Finkelstein: The US and Egypt one year after the coup

Norman Finkelstein his usual acerbic self:

The first thing to note is the oddity of a democratic transition that begins with an anti-democratic coup. It’s not every day that the overthrow of a democratically elected government, the jailing of the democratically elected president, and the mass slaughter of the unarmed supporters of the democratically elected governing party constitute stepping stones to democracy.

. . .

To assess Egypt’s recent election, it might be useful to conduct a simple thought experiment. As is well known, President Barack Obama’s popularity has plummeted among the American people. A majority do not approve of the job he’s doing, and many among them positively detest him. Let’s imagine if the Republican party, capitalizing on this popular discontent, orchestrated an army coup to remove Obama from office, slaughtered his unarmed supporters in a series of bloodbaths, declared the Democratic party a terrorist organization, banned it and jailed its leading members, then arrested the other opposition leaders and prohibited any and all public dissent. Finally, to appease international opinion, Republicans held an “election” in which the only other candidate was Jesse Jackson. 

Jesse Jackson? Surely one would choose a unelectable Republican rather than an unelectable Democrat – Ron Paul perhaps?

It's a pretty shallow piece but US policy certain gets the skewering it deserves. 

"Egypt rejects American Satan"

Remember this headline, in the state-owned newspaper of a supposedly secular, US-friendly regime run by a military that receives $1.3bn in US aid per year.  Via:

And while we're at it: 

Kagan: The U.S. is complicit in Egyptian military’s actions

Robert Kagan weighs in on the question of Egypt-US relations: 

Some supporters of the aid claim that it gives us leverage over the military’s behavior — that fear of an aid cutoff will curb Sissi’s more extreme inclinations and lead the government to moderation. Recent events suggest the opposite. Why should military leaders fear losing aid when the Obama administration did not even abide by U.S. law requiring it to cut off that aid after the coup? The recent delay of F-16 deliveries had no effect.

Egypt’s military knows there has been only one constant in U.S. policy toward its country over the past three decades, including during the turbulence of the past three years: Regardless of who has been in power — Hosni Mubarak, the military, Morsi and now the military again — and how that government has behaved, military assistance has flowed. We didn’t use our military aid to pressure Mubarak to reform; we didn’t use it to pressure Morsi to govern more democratically; and we are not using it now to pressure the military to cease its violent, undemocratic behavior.

Quite aside the merits of this argument, there is a logical flaw in the "we can't pressure them because we'll lose the only leverage we have" argument: if you can't use your leverage because you'll lose your leverage, then you do not in fact have leverage. 

The US and the coup

Some great reporting in this NYT piece: 

CAIRO — As President Mohamed Morsi huddled in his guard’s quarters during his last hours as Egypt’s first elected leader, he received a call from an Arab foreign minister with a final offer to end a standoff with the country’s top generals, senior advisers with the president said.
The foreign minister said he was acting as an emissary of Washington, the advisers said, and he asked if Mr. Morsi would accept the appointment of a new prime minister and cabinet, one that would take over all legislative powers and replace his chosen provincial governors.
The aides said they already knew what Mr. Morsi’s answer would be. He had responded to a similar proposal by pointing at his neck. “This before that,” he had told his aides, repeating a vow to die before accepting what he considered a de facto coup and thus a crippling blow to Egyptian democracy.
His top foreign policy adviser, Essam el-Haddad, then left the room to call the United States ambassador, Anne W. Patterson, to say that Mr. Morsi refused. When he returned, he said he had spoken to Susan E. Rice, the national security adviser, and that the military takeover was about to begin, senior aides said.
“Mother just told us that we will stop playing in one hour,” an aide texted an associate, playing on a sarcastic Egyptian expression for the country’s Western patron, “Mother America.”

Congress makes its move on US aid to Egypt

Above, Senator James Marco Rubio makes a speech about amending US aid to Egypt. Worth a listen to get a sense of the mood. And not altogether unreasonable, either.

