Aid-Workers Prosecution Puts U.S.-Egypt Relationship on Trial: Noe & Raad

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By Nicholas Noe & Walid Raad

The Egyptian establishment, in addition to some local defenders of democracy, has long regarded foreign financing of Egyptian civil society with marked skepticism, if not outright trepidation. Now, with the testimony by Egypt’s planning and international cooperation minister, Fayza Abul Naga, published last week -– in which she accused the U.S. of fomenting “chaos” in her country through the non-profit organizations it funds -– those sentiments have dramatically ratcheted up. Some Arab and Egyptian commentators wrote this week that the road to a new, and more balanced, era in U.S.-Egyptian relations should, in fact, come from tightly controlling civil society groups backed by Washington and its allies.

The issue first erupted Dec. 29, 2011, when Egyptian authorities raided the offices of 17 local and U.S.-supported non-governmental organizations, including Freedom House, the National Democratic Institute and the National Republican Institute, which together receive substantial U.S. government funds for promoting democracy and transparency around the world.

Forty-three workers -- including 19 Americans, 16 Egyptians and personnel from Germany, Serbia, Norway, Jordan and the Palestinian territories -- were subsequently required to appear in criminal court. Some Americans who were barred from leaving the country have taken refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Cairo.

The individuals and the organizations they represent have strenuously denied the charges, which range from stirring sectarian unrest and spying, to operating without Egyptian government licenses. Yet Egyptian officials have increasingly gone public with their accusations, garnering particular praise from the Islamist parties that control Parliament and the state-owned media.

An editorial in one such publication, Al-Gomhuria , opined that now is the right time “to correct the course of Egyptian-American relations so that they are based on parity, a respect for sovereignty and the achievement of joint interests.”

Rather than start with far more controversial, big-ticket issues like the status of the 1978 Camp David  Accords between Israel and Egypt, or the $1.3 billion in aid that Washington annually provides to the Egyptian military, Al-Gomhuria suggested that the best way to begin a course correction was precisely on the more limited “NGO issue,” where Egypt has better leverage and more internal consensus.

Even though several U.S. legislators have called for withholding aid if the NGO issue is not resolved satisfactorily, some Egyptian officials, analysts and commentators have predicted that the U.S. will ultimately back down. This will happen, they say, because cutting off aid could endanger the whole architecture of the Camp David Accord which ties Egypt’s acceptance of peace with Israel to massive economic and military funding.

Winning the battle of wills on the NGO issue will constitute a major test, Al-Gomhuria concluded, for the ability of post-revolutionary Egypt: generate drastic change at the level of Egyptian-American relations which have been serving the interests of the American side for the last four decades, after the Americans earned a quasi-total assignment from the former corrupt regime to manage the file of the Arab-Israeli conflict, among other political files in the Middle East.

Writing in the state-owned daily Al-Ahram, columnist Makram Mohammad Ahmad stressed that the Egyptian government was now operating under a democratic will, given recent parliamentary elections, and was therefore “subjected to the monitoring of popular power.”

This, he said, lends legitimacy to the current investigations that prior governments could not claim. However, Ahmad failed to discuss the control that the unelected Supreme Council of the Armed Forces still exercises over both the (unelected) government and the Parliament.

Echoing an even more widely expressed Egyptian public view, Ahmad continued, “the announced purposes of these civil society institutions constitute a veil hiding other purposes that mostly oppose the interests of the nations.”

They were, he charged, vehicles for intelligence work by foreign powers:

Even if the purpose of these institutes – as one Washington Post piece put it – is to help democracy sometimes, they actually operate against democracy most of the time; and they always stand by the interests of the USA, which ultimately run up against the hopes of the populations and their right to self-determination.

Kuwait’s Al-Khaleej zeroed in on the latter point, editorializing that U.S. funding for civil society groups was designed to exacerbate divisions in the Egyptian body politic, leaving it effectively immobilized in the future and, therefore, unable to operate as the powerhouse it supposedly once was in the Middle East.

Such foreign-funded organizations, Al-Khaleej wrote, “deal a blow to Arab societies, manipulate them, highlight discrepancies and transform the factor of pluralism into a factor of division and dismantlement.”

At least one columnist writing in the Egyptian Al-Masri Al-Yawm wasn’t buying any of this. Dr. Amro Az-Zanat wrote:

The most important point is not the aid, but rather the ways to get rid of a method that detects conspiracies at every turn and uses them in their rhetoric, a course which is negatively affecting us not only on the economic and political levels but also on the intellectual and scientific levels.

Zanat added that, in reality:

...the largest part of the American (non-military) aid was used to improve the sewage system, the roads and communication networks which collapsed due to our popular policies, the economic mistakes and the destructive wars which resulted from these policies. Those in Egypt who enjoy the widest economic expertise know there is no room for isolation if you want to move forward and avoid collapse.

Turning to the Muslim Brotherhood’s support for the NGO investigations, Zanat asked Egypt’s largest Islamist party, in jest, “From where did the groups operating in the area of political Islam get their money” and why weren’t these funds, presumably supplied by foreign countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, subject to  similar “NGO” investigations?

A statement from 29 Egyptian civil society organizations, released shortly after minister Naga’s testimony was made public, was even more pointed in its criticism of the apparent public appetite for challenging the U.S. through the NGOs it funds.

The government’s investigations constitute “fictitious battles with other states to distract attention from the catastrophic failure of the political administration,” the statement said, adding that “unethical” conspiring against Egyptian civil society is “in no way a national objective or in the national interest. Countries around the world advance by emancipating civil society, not by suppressing it.”

Unfortunately, with a restrictive, NGO law from the Hosni Mubarak-era set to be debated soon by Parliament, even if this controversy recedes, the reality is that Egyptian activists are going to be hard pressed to operate in the future.

This time, the conspiracy might just be completely made in Egypt.

(Nicholas Noe and Walid Raad are the Beirut correspondents for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are their own.)

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-0- Feb/23/2012 22:28 GMT