The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged Egypt-US
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.

All of these things were mentioned, but there was a tense moment when Sara al-Deeb of the AP (a fantastic and courageous journalist) reminded McCain of his November 25 statement that aid to Egypt should be withheld in light of Morsi's November 22 auto-coup. McCain denied having said this and reiterated the Senate Foreign Relations Committee full support for emergency aid to Egypt and then moved quickly to another question despite Sara's call for clarifications. Here's McCain on November 25 on Fox News with Chris Wallace (and incidentally I think he was right in expecting a stronger reaction from the Obama administration):

WALLACE: Let's start with Egypt where President Morsi, late this last week, basically granted himself almost unchecked powers and sent thousands of protesters packed into the streets, the people who have been helping to topple Mubarak, now back in the streets, against the many they are calling the new Egyptian pharaoh.

What are the chances, Senator, that are we headed for a new Islamist coup and new Islamist state in Egypt?

MCCAIN: I think it could be headed that way. You also could be headed back into a military takeover if things went in the wrong direction. You could also see a scenario where there is continued chaos.

I'll never forget, Chris, after I was in Egypt, I met with the young people who made the revolution in the square, and, a young woman said, Senator McCain, it's not the first election we worry about, it's the second. That's what we have to worry about, a repeat of the Iranian experience in the 1970s.

So, look -- but, what should the United States of America do? They should be saying this is unacceptable. We thank Mr. Morsi for his efforts in brokering a cease-fire, which is, by the way, incredibly fragile but is not what is acceptable. This is not what the United States and American taxpayers expect and our dollars will be directly related to the progress towards democracy, which you promised the people of Egypt, when your party and you were elected president.

In any case, whether or not he admits it, his position has changed, yet he is also clearly demanding action from the Egyptians. It's probable there was a request from Morsi to make some kind of apology or statement for his remarks on Jews. The senators also made it clear they would like to see better Egypt-Israel relations, although the details are unclear — for instance did they ask for Morsi to engage directly with the Israelis?

Of course what senators ask for is one thing and what the Obama adminstration wants or can settle for is another. Talk of conditionality was rejected by these senators, but the House may feel differently. And the administration is mostly concerned about getting this aid through and the IMF signed so that the Egyptian economy can be saved. My gut feeling is that  this is one of these familiar situations in the last 40 years of US-Egypt relations where America tries to hold Egypt aid to ransom to get a change in behavior and Egypt retaliates by holding the US to ransom with its own stability. We've been here before, I know who blinks first.

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.

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.

✸ ✸ ✸

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.

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.

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.

Breaking the US-Egypt-Israel triangle

It may be time to reflect a little on US Middle East policy post-Arab Spring, and towards Egypt in particular. I've just taken part in a seminar where I presented a paper on the issue, and I'll be expanding some of my main points in the next few weeks here. The main gist of it, however, is that US policy in the region has not been a great success for the last 20 years of American hegemony, is seen as tremendously destructive by local populations, and that the US should refrain from trying to shape the outcome of the ongoing transformations the region is experiencing. It should first re-assess what its priorities are and take stocks of its limitations, particularly considering the current imperial overstretch and budgetary tightening.

Nor do I think Washington needs to interfere in the internal developments of individual countries, but rather reassess its strategic posture region-wide and try to create the multilateral mechanism to handle the crises that will no doubt come up as the transformations continue. For me, this means something modelled on the Concert of Europe, which would rely on regional powers to offer solutions and mediation. I'll say more on that later.

One of the major issues the US will have to contemplate is Egyptian-Israeli relations, and the ongoing collapse of the Camp David framework that created a trilateral relationship between Egypt, Israel, and the US. Washington should not resist this: it will only make situation more brittle, and instead show the flexibility to reimagine its role in a post-Camp David Middle East.

One aspect of this is that aid and other aspects of relations between each country should be handled bilaterally. The aim should be to salvage peace between the two countries, but without the appendages and pressure on Egypt to support Israeli aims we saw in the last decade, when the Bush administration used the Mubarak regime's internal weakness (due to the succession struggle, in part). This might mean, for instance, giving the Egyptians room to remove or alter these aspects of the relationship:

  • The sale of oil and gas to Israel, now universally seen by Egyptians as a symbol of high-level corruption;
  • The level of diplomatic relations between the two countries;
  • Economic agreements such as QIZs that artificially induce Israeli-Egyptian economic cooperation;
  • Limits on Egyptian sovereignty in eastern Sinai, notably the ability to deploy troops and certain equipment there.

There is a real risk to the US' focus on the Israeli angle in its approach to Egypt: that it will repeat the same mistakes as before and contribute to the return of autocratic governement for the sake of Israel. We have already seen a US administration that has been silent about most of the post-Mubarak human rights abuse (12,000 cases to military tribunals, etc.) and the shoddy transition process put in place by SCAF, whereas it is willing to make statements on the Israeli embassy raid.