POMED has more:

Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) submitted an amendment to H.R. 933 placing conditions on two forms of U.S. assistance to Egypt unless the country adopts economic reforms and human rights safeguards. The amendment will also begin a comprehensive, long-term reevaluation of U.S. military aid to Egypt. Speaking before the Senate, Rubio said, “The U.S.-Egypt relationship has been a critical one for decades, but it must be adapted to reflect the new political reality the Arab Spring has created. That adaptation process must begin with how our money is being spent and conditioning our assistance on Egypt’s adoption of economic reforms and a serious effort to protect the rights of religious minorities, women, a free press and the ability of Egyptian and foreign NGOs to promote civil society, governance and democracy.”

Read their post for full details. 

The speech ElBaradei could have made after meeting Kerry

Much has been made about the refusal by National Salvation Front leaders, aside Amr "I never miss an opportunity to show I'm a big shot" Moussa, to meet incoming US Secretary of State John Kerry. I'm not sure not meeting him was that much of a missed opportunity, because I'm still not sure what the NSF exactly has to say for itself. Beyond, that is, describing Washington's urging for the opposition to compete in the upcoming elections as a form of foreign interference, thus echoing both the Mubarak regime and SCAF's (and the Brotherhood regime's) hysterical accusations and hyperventilation every time someone outside the country suggests something.

Imagine ElBaradei (or Sabahi, or whoever) coming out of a meeting with Kerry and, at the press conference, making a speech that begins along these lines:

We just had an honest and forceful exchange of views with John Kerry, whom we welcome to Egypt and wish good luck as he begins his tenure as Secretary of State. The United States has a long history of relations with Egypt — not always good relations, it is true, but relations that have nonetheless been pivotal to the region and its future. I told Secretary Kerry that as he begins a new job, and the Obama administration begins a second term, many Egyptians will be watching him for what direction America takes.

Under the Mubarak regime, many of us felt that the US had made the wrong choice in backing a president and a regime that grew more authoritarian and unjust over the years. We hoped such a mistake would not be repeated again, and were optimistic to see President Obama speak of the need for democracy in the region in 2011. But, more recently, some of us have been sorely disappointed.

We have a hard time understanding how the country of Benjamin Franklin, George Washington and John Adams — a country whose people, perhaps more than any other in the world, takes great pride in its founders' framing of its constitution — stayed silent when a new constitution was shoved down the throats of Egyptians. We wonder whether Americans would find it acceptable that the majority party of the day rush the approval of their nation's covenant in less than 24 hours. Or that their Supreme Court be fettered by an all-powerful president. 

We do not believe that the Egyptian people deserve any less a constitution than the American people. And we were puzzled to hear Washington call for consensus only after the recent referendum, precisely after the opportunity to create a wide consensus had evaporated.

We hear Secretary Kerry's calls to focus on our foundering economy, and could not agree more: it has been terribly mismanaged by an administration that decided to sacrifice Egypt's economic and social well-being for short-term political gain. But we ask Secretary Kerry: was Egypt ever likely to be able to tackle its challenges and take painful decisions for the sake of reform without establishing a genuine consensus? Where was America's advice in December, when the decisions that have led to the current economic crisis were taken?

Secretary Kerry, a long time ago you fought against your president's decision to prolong an unnecessary war in Vietnam, and more recently you had the wisdom to speak out against another president's policies in Iraq. Some called you unpatriotic, but history proved you right. When Egyptians denounce their president today, they do not do so out of spite — they do so out of concern for their country and their future. We believe history will prove us right — but fear the costs we will have to pay in the meantime.

Secretary Kerry, we will not take part in the next elections not because we are afraid of losing, but precisely because we do not think the consensus that is necessary to set Egypt on the right path politically, economically, and socially has been created. We will not legitimize an administration that believes winning one or two elections gives it the right to single-handedly write the rules of the game and treat other parts of our great nation in an arrogant and humiliating way. We know this might be a risky proposition — but we must stand by our principles. And we ask: what are America's principles?

. . .

