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. But in much of the discussion over this there are separate but related issues at stake:

  • Dropping charges against the US citizens involved and allowing them to return home
  • Dropping charges against all those indicted in this case regardless of nationality
  • Ensuring a more tolerant attitude by the Egyptians state towards civil society, for instance by improving the legal environment they operate under
  • Weighing the possibility that aid at least provides some leverage, if not on this then on other issues
  • Strategic interests of the US military in the region
  • Leverage over the Arab-Israeli conflict that could be reduced by worsening bilateral relations

The risk in what McInerney suggests is that even if charges are dropped as a condition to pursuing the aid — something difficult for SCAF to do after all the noise made about the independence of the judiciary — then this will likely tie the hands of the US on aid for some time to come. Would it not be preferable (as I've argued for months) to conduct a review of aid to Egypt, separate it from the Israeli peace treaty issue (which is a bilateral Egyptian-Israeli issue), and make aid contingent on transition to civilian rule? Or at least make its resumption subject to negotiating with the future civilian leaders of the country, allowing for reviews that would for instance shift some of the military aid to civilian usage which Egypt sorely needs at the moment?

Of course it is more difficult to shift in this direction now — the move should have been made starting last March, when most in the US were probably contemplating a strong and popular military carrying out a well-run transition that would leave them with their legitimacy intact and foreign policy issues in the hands of the same national security establishment. And it was probably impossible, for domestic US reasons, to decouple aid to Egypt from the question of Israel. Maneuvering room is now much more restricted, and in a sense those indicted have become hostages to continuing aid.

The oddest thing about the NGO crisis is that it should have been normally been resolved behind the scenes before becoming a judicial investigation — Egyptian officials approaching their US and German counterparts and saying, this situation has to be regularized under the law. And perhaps that happened and was ignored. But whatever the motivation for the investigation — a negotiating tactic at first, perhaps, but that eventually got out of hand and instrumentalized by the regime's factions — the indictment have made things moot. The court proceedings must now go forward, and demanding that all charges be dropped now is neither acceptable to most Egyptians (unless they are the result of a judge deciding the case has no merit) nor to the idea of due process. The real danger at this point for US public opinion becomes whether those indicted have to serve jail time — at which point it should become untenable for the US to continue any of its aid program and the EU and other donors should strongly consider the risks involved in operating in Egypt at all if one may become subject to what is clearly an arbitrary campaign.

And lost in all the focus on these NGOs is the wider question of under what terms aid to Egypt should continue, if at all. Should the issue be made to go away — there are already signs that the trial is being expedited, since the first hearing was set for 26 February (just compare with how long the Mubarak trial is taking) — the risk is that all those involved will not want to revisit a sensitive issue and focus on getting back to business as usual. In other words, the NGO crisis may now become an argument in the hands of the Egyptian government to perpetuate the relatively cosy prior arrangement.