was a record of talks between some of the concerned NGOs with foreign bodies, political and otherwise, about the operation of the transitional phase in Egypt,” said one informed source.
Among the most controversial NGOs in the case are two organizations affiliated to the Republic and Democratic parties in the US, which had been operating in Egypt without a license – but with the tacit approval of the toppled Mubarak regime – since 2005.
“These organizations did not cross the line and Mubarak agreed to let them operate because he wanted to portray himself to Washington as a liberal and moderate president. Things have changed since the revolution,” said another Egyptian official.
But Egypt’s rulers’ main objection is to funds for civil society being deducted from U.S. aid to the government, lawyer Tharwat Abdel-Shahed said.
“This has sparked the government’s anger,” he said. “The Egyptian government thinks that a prior permission is needed before U.S. directs its money to its recipients,” he said, “however, the U.S. government says there are no conditions and it is free to use its money.”
Some U.S.-based NGOs exposed themselves to investigation by “working on the limits of legality,” claims Marina Ottaway, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East program.
“The Egyptian government, for its part it became a question of nationalism more than anything,” she said. “I don’t see how they could have been feeling threatened by the nature of these activities but they saw them as interfering, as an expression of American arrogance essentially.”
But the prosecutions are manifestly motivated by political considerations rather than legal niceties, others insist.
“These groups and the individuals associated with them do not fund political parties or individual candidates,” said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland. “They have done nothing wrong.”
Egypt’s authorities have made no moves against the largely opaque and unregulated foreign funding of Islamist parties, and instead targeted liberal and democratic groups as part of a concerted campaign to whip up xenophobic sentiment and intimidate critical voices.
“They target American organizations to scare their own people into submission,” said Julija Belej Bakovic, IRI regional director for Asia. Contrary to official claims that the groups were engaged in intelligence-gathering or fomenting instability, democracy assistance groups provided training and technical assistance to groups across the political spectrum, often drawing on the practical experience of earlier transitions.
“People who are isolated fall into apathy; they feel they cannot change anything. But we can say, ‘Let me tell you what happened in Serbia,’?” said Bakovic, a former student activist in Serbia. “There is light at the end of the tunnel.”
Independent observers believe the crackdown is part of a concerted campaign by the military, former regime elements and other illiberal forces to undermine the country’s emerging democratic forces, the most vibrant of which are found in civil society rather than the old political parties.
“I think what we are seeing is part of a populist campaign on the part of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces in which they take extreme positions against the US and foreign powers,” said Rabab al-Mahdi, an Egyptian political analyst. It feeds into the propaganda [they have been spreading] about foreign plots to destroy Egypt.”
[She] said the ruling generals appeared to be involved in a game of brinkmanship with the US but that it was unlikely they would allow the aid to be cut. She said that for the moment they seemed to be playing to nationalist sentiments in a country deeply suspicious of US intentions in the region.
It’s a view that clearly finds a resonance within the Obama administration.
“It’s our sense that much of the NGO issue in Egypt has a lot to do with internal politics. The Egyptian military leadership is watching that trend very closely and thus may not want to act too hastily to intervene,” a U.S. official told Reuters.
Secular activists argue that the military and Islamist political groups are partners in a tacit alliance to dilute and distort the country’s democratic transition.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s leader today denounced calls for a general strike and campaign of civil disobedience to commence on 11 February, the first anniversary of former president Hosni Mubarak’s resignation. Mahmoud Hussein, the group’s secretary-general, said the actions would damage Egypt’s fragile economy and social fabric.