The point is not the content of the speech, in which I echo what I see as potential NSF talking points rather than my own opinion. The point is, as an opposition leader, why not leverage such an occasion to make a speech that might send a strong message to the US, play to concerns of some American groups (some in Congress, parts of the media, civil society, elements of public opinion, etc.) that can put pressure on the Obama administration? That also sends a message to a domestic audience that it has leaders that are able to stand next to an American Secretary of State and sound both statesmanlike and defiant — but without being petulant? Why not take every opportunity to score political points?

America and Egypt's presidential election

INTERVIEW: Brotherhood sec-general says Egypt's 'undemocratic' opposition losing street - Politics - Egypt - Ahram Online

Interesting acknowledgement by the Secretary-General of the Muslim Brotherhood of an American intercession on the presidential elections in this article. This has been denounced as the opposition's conspiracy theory, but such a call was made:

The US ambassador called SCAF hours before Morsi was declared president, something that triggered controversy.

The US wants to protect its interests. The US was of the view that if the deposed regime came to power once again through forgery a second revolution would break out. Its intercession was not out of bias to Mohamed Morsi but for the election results to be declared without forgery. SCAF and the Elections Committee had knowledge that Morsi was ahead. In this case America stood by legitimacy to avoid a revolution that may turn the country against it.

Congress' non-condition conditions to Egypt

I just came back from a press conference by a delegation from the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee led by John McCain and Lindsey Graham. It was interesting because of the context: the furore over Morsi's 2010 comments about Jews, the economic crisis Egypt is facing, the recent debacle over the constitution and the future of Egypt's fledging democracy. My basic takeaway from the press conference is this. The main concerns expressed by the senators are:

  • Security and Sinai
  • Egypt's relationship with Israel
  • Amending the recently approved constitution
  • Signing a deal with the IMF

The background to this in the US is a pending $489m aid package (update: reports differ, others are saying $189m as part of a $450m total but I swear I heard $489m), in the form of direct budget support, the Obama adminsitration would like to fast-track and more generally acute concern about the state of the Egyptian economy and a desire to see an IMF deal that would unblock US and other aid but also commit Egypt to eonomic reforms. Perhaps the clearest indication of this was when Senator Graham said:

The Egyptian economy is going to collapse if something is not done quickly. ...  It's difficult for US taxpayers to invest in this country if the IMF does not approval a loan [to Egypt].

American politicians, especially compared to the Obama administration, are pretty tone-deaf to Egyptian sensibilities. One shuddered when Graham told the Egyptian journalists present "you're going to have to showcase your best behavior" to get US support.

What the senators want seems pretty clear. Aside from an IMF agreement and all it entails, they want stronger security operations in Sinai — not jut to control the terrorism issue there but also end weapons smuggling to Gaza. They also want — and they want pretty far in saying this short of spelling it out — President Morsi to make amends, publicly, for his remarks on Jews being "the descendants of apes and pigs." They also made it pretty clear they'd like to see amendments to the constitution to ensure greater respect for human rights, empowerment of women, protection of minorities and a more clearly defined (or delimited) role for religion. And similar stuff in the electoral law being currently finalized. At least you can't say they are not addressing issues of democratic governance and human rights.

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ElBaradei slams US handling of US crisis

'These Guys Are Thugs' - Interview by David Kenner | Foreign Policy

ElBaradei evokes Yogi Berra to describe U.S. policy on Egypt: It reminded him, he said, of "déjà vu, all over again" -- a throwback to when the United States would give the Mubarak regime a free pass on human rights as long as it protected Washington's regional interests. The opposition has compiled evidence that some of the judges overseeing the process were impostors and that Christians were turned away from polling stations.

I have a fantasy about ElBaradei becoming president and giving a public talking down to Obama about his handling of this crisis. I said fantasy.

Incidentally, however, this has become to the main excuse for US diplomats and officials to excuse their inaction in the last months (as all sorts of US aid keeps flowing to Egypt): their feelings are hurt that the opposition sometimes unreasonably blames them.

