Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa, North America

Egyptian Ties with US on Civil Society Rocks

Adam Morrow and Khaled Moussa al-Omrani

CAIRO, Mar 8 2012 (IPS) - Egypt’s legal campaign against a handful of foreign NGOs reached a crescendo last week with the repatriation of several U.S. nationals indicted on charges of engaging in unauthorised civil society activity. But many local analysts believe the latest developments – far from signifying the end of the crisis – portend nothing less than a seismic shift in Egypt’s longstanding “strategic relationship” with the U.S.

“A year after Mubarak’s ouster, Egypt-U.S. relations have come to a crossroads,” Tarek Fahmi, political science professor at Cairo University, told IPS. “The issue of foreign-directed ‘civil society’ groups has led to the first fundamental crisis between the two countries in more than 30 years.”

On Thursday (Mar. 1) evening, 15 foreign nationals, including eight Americans, hastily departed Cairo for the U.S. after the sudden lifting of a travel ban placed on them earlier by Egyptian judicial authorities. The foreigners, who included the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, had been charged with operating foreign NGOs inside Egypt without official permission.

“The U.S. government has provided a plane to facilitate their departure and they have left the country,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland declared Thursday night. She was quick to add, however, that their departure “doesn’t resolve the legal case or the larger issues concerning the NGOs.”

Judicial officials and political groups of all stripes decried the release of the indicted foreigners, which they were quick to attribute to U.S. pressure. The following day, more than 200 protesters marched from Cairo’s Tahrir Square towards the nearby U.S. embassy to protest perceived foreign interference in Egypt’s judicial affairs.

On Saturday (Mar. 3), scores of Egyptian judges lodged an official request for an investigation into the judicial authorities that lifted the travel ban on the indicted foreigners. ‘Release of Americans rocks Egypt’s judiciary’, read the Sunday (Mar. 4) headlines of state daily Al-Gomhouriya.

“Lifting the travel ban on the American activists was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Farid Ismail, member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), said at a Sunday meeting of parliament’s national security committee. He went on to call for the government’s immediate resignation.

At the same meeting, liberal MP Ziad Bahaa Eddin al-Eleimi called for cutting Cairo’s diplomatic relations with Washington, charging the government of Prime Minister Kamal al-Ganzouri with “high treason” for “caving in to U.S. pressure.”

The affair first began in late December, when authorities raided the offices of five foreign “pro-democracy” NGOs, seizing computers and documents. The five organisations were the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, Freedom House and the International Centre for Journalists – all based in the U.S. – and the Germany-based Konrad-Adenauer Foundation.

Shortly afterward, 43 individuals – Egyptians and foreigners, including 19 American NGO employees – were indicted on suspicion of engaging in unauthorised activity. Slapped with an official travel ban, several sought refuge at the U.S. embassy in Cairo; others were stopped at the airport while reportedly trying to leave the country.

Washington reacted angrily to the moves, which the international media portrayed as another example of Mubarak-style repression against civil society by Egypt’s military leadership.

Most Egyptian civil society figures, too, condemned the legal action taken against the foreign organisations and their employees.

“The ruling military council is trying to tarnish the image of these organisations instead of owning up to its own failures in administering Egypt’s (post-revolution) transitional phase,” Bahei Eddine Hassan, head of the Cairo Centre for Human Rights Studies, told IPS.

Many civil society activists also voice fears that additional NGOs may eventually be targeted. An estimated 40,000 NGOs, engaged in everything from nature conservation to eradicating illiteracy, are believed to be currently operating inside Egypt. A large number of these have been established in the one year since Egypt’s Tahrir Square uprising, most of them ostensibly devoted to human rights and democracy building.

According to Fahmi, longstanding suspicions about foreign-directed civil society groups are not entirely without justification.

“Under Mubarak, these organisations were allowed to operate under the rubric of promoting democracy and human rights,” he said. “But there’s much to suggest that some of these groups are here mainly to gather information about domestic politics – especially after the revolution – and perhaps even influence Egyptian political parties and groups in accordance with U.S. interests.”

In mid-February, U.S. Congress upped the ante by hinting at the possible cancellation of the annual U.S. aid package to Egypt – totalling some 1.5 billion dollars – if the indicted Americans were not released. Egypt’s annual aid allotment from the U.S. has remained in more or less the same form since the signing of the 1979 Camp David peace agreement with Israel.

Not to be outdone, the Muslim Brotherhood, whose FJP controls almost half of Egypt’s first post-Mubarak parliament, responded by threatening to abrogate the Camp David agreement in the event that U.S. aid was halted.

“The U.S. assistance package is directly linked to Camp David,” Essam al-Arian, FJP vice-president and head of parliament’s foreign affairs committee, told IPS. “If Washington cuts the aid, we reserve the right to modify – or entirely abrogate – the peace agreement.”

Feb. 26 saw the trial begin of 26 foreign nationals, including 19 Americans, indicted in the case. Two days later, however, all three presiding judges abruptly announced their decision to step down “for reasons of discomfort”. They provided no further explanation.

Despite the judges’ sudden withdrawal and the defendants’ recent departure, the trial is nevertheless scheduled to resume – under a new panel of judges and with suspects being tried in absentia – on Thursday (Mar. 8).

Meanwhile, local analysts attribute Egypt’s decision to release the indicted foreigners to a backroom deal between the ruling military council and Washington. “The military council obviously came to an understanding with the U.S., details of which remain uncertain until now,” said Cairo University’s Fahmi.

But while the military council remains tight-lipped on the issue, recent statements by U.S. officials suggest some form of quid pro quo.

“We have all been focused over these past few weeks on the NGO issue, and it is a matter of serious continuing concern for the United States,” Nuland stated Saturday. “But it is also important to underscore that the U.S. remains committed to a strong bilateral relationship with Egypt.”

She added: “Despite the recent strains, and differences on certain issues, the fundamentals of this strategic relationship remain strong.”

Fahmi, however, like many other local observers, doesn’t see things going back to business as usual.

“Judging by its recent behaviour, Washington continues to act as if the Mubarak regime – which never dreamed of challenging the U.S. – was still in power,” he said. “It doesn’t seem to have realised that here was a revolution in Egypt – and that it can now therefore expect a degree of resistance to its diktats.”

 
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