What I fear most is that concern over Camp David will lead Washington straight back to the relationship it had with Egypt under Mubarak. That relationship allowed both Egypt and Israel to escape the consequences of their actions, to the detriment of stated US policy goals in the region, while dragging the US further and further into complicity in the occupation of the Palestine (notably the joint US-Egyptian training program for US security forces, which effectively made Washington a partner in the policing of the West Bank.) It also created considerable resentment of the US for backing Mubarak, and made incoherent policies of democracy promotion. It is better to have an anti-Israel democratic Egypt than a pro-Israel autocratic one, particularly as in any case Egypt cannot afford, and does not want, conflict with Israel. What it does need is the ability to play the regional role it aspires to, and that might mean withdrawing an ambassador when something the like of the Gaza or Lebanon wars take place.

Indeed, there is an opportunity in an Egypt that is more assertive over Israel: since the US has proven, for political reasons, to be incapable of being assertive over Israel itself, it could lead to a less unhinged foreign policy from Tel Aviv. It could make policies that the US nominally supports, such as the Arab Peace Initiative, finally worth considering by Israeli politicians. The lesson here for all actors the US interacts with is that actions have consequences: for Israel, this means the occupation and its doctrines of collective punishment; for Egypt this should mean that a military caste cannot continue to effectively blackmail Washington over its attitude to Israel.

The same line of thinking should extend to US military aid and other measures: no disbursement of funds while the transition is as shoddy as it is now. Washington should show it has learned something from the Arab uprisings, and aid conditionality should become a standard. True, Congress will continue to be used by the Israeli lobby to either punish or reward Egypt's government. That is unavoidable. But an administration otherwise hampered by domestic politics in its ability to deal with Israel in a rational fashion can take the lead and do its best to disentangle its relationship with Egypt from its relationship with Israel.

Naturally, the Israel lobby in America is concerned about these developments. Robert Satloff of WINEP, the influential pro-Israel think tank, has penned a piece urging Barack Obama to take stock of the situation in Egypt and take a lead in sending a clear message to Egyptian political forces and the SCAF. Here's the core of what he's worried about:

No matter which path the Egyptian revolution takes, Egypt-Israel peace, in any tangible sense of the term, is almost surely a victim. While the Egyptian authorities recognize that a formal break with Israel runs against their interests, peace has already been denuded of virtually all its content. Even before Mubarak fell, peace had only four real elements left: the gas pipeline to Israel, the operation of several qualifying industrial zones, severely limited diplomatic relations, and well-defined counterterrorism and intelligence cooperation vis-a-vis Islamist extremists. And, already, much of that is gone or transformed beyond recognition. Al-Ahram reported yesterday, for example, that prior to the attack on the Israeli embassy, Egypt asked Israel to keep its ambassador to Cairo on an extended holiday in Tel Aviv, fearful that his presence would be a lightning rod for protests. (The Israelis sent him back to Cairo nonetheless.) On the current glidepath, Egypt-Israel relations are headed toward a situation of "no war, no peace." Some Egyptians may believe this is politically optimal, but in practice it is a high-wire act almost impossible to sustain. 

And here is what he suggests:

  • That the US should offer a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) to Egypt as a token of the long-term commitment to bilateral relations;
  • That Barack Obama should visit Cairo to deliver a message to Egypt's interim leaders and its political forces, along the following lines:

As Egypt's elections approach, the likely results range between bad and worse. Liberal, reformist forces will not have a majority; the question is how large a plurality will be achieved by illiberal Islamist groups. In this environment, the administration has little to lose (and perhaps much to gain) from engaging Egyptians in a respectful but clear discussion about the consequences -- in terms of their relationship with the United States, Western nations, and international financial institutions — should they opt for leaders whose raison d'etre is fundamentally anti-U.S. and anti-West.

The irony in Satloff's first proposal — which I have no problem with except that it will be very difficult to get it past Congress (never mind the nitty-gritty of negotiations, notably over intellectual property rights, pharmaceuticals and textiles) — is that it would end the need for the QIZ agreement whereby Egypt exports goods with Israeli content to the US. I really don't see why US-Egypt trade should be tied to Israel, so I'm all for it, although as a matter of principle I would prefer it (as a US citizen) if Washington entered into FTAs for economic rather than political reasons.

As for the second proposal, I'm not sure that the same Barack Obama who honored Hosni Mubarak by visiting him in Cairo in June 2009 (for his speech to the Muslim world) has that much credibility here. But while Satloff envisages dangling carrots and sticks over the Israel issue, if any message from Washinton should come, it is that the old trilateral relationship is over. Let the Egyptians deal with Israel as they want, and vice-versa, and focus instead on bilateral relations. That should mean that there will be consequences for the old Mubarak-style bullshit (human rights abuses, the brouhaha over foreign funding, permanent emergency law, etc.), and that while Washington wants to turn a new page (as Obama said in his May 19 speech) it can only do so with a legitimate government.

The bigger picture here is that it is time to treat both Israelis and Egyptians like adults rather than petulant children, and let them sort out their own problems: if they don't like each other, fine. It's better to sacrifice the Camp David framework, which constrained Egypt to breaking point, to salvage the peace both sides want to maintain. Satloff's idea of peace constituting of these goodwill measures is wrong: peace consists of the absence of war. Friendship can wait for more auspicious times.