Morsi's effrontery, according to Bloomberg

Egypt’s Mursi Poses Dilemma as U.S. Assesses Power Grab - Businessweek

Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi poses a quandary for the Obama administration as it struggles to respond to the democratically elected Islamist leader’s power grab -- which he made without any advance notice to Washington.

The effrontery of making a dictatorial power-grab without consulting with Washington first! How dare he?

Ros-Lehtinen rejects Obama’s plan to send $450 million to Egypt -- in Spanish

Ros-Lehtinen rejects Obama’s plan to send $450 million to Egypt -- in Spanish

From Josh Rogin, at The Cable:

Outgoing House Foreign Affairs Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) issued a Spanish-language press release Tuesday to announce her opposition to the Obama administration's plan to send $450 million to the new Egyptian government.

"The Obama Administration's policy on Egypt has been a failure. From its lack of support for moderate political voices to its confused response to the downfall of Mubarak and the attack on our embassy in Cairo, the Administration lacks a clear strategy towards Egypt. Now the Obama Administration wants to simply throw money at an Egyptian government that the President cannot even clearly state is an ally of the United States," she said.

"Money will not solve this situation. The Egyptian government has not gained the trust of the U.S. and the Administration's response is to cut an unprecedented $450 million check directly to the Muslim Brotherhood-led government in Egypt is problematic. The Administration's proposed cash transfers and other multi-million  dollar requests for Egypt are also on hold by me and other pertinent Chairmen."

Two things:

a) You can tell this is pointless election-time gesturing because Ros-Lehtinen is a windbag and so far only two Republicans have spoken out on this, and never — never — mention the military aid, just the civilian part;

b) You can start worrying when she complains in English. 

U.S. Prepares Economic Aid to Bolster Democracy in Egypt

U.S. Prepares Economic Aid to Bolster Democracy in Egypt

Important piece in the NYT by Steven Lee Myers, about the US going ahead with $1bn debt forgiveness (out of $3bn, mostly low-interest Food for Peace loans):

Mr. Morsi and his Islamic movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, have since made it clear that the struggling economy is their most urgent priority, brushing aside reservations about American and international assistance and outright opposition to it from other Islamic factions.

American officials say they have been surprised by how open Mr. Morsi and his advisers have been to economic changes, with a sharp focus on creating jobs.

“They sound like Republicans half the time,” one administration official said, referring to leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was long banned from office under the former president, Hosni Mubarak, a close American ally.

Hoping to capitalize on what they see as a ripening investment climate, the State Department and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce will take executives from nearly 50 American companies, like Caterpillar and Xerox, to Cairo beginning Saturday as part of one of the largest trade delegations ever. The officials and executives will urge the government to make changes in taxation, bankruptcy and labor laws to improve the investment climate.

“It’s important for the U.S. to give Egypt a reason to look to the West, as well as the East,” said Lionel Johnson, the chamber’s vice president for the Middle East and North Africa.

The Brotherhood has spoken a language on the economy that Americans like to hear for a while now: entrepreneurship, liberalization, public-private partnerships etc. In reality I suspect we will continue to see some protectionism in the Egyptian tradition (on pharma, some agricultural produce, price controls for steel, cement etc.) that is perfectly understandable. But what's interesting here is how things are being framed as a need to "balance" the East — the GCC countries of course with their easily spent cash, but also China. Makes Morsi's trip there and supposed $4-6bn in contracts look smart. 

From alarm to relief in Washington amid Egypt’s military shakeup

From alarm to relief in Washington amid Egypt’s military shakeup

Karen DeYoung reporting for the Washington Post:

The Obama administration’s first reaction to Sunday’s news that Egypt’s military chiefs had been forced from office was deep alarm. The surprise announcement from Cairo seemed to signal that Washington’s worst fears about the direction of the Egyptian revolution were coming true.

Political developments in Egypt during the past year have occurred at a speed that has often overwhelmed U.S. policymakers. The one constant seemed to be the military and its longtime chief, Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi. His dismissal increased concerns about how much leverage Washington would retain as Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi consolidated power.

