The U.S.-Egypt dispute over the crackdown on pro-democracy groups reminds one Cairo-based politician of an old local proverb. “I beg you for charity,” he said, “but I’m your master.”
The regime is jeopardizing some $1.3 billion in aid from Washington due to a campaign which Egyptian civil society groups today condemned as a ruse to distract public attention from the ruling military’s failure to manage the transition.
But the Muslim Brotherhood urged the authorities to reject U.S. “pressure” over the prosecution of non-governmental organizations accused of breaching foreign funding laws, and endorsed the government’s “nationalistic” resistance to Washington.
The Islamist group’s stance appears to confirm one analyst’s contention that all of Egypt’s “major political forces….are embracing anti-American populism,” while a U.S. diplomat believes the spat is evidence of a dangerous power vacuum, demonstrating that “power is in a very fluid state” and Egyptian “society is really coming apart at the seams.”
Democratic forces are being subjected to a scare campaign by the authorities, said a statement by 29 non-governmental organizations. The authorities have filed charges against 43 foreign and local activists, including 19 Americans.
“Creating imaginary battles with other states to divert attention from the disasters of the failed political management of the country … cannot be a national goal,” the statement said. “Rather it meets the interest of a limited minority seeking to appropriate power and fortune without being held accountable.”
Egyptian officials have fended off U.S. requests to end the prosecutions by claiming that the issue is a legal matter and that the newly democratic authorities must respect the judiciary’s independence.
But the NGOs cite the judiciary’s militarization to rebut the official claims that the affair is about rule of law and judicial independence.
“The investigation of the case itself clearly refutes any claim of judicial autonomy”, said the statement, whose signatories include the Andalus Center for Tolerance and Anti-Violence Studies, the Budgetary and Human Rights Observatory, Hisham Mubarak Law Center, and the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (full list of signatories below).*
The two investigating judges were selected after serving as senior officials with the High State Security Prosecution which is “complicit in covering up the torture of defendants by State Security Investigations in political cases” and “functioned as a tool of the Mubarak regime, as it was deployed to settle accounts with his political enemies.”
The NGOs note that the Egyptian government itself asked two of the groups concerned to monitor the recent parliamentary elections, in violation of a law that requires monitors from foreign NGOs to have a permit from the Foreign Ministry.
The crisis in U.S.-Egyptian ties escalated this week when state-run media accused Washington of planning to spread “anarchy” in the country, and the crackdown’s architect, Minister of International Cooperation Faiza Abul Naga, said U.S. democracy assistance was designed to subvert the country’s transition in the interests of the U.S. and Israel.
The U.S. Embassy in Egypt issued a statement dismissing such claims as “completely false” and insisting that the U.S. “deeply values the longstanding partnership with Egypt and strongly supports Egypt’s transition towards democracy.” All U.S. efforts are intended to strengthen that partnership, it said.
”We have seen media reports claiming that the US is trying to undermine Egypt’s stability or prevent it from achieving the goals of the revolution. These reports are completely false. The United States shares the Egyptian people’s aspirations for a democratic Egypt that is strong, stable and prosperous,” the statement added.
Abul Naga’s ability to operate autonomously from – and even in defiance of – the ruling military is evidence that the country is in political limbo, analysts suggest:
With a transfer of power to a civilian president promised within just four months, almost everyone in the Egyptian government, including the 19 members of the ruling military council, appears preoccupied with his or her own personal fate after the generals leave power, American and Egyptian officials say. Some have reason to fear that they could face trials for corruption or charges related to the crackdowns, as former President Hosni Mubarak and many of his lieutenants already have. But others are eager to preserve their positions, buttress their institutions or seek elected offices in the new government.
“This is a country of separate islands now,” said Mohamed Anwar el-Sadat, the nephew of former President Anwar el-Sadat. “The Foreign Ministry, the Justice Ministry, the Parliament, the generals of the military council — everyone is his own island.”
The ruling generals were “surprised” by the actions against the American groups, Mr. Sadat said…. “They had not been informed, and they believed the timing was wrong,” he said. “But she knows that Tantawi is only in charge while the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is there..”
“Power is in a very fluid state right now,” an American diplomat said. “American pressure scares them less than the mob in the street demanding the execution of Tantawi.”
“It means society is really coming apart at the seams.”
Civil society groups welcomed the news that the government has withdrawn a draft NGO law from consideration by the parliament. Drafted under the Mubarak regime, the proposed law’s provisions allowing intrusive government surveillance, interference and discretion over registration were “highly problematic,” said Kareem Elbayar, Legal Advisor for the Middle East / North Africa at the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law.
The withdrawal gives NGOs time to propose provisions that guarantee easy registration, access to funding, and protect civil society’s autonomy and independence.
But the country’s leading Islamist party, which supports the Mubarak-drafted NGO law, today threw its weight behind the regime’s crackdown.
“Egyptians will not tolerate any officials who decide to succumb to pressure and to cover up the accusations or interfere in the work of the judiciary,” said the Muslim Brotherhood.
