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.

The most important of these observations is:

The dispute raging over NGO activity is first and foremost about the post-revolution relationship between the Egyptian authorities and Egyptian and foreign NGOs. We must quickly pass a new law regulating NGO activity so as to facilitate and broaden their activities in a way consistent with a climate of democracy, whose basis should be responsiveness and facilitating their activity, while ensuring transparency and accountability. If we have adjusted and amended the political parties law, we also need to adjust and amend the law for NGOs. Enough with the excessive constraints, enough with laws and legislation that ban NGO activity at some times, and opens the door for the same activities under the law regulating companies at other times – not to mention allowing Egyptian or foreign civil society organizations to work without permits or accountability as the authorities see fit.

As long as the Egyptian economy remains limited and contracted, most NGO funding will come from abroad, and it is illogical to try and block this funding until a local alternative is available. If the government and the private sector can try to obtain foreign loans and grants, how can NGOs be barred from doing the same thing? Therefore, the issue is not whether or not to ban funding; rather, it is about putting in place arrangements to guarantee complete transparency and determine extremely narrow sectors that are banned from receiving foreign funding, such as election campaigns, party programs, etc.

All the foreign actors – both governmental and non-governmental – made a mistake when they provided funding and set up NGO branches in Egypt without getting permits. This includes both American and European bodies, as well as those from other nations. I will add, though, that the United States in particular committed an error as well, since an Egyptian-American agreement has been in place since 2005, which regulates NGO funding. The American side, however, completely ignored it even though they signed the agreement.

If the foreign actors have erred, then we too in Egypt are also in the wrong. We are in the wrong because we have let foreign organizations work in Egypt – German and American organizations, among others – from anywhere between 30 and five years. The Egyptian government has made contracts with them, even though they did not obtain permits. So if we do not respect our own laws, or apply them only now and then according to the way the political wind is blowing, then it is only natural that other parties will disregard these laws, regardless of whether they have good or bad intentions. Moreover, we are also in the wrong because we have not applied the law equally across the board when we have decided to enforce the law, and we opened up space again for a tug of war between foreign NGOs and international financiers. The time has come for Egypt to amend its NGO laws, and the time has come for us to apply these laws fully and rigorously to everyone, and I hope that this will take place now and without delay.

It would have been possible to protect Egypt’s sovereignty, Egypt’s national security, and communal stability in Egypt through strict enforcement of the law without indulging either side. I was among those who were calling for this the most. Before the revolution, however, we heard how foreign and Egyptian NGOs were being exploited in political maneuvers that created practical arrangements on the ground. As a result, it would have been better after the revolution to freeze the activity of all unlicensed or illegal civil society organizations until a new law came out in Egypt regulating civil society activity and giving them a grace period to straighten out their status during the freeze. This would be so that we do not turn a blind eye to any illegal activity in Egypt, and to prevent those who have decided to antagonize Egyptian or foreign NGOs in particular from emerging on the scene – especially after a revolution whose rallying cry was freedom and democracy.

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It is noteworthy that this crisis has provoked various intense reactions and comments within Egypt about the relationship between Egypt and the United States – including calls to reject the American aid allocated for Egypt. The focus and the gesturing has been directed chiefly against the United States, despite the fact that foreign funding from other countries as well has gone to Egyptian NGO projects, and even some non-American NGOs have been indicted. The main reason for this is that there are American aid programs for Egypt, and American officials have been waving these up in the air as a pressure point to influence decision-making in Egypt, and this has been met in Egypt by calls to forego this assistance.

I hope to see the day when Egypt has no need of aid from any foreign country, and I add that whatever the benefits of aid or the need for it in the short term, for this aid to last in perpetuity creates an unnatural and harmful situation. The side offering the aid – i.e., the U.S. – inevitably expects this investment to bring about a favorable political and economic climate, even if it does not try to use it as a means of direct pressure. Meanwhile, the side receiving this perpetual aid – i.e., Egypt – relies on it as easy revenue, which causes the country not to try to develop its own potential with the necessary efficiency, and diversify its available alternatives so as to achieve a greater amount of stability and revenue. For this reason, I support gradually relinquishing U.S. aid to Egypt, provided that this takes place according to a timetable consistent with Egypt’s real needs, and not as reaction to a dispute over some issue or another. However, if this aid is used unabashedly to bring Egypt’s political decisions into line, we have to take a stand there, regardless of the decision’s material cost.