By early Monday, the administration had exhaled a collective, if perhaps temporary, sigh of relief. The newly named defense minister and armed forces commander, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, is well-known to U.S. officials. He had “espoused cooperation with the United States and the need for peace with neighbors,” an administration official said.

That would suggest that the administration did not know about this and was caught off-guard. Which was my intuition. It's significant because it highlights — even if Egypt remains allied to the US, as I think it will — how little control Washington has on events and how little it is "in the loop." Which means, basically, a more independent Egypt. 

Al-Amin: What’s the U.S. up to in Egypt?

Esam Al-Amin in Counterpunch:

In this high stakes of international power play the U.S. strategy in the region is to prefer a managed transition to civilian rule and democratic governance as long as the American major strategic objectives are not challenged. In short, the strategy is to give the Islamic rising powers a chance to govern as long as they agree to: keep the Americans in, the Chinese and Russians out, the Iranians down, and the Israelis safe.

Time will only tell if the Islamic group would fulfill such expectations or chart a more independent course in line with the objectives of the revolution that brought them to power.

Al-Amin is critical of US foreign policy in the region (who isn't!?) but his article is fair appraisal of priorities for Washington in post-uprising Egypt. It's actually a pretty decent mix as long as it includes that transition to democratic governance (and I think the US is not on good terms with SCAF, or more specifically Tantawi, anyway). The question is what happens to the good stuff if Washington doesn't get its way on the others — and I think that something there has got to give.

The first test, as Al-Amin points out, is likely to be the blockade on Gaza and Egypt-Israel relations. The Israelis, in any case, are not wasting time making their preparations and drafting allies in the US:

That last piece on CNN.com is an op-ed by Mark Udall, a US Senator for Colorado (D). He writes:

It is critical that we engage the Israelis and Egyptians in joint discussions on security in the Sinai and on preserving the Multinational Force and Observers' mission. The Egyptian military should be urged to reinforce checkpoints on the borders between mainland Egypt and the Sinai in order to stop the flow of arms and crack down on human trafficking. Egypt's new government must respect the country's commitments to combat human trafficking under international conventions as well as domestic law.

Where the US lags behind is accepting that the main cause of instability in Sinai is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the impact the Gaza blockade has had in criminalizing the Sinai economy through the tunnels. What Egypt needs in Sinai is not just a greater commitment of the state to fight crime, but an end to the blockade, which means an end to the Quartet conditions.

Stacher and Brownlee on Democracy Prevention

In connection with our previous post excerpting Josh Stacher's book Adaptable Autocrats, here's Josh interviewing (fellow Egypt expert) Jason Brownlee about his forthcoming book, Democracy Prevention: The Politics of the US-Egyptian Alliance. Look out for their conversation starting at 06:50 on how the Obama administration did not embrace the Egyptian uprising and encouraged as much continuity as possible with the Mubarak regime — "they were trying to minimize the extent of change" says Brownlee.

On the future of Egypt-US relations

Steve Cook has a piece at The Atlantic in which he argues that, Shafiq or Morsi, Egypt-US relations have a poor future. He says:

The American military aid to Egypt has become an annual political fight with Congress over conditionality that doesn't sit well with the officers in addition to the fact that $1.3 billion, which needs to be spent in the United States, doesn't buy all that much these days. Moreover, the remnants of the old regime, of which Shafiq is now the standard bearer, were angry over the way the United States handled the uprising. Hosni Mubarak carried Washington's water in the Middle East for almost 30 years to his political detriment and from where supporters of the old regime sit, the Obama administration unceremoniously dumped a longtime ally. I am told that the felool are over it. I am not convinced, but even if they are, it is hard to believe that President Shafiq will embrace the United States given the way Mubarak was treated. Mind you, that doesn't mean that the Obama administration pursued the wrong policy when it came to the conclusion that the Egyptian president had to go, but that Shafiq and his supporters likely have a different view of that episode and it could affect bilateral relations.