The group’s deputy leader Rashad Bayoumi attacked U.S. assistance as an “American-Zionist” plot to subvert Arab democracy because free elections were projecting Islamist parties into power.
“US assistance is like a chain that restricts our freedom,” he said. Egypt’s people should reject “this humiliating aid.”
A recent Gallup poll revealed that more than 70% of Egyptians reject U.S. assistance and 74% oppose direct aid to Egyptian civil society groups.
Bayoumi condemned foreign-funded NGOs and described recent calls by secular activists for a general strike as an “American-Zionist attempt to thwart the march of freedom and progress in the Arab world” after it had become clear that the Arab people would elect Islamists parties, especially the Muslim Brotherhood.
A prominent ‘reformist’ Islamist backed calls by influential Salafist preacher Mohamed Hassan for a local donation drive to replace the annual $1.3 billion U.S. military aid package.
“If America wants to cut military aid, very well; Egypt isn’t less than Iran which is self-dependent when it comes to producing its own military equipment,” Hassan told the El-Nahar TV channel. “The Egyptian people will not be broken anymore.”
His proposal drew support from two Islamist presidential candidates, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh and Mohamed Selim El-Awwa. Fotouh, who was expelled from the Brotherhood last year and is often cited by Western commentators as a relatively liberal or moderate Islamist, said that the U.S. aid is not charitable but political and only disbursed because it serves U.S. interests.
The Islamists have joined the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and the civilian government in “embracing anti-American populism,” writes David Schenker, director of the Arab politics program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy:
This month, for example, a senior Muslim Brotherhood official published an open letter invoking the “American-Zionist” conspiracy and warning that U.S. democratization funds had been channeled to “suspicious institutions.” Going one step further, the Brotherhood’s more militant cousin, the Salafist party Al Nour, accused the American NGOs of trying to “create discord between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis.” Based on the court documents, one Al Nour official observed, the NGO workers “can be considered spies.”
“Whether the current xenophobia is ideologically based or cynical populism to distract from the deteriorating conditions at home makes little difference. Either way, there is little Washington can do at this point to change the bilateral dynamic,” he writes. “Indeed, even if Cairo reversed its ill-advised campaign against the American NGOs, funding would still remain in jeopardy,” writes Schenker, the author of Egypt’s Enduring Challenges: Shaping the Post-Mubarak Environment:
The problem, alas, is not Egypt’s relentless attack against foreign and domestic liberal democratic organizations. No doubt, SCAF, the government and the Islamists have little need for pro-democracy NGOs, but the investigation of the NGOs is a symptom rather than the root of the bilateral crisis. Notwithstanding the parliamentary elections, Egypt today is dominated by a coalition of military authoritarians and aspiring theocrats that views Washington with great suspicion.
Facing extreme challenges at home and in need of distractions, anti-Americanism has become Cairo’s preferred populist recourse. Although a solution might be found for this particular controversy — with or without U.S. foreign assistance — this bilateral dynamic assures that the next crisis is not far off.
The campaign against civil society groups “will undoubtedly hamper the ability of local and international NGOs to work alongside the Egyptian government in the provision of vital assistance in various developmental and human rights fields,” according to a coalition of Arab and international NGOs.
The role of pro-democracy NGOs “is integral in ensuring that democracies are functioning and viable,” said a statement signed by 16 prominent human rights and civil society groups.
“It is clear that a dynamic and diverse civil society plays a critical role in a developing country and burgeoning democracy such as Egypt and the infringement on its freedom jeopardizes this essential role,” it states.
The statement was signed by the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network; Human Rights Watch; Transparency International; No Peace without Justice; Project on Middle East Democracy; Human Rights First; Arab Program for Human Rights Activists; Arab Coalition for Darfur; Alkarama Foundation; Article 19; International Alliance of Women; The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a joint program of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the World Organization Against Torture (OMCT); Arab Network for Human Rights Information; Afro-Asian Peoples’ Solidarity Organization; Amnesty International; and The International Center for Not-for-Profit Law.
* Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies; Andalus Center for Tolerance and Anti-Violence Studies; Arab Foundation for Civil Society and Human Rights Support; Arab Office for Law; Arab Penal Reform Organization; Arab Program for Human Rights Activists; Arabic Network for Human Rights Information; Budgetary and Human Rights Observatory; Cairo Center for Development; Center for Egyptian Women Legal Aids; Center for Trade Union and Workers’ Services; Community Workshop Band; Egyptian Association for Community Participation Enhancement; Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights; Egyptian Foundation for the Advancement of Childhood Conditions; Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights; Egyptian Organization for Human Rights; Egyptians Against Religious Discrimination; Freedom of Assembly Campaign; Group for Democratic Development; Hisham Mubarak Law Center; Human Rights Legal Aid Group; Mobaderoun Foundation for Cultural Development and Media; Nazra for Feminist Studies; New Woman Foundation; Rights and Freedom Supporting International Center; Sae’ed Association for Development and Human Rights; Shomo’a Association for Human Rights Studies and Welfare of Disabled; and the Human Rights Association for the Assistance of the Prisoners.