The Egyptian government’s climb down over the prosecution of pro-democracy non-governmental groups has sparked “super populist outrage” that threatens to further complicate efforts to negotiate an end to a crisis and highlights “a major obstacle in U.S.-Egyptian relations: the absence of a reliable partner following the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak.”
The focus on the NGO issue has obscured the “basic message” that the Obama administration is trying to convey to Egypt, “which is that we are impressed with what the Egyptian people are trying to do, we are fully supportive of their efforts to build a democratic system,” said Jeffrey Feltman, assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs.
“We do want to be partners with them long term. Now we have had to spend a lot of time, for example, talking to people on Capitol Hill to remind people of the long-term interest that we have in Egypt and the long-term benefits that we think that both countries have,” he told the Saudi-owned al-Arabiya satellite TV channel
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’s son Sam — one of several foreign-based democracy activists allowed to leave last Friday, — said in his first television interview said that Egyptian activists remain a subject of concern.
“We’re all still very worried about our Egyptian colleagues who remain on trial. We’re hopeful this can be resolved in a way that makes sense and is fair,” he told CNN’s Soledad O’Brien
“We’re working with our lawyers to try to figure out what’s next for myself and my other American colleagues,” he said. “But as I said, we’re hopeful that this issue is going to be resolved within Egypt and there will be a positive outcome for our Egyptian colleagues as well.”
LaHood, director of the International Republican Institute’s Egypt program, and 42 other activists face criminal charges of using illegally-procured foreign funds for political purposes. A travel ban against foreign nationals accused in the case was lifted last week, and most of the activists left Egypt after the NGOs posted bail set at about $300,000 per person.
The head of the International Republican Institute’s operations in Egypt office blamed the crisis on International Cooperation Minister Fayza Abou el-Naga, a leading Mubarak holdover.
“What you had here was a Mubarak-era minister trying to drive an agenda of her own,” LaHood said. “The reality is Egypt’s going to have to chart its own course in the future relationship with the U.S.”
Naga and the investigating judges in the case accused the NGOs, including the U.S.-based IRI, National Democratic Institute and Freedom House, of plotting to provoke unrest in Egypt in order to benefit US and Israeli interests.
LaHood expects the trial against him and his fellow democracy activists “to go on for some time.”
Egyptian politicians and media were outraged at the government’s decision to allow the activists to leave.
The decision to lift the travel ban was described as a “catastrophe” by representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliated Freedom and Justice Party, while the FJP-affiliated speaker of the parliament, promised to “hold accountable those responsible for this crime.”
The anti-American sentiment stoked by state-owned media throughout the crisis is unlikely to abate anytime soon, observers suggest:
Michael Wahid Hanna, an Egypt expert at The Century Foundation, said the anger in Egypt toward the United States after a year of government-backed state media campaigns to whip up xenophobia “is not something that’s easily reversible and the way that the travel ban was lifted has provoked a super populist outrage.”
Hanna said “popular opinion matters” in a way it never did under Mubarak’s authoritarian rule.
The previous trial effectively collapsed after the presiding judges recused themselves from the case. The charges against the accused activists have reportedly been reduced to misdemeanors that do not carry a jail sentence.
Gauging the NGO conflict’s implications for Egypt’s transitional prospects is a “little bit above my pay grade,” LaHood said.
“From our experience in working in places that are like Egypt, that are going through a transition like this, oftentimes these transitions are uneven,” he said. “There’s bumps in the road. In our case, what we’re seeing here is, as I said, former elements of the Mubarak government that are pushing their own agenda that we think is inconsistent with the transition that’s going on in Egypt right now, the democratic transition that’s going on.”