Finally, precisely because Shafiq represents the old order, he needs to demonstrate some space between himself and the policies of the past. Even if he wants to roll back the changes that have occurred since the uprising and has held himself out as the restorer of order, the uprising has fundamentally altered Egypt's political arena in important ways. For all their problems and political limitations, revolutionary groups, liberals, leftists, Salafists and a variety of others have discovered ways to make their voices heard. It's clear that Shafiq understands this as he has softened his position on the uprising considerably since it became evident that he would be in the run-off. Like Morsi, Shafiq needs to appeal to voters beyond his natural constituency. The twin exigencies of broadening his base and demonstrating that he isn't Hosni Mubarak in a different Rolex and a cardigan sweater means that, among other things, Shafiq may well run and potentially govern against the United States. The U.S.-Egypt relationship is too big and juicy a political target for Shafiq to ignore because it serves both of his political interests at once.

So you see, no dancing in the streets outside the State Department, the champagne will not flow at the Pentagon, the spies out in Langley won't declare a long weekend. Whether it is Morsi or Shafiq, the party is over for Washington. Rather it is time for Washington to take stock and adjust to Egypt's new reality.

 I left a comment in which I disagree with his take:

Can't say I agree with you Steve. Obama administration seemed ok with Brotherhood a few months ago and thought they would elect a president but defer to military on security policy. Core interests like Suez Canal passage, overflight, quasi-basing rights have been secured. A quick look at the latest Congressional foreign appropriations bill suggests full support for FMF and any "punishing" of Egypt is only taking place out of ESF, laughably. Also disagree with your take that Obama pushed Mubarak out. The Egyptian military did that to save itself, and the US has effectively backed its handling of the transition despite public statements to the contrary, since a military remaining in charge suggests continuity and more of the same on core issues: Israel and military cooperation. The exercise of the waiver on FMF (Foreign Military Financing) is the proof of this.

What, in any case, can the next Egyptian president really do to "govern against the United States"? Nothing important like ending military alliance, realigning itself with other regional powers. Egypt will just continue to be the difficult ally it was under Mubarak. You'll have issues that will consume a lot of media attention like the NGO affair but ultimately do not make a dent in bilateral relations, and many Congressmen completely willing to spread the myth that it's not the military but Fayza Aboul Naga who is to blame. The idea that Egypt-US relations have substantially changed is misleading, right now, as long as the military is in charge of key issues, it's more of the same until I see a US warship having to wait two weeks to get through the Canal or, at minimum, Egypt abandoning the Quartet policies and Roadmap on Israel/Palestine.

My evidence for little change in Egypt-US relations is that even as it backed a return to civilian rule, it also backed the military takeover from Mubarak from the get go (even though you might argue that legislation in place to suspend relations with states where a military coup has taken place should have been applied.) Subsequent behavior suggests continued backing for the military even when it repressed and killed protestors (the initial reason for backing the military was, after all, that it did not fire on protestors during the initial 2011 uprising) and when the government it appointed directly challenged the US over the NGO affair.

A glance at the latest Foreign Operations Appropriations bill suggests that Congress, too, is not eager to put any pressure of consequence on the Egyptian military. Consider angry Congress' reaction to the NGO debacle:

  • It conditions assistance on the governments being "sincere in the pursuit of democracy, based on Millennium Challenge Corporation standards;
  • It prohibits assistance if a government "is actively and significantly interfering with the operation of civil society organizations";
  • It reimburses the US government for the $5m expense of having paid the bail of the US citizens indicted in the NGO affair.

That sounds tough, right? Well not really: all of these conditions are only places on economic assistance, not the military aid package. So basically it punished civilian government for decisions made by the military, cutting from the aid package most Americans will go to democracy promotion, entrepreneurship, education, etc. But not F16s. (Overall economic aid to Egypt remains about the same $250m).

