Harassment of nongovernmental organizations and their American employees by the interim Egyptian government is putting at risk substantial U.S. aid and appears to be an effort by the government to manufacture a foreign incident to distract the Egyptian people from growing unrest.
Adel Saeed, spokesman for the Egyptian general prosecutor, announced on February 5 that the government will prosecute several NGOs and their employees for receiving illegal foreign funds, involvement in prohibited activity, and lack of licenses. The government is targeting ten foreign and domestic groups, including three American organizations: the International Republican Institute (IRI), the National Democratic Institute (NDI), and Freedom House. Although neither IRI nor NDI was licensed in Egypt, government officials formally invited both groups to Egypt last fall to observe parliamentary elections. Egypt also announced a travel ban for 43 NGO employees facing charges but has not moved to arrest them.
Last December, prosecutors raided the offices of nine NGOs, including American organizations, as part of an investigation into their involvement in fomenting unrest in the country. Officials confiscated money, computers and files and closed down their operations. At that time, the government prohibited six Americans associated with the NGOs from leaving Egypt.
In 2006, under then-dictator Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian government also suspended operations of IRI and NDI, but did not prosecute their employees. The groups ultimately reached an agreement with the Mubarak government to allow them to resume their activities.
The United States has strongly condemned the prosecution of the NGOs. U.S. officials told the Egyptian government that the organizations are innocent of any wrongdoing and asked it to drop the travel bans and allow the groups to resume their work. Congress has also warned Egypt to stop harassing American NGOs. Two senior U.S. senators, Carl Levin, D-Michigan, and John McCain, R-Arizona, hoped to meet with Egyptian officials to discuss this issue in Washington yesterday. However, just before the meeting was to take place, the Egyptian delegation abruptly cancelled on orders from Cairo and returned to Egypt.
The U.S. Congress recently changed the conditions for military aid to Egypt, now requiring the Egyptian military to retain peaceful relations with Israel, demonstrate movement toward handing over full power to civilians, and make progress on human rights. Some members of Congress claim the persecution of the NGOs violates these conditions.
Cairo has expressed public defiance in the face of U.S. concerns over the NGO crackdown. Egyptian official Faiza Abu el-Naga, who oversees foreign aid, said the government “will not be pulling the plug” on the case and claimed that “the government will not hesitate to expose foreign schemes that threaten the stability of the homeland.” Officials at the Foreign Ministry say the case is a judicial matter outside their control and that the ruling military is unable to intervene. According to Reuters, one minister stated, “Egypt does not accept threats from the United States." During a phone call in late January with President Obama, head of the interim military government Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi said his military council had no control over the Egyptian investigation of the NGOs, according to Reuters.
The high tension with Washington comes amid renewed protests and calls for the military to step down. On February 3, a riot during a soccer match left 74 dead and sparked public protests against the police who failed to stop the violence. Demonstrators have stepped up protests since the riot, blaming the Interior Ministry and the military for the fatalities and calling for the military to hand power to civilians immediately, rather than in June when presidential elections are scheduled to be held. Protesters are also accusing former members of the Mubarak regime of instigating violence since the regime was ousted, including the soccer riot. At least ten protestors have died in recent protests.
Moves by the military to calm public dissent so far have failed. According to activists in Cairo, some members of parliament are holding a sit-in and hunger strike unless police forces cease their assaults on protesters. Students and pro-democracy activists are calling for a general strike on February 11, the anniversary of Mubarak's ouster. In a futile attempt to stop the protests, the head of the country’s electoral commission announced that candidates for president would be able to present their nominations on March 10, a month earlier than planned.
Despite defiant rhetoric from the interim military government over the NGO issue, it is highly unlikely to take action that will cause Egypt to lose U.S. military aid. The military leadership will almost certainly make concessions to Washington to resolve this situation, although it may cloak the concessions in nationalist rhetoric. At a minimum, the military is likely to lift the travel ban and drop criminal charges, although it could put more restrictions on NGO operations in the country at least until elections.
Military leaders appear to be using recent tensions with Washington and anti-U.S. statements as a ploy to win back popular support after months of dissatisfaction with their rule. The interim military government has claimed that foreign-based plots are threatening to destabilize Egypt, knowing that blaming the U.S. and other foreign elements, such as Israel, may strike a chord with the Egyptian public and distract from complaints against the interim military government. The military may also hope that blaming international actors for the protests will taint demonstrators as puppets of foreign powers and undercut their popular support.
Although the military leadership has not yet agreed to early presidential elections, moving the registration period suggests it is at least considering such action. Since taking control of Egypt last year, the military has suffered numerous headaches and difficulties, and it may be weary of ruling the country. However, before it returns to the barracks, the military almost certainly will move to ensure its autonomy and economic interests. Rumors that the military will allow parliament to put forward a presidential candidate implies that the it may have reached a backroom agreement with the Muslim Brotherhood under which its Freedom and Justice Party would run a candidate for president in exchange for agreeing to protect military interests. The Freedom and Justice Party previously stated it would not contest the presidency.
Cairo cannot afford to lose massive military funding from the U.S. and will probably soon find a way to resolve the NGO issue. However, the manipulation of this issue by the military will impact future U.S./Egypt relations and raises questions about the dependability of the Egyptian military toward issues important to Washington.