Tensions between long-standing allies Egypt and the US climbed to a new
high this week as Egypt's ruling generals arrested 43 employees of the
country's non-profit non-governmental human rights organizations --
including several from the US.
But many are suggesting that the US organizations are simply being used as
pawns in a larger game -- the military's increasingly desperate efforts to
make a deal with the country's Muslim Brotherhood that would define and
secure the Army's role in the future Egypt.
The Background: Last week the Egyptian Ministry of Justice swooped down
on the offices of all the major non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in
the country, searched the offices, confiscated computers and other files, and
arrested 43 employees and charged them with "accepting funds and benefits
from an international organization" to pursue activities "prohibited by law"
and carrying out "political training programs."
Accepting foreign funds was Mubarak's bogeyman under his repressive and
restrictive NGO law. Now that law has been held over by Mubarak's
successors, the military, which threatens to make it even more draconian.
In a letter to the SCAF (the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces), Daphne
McCurdy, a Senior Research Associate with the Project on Middle East
Democracy (POMED) said: These groups have worked transparently and in
cooperation with Egyptian authorities to help support Egypt's democratic
transition--a goal to which the ruling military council purports to be
committed. Sixteen of those charged are American citizens, seriously
threatening the future of the U.S.-Egypt relationship."
This controversy is merely the latest chapter in a series of attacks against
both Egyptian and international civil society organizations that escalated
shortly after the ouster of President Mubarak one year ago.
The Egyptians gave Washington a heads-up regarding likely future
developments back in July, when SCAF Major General Assar gave a talk at
the United States Institute for Peace in Washington DC, in which he said
that foreign funding to NGOs without government pre-approval "represents
a danger, in light of the recent incidents where many police weaponry was
lost, and about 20,000 prisoners escaped from the prisons of Egypt following
the events experienced by the country."
Later that month, Field Marshall Tantawy, head of the SCAF, said in an
address to officers that "there are foreign players who feed and set up
specific projects that some individuals carry out domestically, without
understanding. It is possible that there is lack of understanding, that foreign
players are pushing the people into inappropriate directions [since they do]
not want stability for Egypt."
It's now clear that the government's "investigation" into NGOs has been
ongoing for months and that dozens of other organizations are also at risk. A
leaked ministry of justice report in September 2011 listed 39 of the most
vocal human rights organizations in Egypt as not registered under the
Associations Law and said a further 28 were receiving foreign funds without
prior authorization. The vast majority of those named were human rights and
POMED, the influential Project on Middle East Democracy, reported that
US authorities and human rights advocates expressed displeasure with the
SCAF investigation. For example, the group said, while excerpts of the
investigation's report were leaked to the Egyptian press in September, the
official report has never been made public nor have suspects been officially
notified of the charges against them.
POMED also declared that it was not until IRI employee Sam LaHood -- son
of President Obama's Secretary of Transportation, Ray LaHood -- arrived at
Cairo's airport and was prohibited from boarding a flight that suspects were
made aware that they were barred from travel.
POMED is a non-profit, non-partisan organization based in Washington,
DC, dedicated to examining how genuine democracies can develop in the
Middle East and how the United States can best support that process.
Most recently, the Ministry of Justice announced it was referring 43
individuals to face trial, but the formal charges have yet to be delivered to
the suspects. U.S. policymakers have also received inconsistent messages
from the Egyptian government, as the ruling military council and the
Ministry of Foreign Affairs have sought to reassure the U.S. government and
targeted organizations while the Ministry of Justice and Minister Aboul
Naga have struck a defiant tone.
The Muslim Brotherhood, which earlier endorsed the investigation,
denounced the American reaction to the NGO probe as inconsistent.
"America does not allow any foreign organization to open branches and
operate without a permit," said Brotherhood Spokesperson Mahmoud
Ghazlan. U.S. lawmakers have threatened to halt the $1.3 billion in promised
military aid to Egypt in response to the investigation.
Generally being overlooked is that the organizations whose offices were
raided and employees arrested have been well known to the Mubarak
government -- and approved, tacitly and overtly, for many years. Mubarak's
NGO law made it extremely difficult to operate in the human rights,
democracy-building, and related fields. There were occasional prosecutions
for accepting foreign funds without prior approval.
That's what's going on at the surface.
But the backstory is far more Machiavellian, according to one of the most
credible witnesses to the current scene in Egypt. He is Samer S. Shehata,