What's more, with regards to the national security waiver on conditionality for military aid, which have been exercised by every administration since first implemented in 2006,  new language has been added. While there is a demand for greater coordination with Congress before exercising a waiver. From an excellent POMED report [PDF] on this:

The national security waiver on Egypt’s FMF is only applicable to Egypt’s commitment to democratic processes and freedoms, and cannot be applied if the Government of Egypt fails to meet its obligations under the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty. Additionally, a new provision requires the administration to consult with Congress prior to issuing a national security waiver if they elect to issue a waiver in FY13 as they did in the previous fiscal year.

Translated into plain English, this is a license to protect the military funding from being cut in cases of regression on democratic progress or abuse of human rights, and ensure it ONLY applies with regards to the Egypt-Israel peace treaty. SCAF will get the message as follows: do what you want domestically, just don't mess with the Israelis. 

The fact is there is little serious concern about Egypt's transition in Congress or the US government more generally. There is concern about Israel, and about continued military cooperation with the Egyptians which makes many things easier for US military operations in the region. Yes, some politicians are offended by Egyptian behavior over the NGO crisis, which was a poke in the eye to politically-connected institutions such as IRI and NDI. But what happened just after that: no punishment on the Egyptian military which was behind the case, and the weaving of an unlikely tale swallowed by Congress and others by which a civilian female minister was able to wield awesome power and jeopardize bilateral relations.

A petulant Egypt provoking mini-crises over civil society and other issues as bargaining chips to protect the military relationship? Nothing very new in that, I'm afraid. With SCAF or its presidential candidate in charge, at least, it will be more business as usual.

Travel ban lifted on US NGO workers

This is what Reuters is reporting:

(Reuters) - Egypt has decided to lift a travel ban preventing American pro-democracy activists from leaving the country, judicial sources said on Wednesday, a move that is likely to defuse a standoff that has plunged U.S.-Egyptian ties into a crisis.

It was not immediately clear when any of the activists involved in the case would leave the country. Sixteen of the 43 people facing charges are Americans. Some of them are not in Egypt and some others have sought refuge in the U.S. embassy.

Since late this morning I've been getting rumors that the Americans had in fact already left, or that a deal had been brokered by Jeffrey Feltman in DC, or somesuch. I did not know what to believe, but there were already signs earlier today by Hillary Clinton's statements when she said "we will resolve this issue concerning our NGOs in the very near future." She was speaking to lawmakers in the US.

I suppose my first reaction is good for them — they'll be able to leave the country, won't have to face the risk of jail. Good for US-Egypt relations too, I suppose, with no images of Americans in a court cage or facing trials. The stupid descriptions of this situation as a "hostage crisis" and hyperbole on both sides threatened to turn this into a political issue and, in an election year, into an electoral issue.

But as I sit watching Mona Shazli, one of Egypt's top political talk-show hosts, appear rather flummoxed by the whole thing, there are signs that Egyptians' reaction will be to think (no matter what they think of the merits of the case) that all the talk about their judicial system being above political influence being total bullshit. Especially after the cryptic way the judges involved in the case recused themselves earlier today. No doubt some Egyptians will not be happy about the way this unfolded, in the way it makes their country look. (Perhaps though that's a hidden plus if it further discredits SCAF!)

Of course, Egypt deserves to look ridiculous in this case. The government media raised anti-Americanism to hysterical levels. The officials and judges involved painted a ludicrous picture of a foreign conspiracy to divide the country. Politicians rushed to jump on the we-don't-need-the-khawagas'-fluss-anyway bandwagon, and the prime minister gave credence to an ill-thought-out campaign to "replace" foreign aid by asking cash-strapped citizens to donate.

You know what it all reminded me of? Mubarak-era Egypt, with its weird hysterical petulance.

Of course, there are many unanswered questions. What will happen to the others indicted in the case? What will happen to the NGOs involved?What will happen to the manner in which the law, officials and state media treat NGOs more generally? And what was the price paid by the United States — particularly as the Obama administration is still supposed to confirm to Congress that Egypt is making progress in its democratic transition? 