We did not get American aid in return for giving up our rights in the framework of the peace accord between Egypt and Israel, regardless of the fact that America disbursed this aid to bolster the peace process between Egypt and Israel in both the political and economic realm. Hence, if Egypt wishes to review the peace agreement with Israel, specifically the part dealing with security arrangements – which is a necessity – it should not be linked to the continuance or suspension of American aid to Egypt, since the goal of comprehensive peace between the Arab world and Israel has to be upheld whether or not aid is on the table. Moreover, the security arrangements of the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel have to be revised even if this means a reduction in American aid to Egypt.

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Personally, I do not think that American aid to Egypt will be canceled because of the dispute taking place over NGOs, because it is part of a calculated investment made by the U.S. to advance American interests along with benefitting Egypt. However, there will naturally be various repercussions from the current strain in relations between Egypt and the U.S.. It will be difficult for the American administration to give an accurate statement to Congress – especially during an election year in the U.S. – that Egypt is taking practical steps towards democracy when international and Egyptian NGOs are under attack, the American parties in particular. Therefore, the current crisis between Egypt and the U.S. will have repercussions of varying degrees on the relationship between the two countries and the aid provided. This all depends on many considerations, chiefly the decisions and verdicts reached by the Egyptian justice system in the cases brought forward. For example, if the Egyptian court hands down verdicts against the organizations charged as institutions that have been in place for a long time, I think that this crisis can be overcome. However, if a decision comes down against the bureau chiefs in their organizational capacities, the American response will no doubt be more robust during an election year. By pointing this out, I do not mean to call for the Egyptian justice system to be interfered with — as this is contrary to my long-held convictions and stances — but rather I am simply trying to predict the future, so that we will be fully informed about the situation and prepared for it.

Honesty bids me say that each party is in the wrong in its handling of the current civil society issue: Western countries and in particular the U.S. for their arrogance and indifference to Egyptian law, and Egypt for its inconsistent and non-application of the law, then its shifting from one direction to another without warning or prior notice. As a result, there will be repercussions for Egypt’s image abroad and its relationship with the parties concerned, regardless of how these events turn out. However, despite the disturbances we are now witnessing in Egypt, I have a deeply-rooted conviction that the Egyptian revolution will strengthen and bolster Egypt’s standing in the world. This is despite the fact that the rousing of Egypt’s voice in all its diversity and divergent views – including the so-called “Islamist current” – will prompt questions and delicate calculations domestically within Egypt, in its broader role as an Arab and an Islamic country, and in our relationship with the international community. Naturally, this will have an impact on our relationship with the United States, Israel, etc.

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This issue and many others will crop up in our relationship with the U.S., and both the Egyptian and the foreign side – including the U.S. – will have to deal with the other sensitively and adroitly in order to safeguard the country’s best interests and respect the political mood of the people. This will have to be done without falling into the trap of an artificial stability that leads to stagnation or irresponsible populist polemics, as political parties strive to outdo one another in one country or the other.

Egypt is a great nation in the region, and will recover her lost vigor and her sway and influence, as well as her pioneering intellectual role in the march of revolution and calls for freedom and democracy. It is in Egypt’s interest to safeguard her own interests by dealing confidently with the world, including the U.S. Likewise, it is in America’s interest finally to deal with the Arab peoples with respect, openness, and understanding, especially the Egyptian people that make up one-fourth of the inhabitants of the Middle East. The U.S. will not be able to safeguard its own strategic, economic and security interests – especially in creating a climate that is not hostile to the West in the Arab and Islamic worlds – and will not be able to safeguard the Arab-Israeli peace process and protect minorities in the Middle East unless it deals with peoples the way it used to deal with governments in the past. Due to all these considerations, I expect Egyptian-American relations to face a crisis in the short term that has consequences for both sides as a result of missteps committed by both sides. However, I am confident that relations between us will be better in the long term if each of us respects the other – both governments and peoples – and we apply fixed standards in our conduct and relations.

Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region,