Egypt's raids on NGOs

Note: this post was written yesterday. I understand the US NGOs have had their property returned after the intervention of the US government.

I'm away from Cairo at the moment, so apart from a few panicked SMSs from friends and the coverage on Twitter I have not really followed yesterday's raids on six NGOs by the Egyptian police. Links for reported stories on what happened are at the bottom of the post. I want here only to give my own interpretation of what's happening.

Such a course of action was a possibility, of course, since last September or so when investigations into NGOs that receive foreign funding were initiated by SCAF, Minister of State for International Cooperation Fayza Aboul Naga and the ministry of justice. The fight over NGOs, and the fact that the Egyptian government seemed to be mostly drawing attention to Western-funded NGOs rather than Gulf-funded Islamic charities, is a manufactured crisis created to use as a card against Western, and more specifically US, pressure on the Egyptian government.

After the January uprising, US discourse on Egypt began to stress again the importance of human rights, civil society and democracy but also voice the expectation of a successful transition to democracy. The SCAF, though, has fought to restore an adapted version of the Mubarak system and has proved just as successful as using the idea of foreign influence, with activists themselves asking questions about the revelation like August by incoming US Ambassador to Egypt that some $40-60m of USAID funding has been earmarked for democracy promotion — out of maybe around $300m of civilian aid and $1.3bn in military aid in 2011, and excluding any supplementary budget aid to help Egypt through its current economic crunch.

Many may wonder that the raids on the these prominent US NGOs — IRI, NDI, Freedom House — that work closely with the US government are a risky move for SCAF, which itself depends on a US handout. I would argue that SCAF has no intention of closing down these US-linked NGOs, but rather use the investigation as a card with the Obama administration, which has been obligated by Congress to give assurances of progress in Egypt for Egypt military funding to be allowed. Just before the State Dept. has to give this assurance, these NGOs problems will be more or less resolved.

In the meantime, by accessing their computers and files they will have developed better knowledge of these NGOs' partners, and how much each get in funding, to reserve for another day. The investigation and the NGOs unlicensed status justifies such an information raid, and what is gathered from the raids can be used at some other juncture.

Meanwhile, the Egyptian NGOs (which received foreign funding) that have been raided may suffer a different fate. I would not be surprised at all if this is then used to either shut down altogether groups like the Egyptian Budgetary and Human Rights Observatory, which is trying to investigate the economics of the military, or put pressure on others by finding accounting errors or put together corruption cases. In other words, they will relax on the foreign NGOs (which usually cannot do the most risky type of advocacy and research) and use the raids to stop or harm the NGOs they don't like that do more risky work. The Observatory's work on the military comes to mind, while another group, the Arab Center for the Independence of the Judiciary and Legal Profession, may also be leaned on as the questions it tackles will be quite central in 2012: judicial institutions, the constitution, etc.

Since the US is primarily concerned here, it should not fall into the trap of what is essentially a shakedown. Don't try and resolve through backchannels to restore the status quo. Move to punish this by establishing linkage between the civilian aid and military aid: for instance, cancel a scheduled Egyptian officer training visit to the US, or delay delivery or purchasing of US military items. Investigate, as the US did in the 1980s, the shipment companies that deliver these items (in the 1980s they were owned by top military brass, it was a kickback mechanism for the army's black box, Hussein Salem and Abdel Halim Abu Ghazala were involved).

In other words, part of the raid on NGOs is about the US-Egypt relationship at a time when SCAF wants to establish an adapted authoritarian status-quo and the US is most worried, wrongly, about Camp David (wrongly because the US attitude should be, "do what you want on Camp David, but we will do nothing to restrain how the Israelis react" — the generals are not crazy.) If it is serious about all the fine words it said after the fall of Hosni Mubarak, the US needs to stand strong here and show it won't be toyed with. In doing so, it might be doing a favor to Egypt's civil society.