On the US-Egypt NGO debacle

First US, German and Egyptian NGOs were raided in late December, and now US personnel that has been unable to work in Cairo because their equipment has been confiscated are barred from leaving the country, prompting outrage in the US. Congress is now putting emphasis again on the need for conditionality on US aid to the military, and the likes of Senator Patrick Leahy now say “But we no longer have a blank check for the Egyptian military.” A high-level delegation is now coming from Washington to defuse tensions.

There is a lot at stake in this first major spat between the US and Egypt since Mubarak is overthrown, and it’s gotten a lot more complicated than when it was just about Egyptian reticence to allow uncontrolled foreign funding and getting a bargaining chip over the military aid issue. Whether it is the real cause of the travel ban, there is a judicial process in the works, a real issue of sovereignty for Egypt. And there is what is interpreted an attempt by SCAF to cast activists as foreign-funded, distract from Gulf financing which may be overlooked (very few of the NGOs under investigation are Gulf-funded ones, despite widespread knowledge of millions being channeled to Islamic charities). NDI and IRI’s quasi-governmental aspect (they receive much of their funding through the National Endowment for Democracy and the US government) is one aspect of the problem, but so is the general legal limbo they have operated under for several years (it is true they are unregistered, but that’s because they were not allowed to so yet tolerated), as well as their more aggressive funding posture since the revolution and a certain amount of tone-deafness to Egyptian officials’ concerns about sovereignty.

This is a difficult issue because, as much as democracy-promotion might seem beyond reproach, the sovereignty issue is real: as an American (or Moroccan) I certainly wouldn’t want uncontrolled foreign government funding of charities and NGOs, particularly politicized ones. But Egypt’s rules of the game for foreign NGOs are patently unfair. An ideal resolution to this crisis would be a better NGO law in Egypt and more transparent operations from the US government (which perhaps should focus on institional-building, state-to-state developmental aid and let the more politically sensitive aid to others). That would take engaging Egyptian stakeholders, such as new MPs, towards this end: they should have a voice in this just as much as Egypt’s caretaker, military-controlled government.

Sheila Carapico has an excellent, nuanced piece on the whole debacle, highlighting that many Egyptians – not just the government – are cautious about organizations and political activism funded by foreign governments:

During last winter’s eighteen-day intifada, rumors were planted about foreign provocateurs. The international English-language press unwittingly fed these allegations. Their reports that Western democracy promoters nurtured fledgling democrats, sending a handful of young activists to study nonviolent resistance with the Serbian organization OPTOR, were recycled in the Arabic-language media.

Complicating matters, London and Washington decided to fast-track small grants to liberal groups, skirting labyrinthine Egyptian channels for the distribution of foreign aid. The Obama administration earmarked some $65 million for quick direct support to NGOs working on initiatives like training election monitors, educating voters and documenting human-rights violations. Mubarak-era bureaucrats cited sovereignty in defense of their patronage pyramids and clientalistic licensing procedures. Over the summer, the minister of international cooperation asked military prosecutors to investigate the “unauthorized” transfer of nearly $48 million to fourteen American organizations (including those besieged in December) and $6 million to twelve Egyptian groups not accredited by the Ministry of Social Solidarity.

The Arab Spring of 2011 inflamed sentiments on this polarizing issue. Even on the front lines, many were of two minds. Strangulating laws of association, expression and assembly were among the grievances against the old regime. The armed invasion of premises where the only weapons used were words defied international and even municipal legal norms. For ministerial and military establishments reliant on foreign largess to cry foul over small political projects seemed hypocritical to many and foolhardy to others. Liberal Egyptians working for international organizations saw how the crackdown on Western organizations diverted attention away from another outside influence: the funds flowing from Gulf monarchies to conservatives and counterrevolutionaries in the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi movements—and perhaps the military as well.

And yet many sophisticated Egyptians reason that Western political projects are ultimately more attuned to NATO security interests than Western ideals. Lots of patriots bridled at foreign meddling, including both foreign support of Mubarak after the fraudulent elections of late 2010 or, as some now insisted, in fomenting mass rebellion. Revolutionaries were insulted by the insinuation that in order to depose Mubarak they should learn from Serbs, who joined a NATO-backed campaign to overthrow Slobodan Milosevic.