 

In Translation: Nabil Fahmy on the US-Egypt NGO crisis

A few days ago the trial of 43 NGO workers — some of them US citizens — started amidst a campaign of hysterical anti-Americanism in some of the Egyptian press. In the US, the question has been handled with arrogance by part of the political class, and no doubt a degree of alarm amidst defense lobbyists, Pentagon officials and others who worry that the crisis could end the $1.3bn in subsidies to the US defense industry that military aid to Egypt primarily is, as well as strategic relations with Egypt. While the tone become more subdued among senior officials on both sides, the outcome is still hard to predict — because everything is unpredictable in Egypt these days, and because the US is in an election year.

One of the calmest, down-to-earth Egyptian commentaries on the affair I’ve seen is by Nabil Fahmy, who was Egypt’s ambassador in Washington for much of the late Mubarak period — notably when tensions with the Bush administration were at their highest. In this piece, Fahmy gives his opinion that the crisis will be overcome, and reflects on the mistakes made by both sides. He is most lucid when look at his own side, though, notably the arbitrary nature of the enforcement of NGO legislation that belong to the pre-revolutionary era. Fahmy is sometimes said to be a potential future foreign minister, and some believe he was sidelined (or chose to take a leave of absence from the ministry of foreign affairs) at the end of his career, as the Mubarak era entered its last phase.

The article was, as always, ably translated by Industry Arabic, the full-service translation company. Those guys are awesome!

Egyptian-American Relations after the NGO Crisis

By Nabil Fahmy, al-Shorouk, 26 February 2012

In recent weeks, we have witnessed extreme strain in Egyptian-American relations. In the sphere of public opinion in both countries, this crisis has been accompanied by demagoguery exploited by politicians and media personalities, as well as some officials. They have carelessly reported inaccurate information, or adopted slogans and demands that are not in their countries’ best interests.

I will not go into the charges leveled against a number of both foreign and Egyptian NGOs, as well as against governments in detail, as they have now been put before the court. Rather, I will first limit myself to some brief observations before moving on to the most important issue, which is the future of Egyptian-American relations.

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McInerney on the NGO crisis

Stephen McInerney of POMED — who knows more about NGOs in Egypt and US policy towards Egypt, notably aid, than most — has a piece on the US-Egypt NGO crisis in Foreign Affairs. It's a good roundup, and he ends on the following advice:

Many observers have argued that the U.S. must maintain its assistance in order to preserve its leverage with the Egyptian military. But this crisis is exactly the moment to use this leverage. The fate of civil society in Egypt and beyond is very much at stake. If the second largest recipient of U.S. military aid can attack pro-democracy organizations with no real consequences, authoritarian governments worldwide will be emboldened to follow suit. As such, the administration should take a tougher line, making clear that military aid will certainly be interrupted unless the attacks on NGOs are halted and all charges are dropped. The White House deserves credit for having made support for civil society an important pillar of its approach to strengthening democracy worldwide. Now is the time to demonstrate the strength of that commitment.

I'm half-sympathetic and half-opposed to what he argues. I completely agree that not cutting or revising aid programs should the Americans (and others) indicted be imprisoned and if undemocratic policies towards civil society continue would send the wrong message.

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US-Egypt: Time to part ways?

Steve Cook on the NGO affair and what it means for Egypt-US relations:

If there is a bit of healthy distance between the two countries, Egypt might regain some of its lost regional luster, Washington will not be an easy target to blame if the Egyptian transition falters, and the two countries could very well find their way back to each other not as strategic partners, but as respectful allies. Whatever the long-term outcome, Washington and Cairo need to release themselves from their mutual tribulations.  The relationship is outmoded as it is currently configured.  It’s time to untangle ties before any more damage is done.

I feel like I've been saying this for years. It's probably better for both countries to shed the old baggage and restart on a new footing. And I should note that, as an American, I'm very supportive of bilateral collaboration with Egypt on all sorts of things – especially infrastructure, education and technology – but not under the old Camp David framework. 

And I'd love to see things start off on the US side with a commitment to full transparency on the bilateral relationship, because Washington could be as secretive as Cairo on many aspects of it when the citizens of both countries deserved better.