The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged ngos
Two takes on Egypt's NGO law

Here's the Egyptian government's, through its foreign policy blog – clearly highlighting that the NGO law, about domestic regulation of society, is perceived as a foreign policy issues (indeed, I would say bargaining chips) by the Morsi administration because it makes Americans and Europeans (and so many Egyptians too of course) so anxious: 

The NGO draft law proposed by the Presidency affirms the basic concepts of access, empowerment, and supporting various forms of civil work upon which the law is based, while taking into account the principles of transparency, respect for the constitution and law, and openness to different experiences around the world in the field of civil society work.  The bill also activates the role of Egyptians abroad and aims to restore Egypt’s soft powers internally and externally.
. . .
The Presidency believes that the new NGO bill will encourage civil society work, facilitate its procedures and expand its sphere, away from any bureaucratic and monitoring constraints other than the general follow-up of the responsible body to ensure transparency and protect the rights of all Egyptians in conformance with the constitution and law.

See the whole thing, but the article elicited this response from Brooking's Tamara Wittes, who was in charge of US democracy promotion programs during the 2011-12 NGO crisis:

Read on below for the UN Commissioner on Human Rights' take:

GENEVA (8 May 2013) – The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay on Thursday urged the Egyptian Government to take steps to ensure that the current version of a draft law on civil society organizations is laid open to careful examination by Egyptian and international human rights experts, and, based on their advice, is brought into line with international standards, before it is adopted by the Shura Council.
“If a law is passed that severely constrains the activities of civil society organizations, whose constructive contributions will be crucial to the country’s future direction as an inclusive democracy, it will mark a further blow to the hopes and aspirations that were raised during the 2011 ‘Egyptian Revolution,’” she said. “This is a critical moment, with mounting concerns about a range of issues. These include the new Constitution and the manner in which it was adopted, the apparent efforts to limit the authority of the judiciary, and this current draft law which risks placing civil society under the thumb of security ministries which have a history of abusing human rights and an interest in minimizing scrutiny.” 
The High Commissioner noted that the new Constitution risks giving the Executive excessive power over the judiciary by providing for the direct appointment of judges to the Supreme Constitutional Court by the President. “This concentration of power risks undermining the independence of the judiciary,” she said.
Pillay said her Office has been following recent developments closely, including legal action targeting protesters, journalists and other activists, including the prominent political satirist, Bassem Youssef. “At the same time as these proceedings are underway, people – including members of the security forces – responsible for very serious human rights abuses, such as the killing, torture, rape and other forms of sexual attacks on protesters, and ill-treatment of detainees, have in many cases not been properly investigated by the General Prosecutors, let alone brought to justice,” she said. 
She said her Office had submitted detailed comments and proposals regarding the draft law on civil society.  
“The proposed law has gone through various drafts. There remains some confusion – and much concern that the latest draft, like previous ones, largely ignores inputs from local and international human rights organizations, and, if adopted, will impose a series of draconian restrictions on civil society organizations, especially those focused on human rights,” Pillay said. “It seems that there is a real risk that the current draft will not only make it difficult for civil society to operate freely and effectively, but may also conflict with Egypt’s obligations under international law to uphold the right to freedom of association.”
“Transparency has also been an issue,” she said. “But to date, all those drafts to which we have had access have fallen far short of Egypt's human rights obligations, including those contained in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Egypt has ratified. I sincerely hope that international standards will be fully reflected in the final version, and – as I have informed the Government on a number of occasions -- my Office stands ready to offer assistance towards this goal.”
“The rights to freedoms of association and assembly are fundamental to the enjoyment of many other civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights - and these are the very rights which Egyptian women and men came together to claim in January 2011,” the High Commissioner said. “A clear framework is required in order to create an environment that allows civil society to organize and carry out its work for the benefit of the population at large.”
“Governments that seek to constrain these types of activities, for example by controlling access to funds, giving sweeping oversight powers to security agencies, and placing undue constraints on international human rights organizations – all elements contained in the various drafts of this law -- risk slipping quickly into authoritarianism, even if that is not their initial intention,” the High Commissioner warned. 
“Tolerance of criticism, debate, and external monitoring of abuses and failings of the country’s laws and institutions are essential to a properly functioning democracy,” she said. “Despite the authoritarian nature of the previous Egyptian Government, local civil society organizations were still feisty and effective operators. I am very concerned that the new law, if adopted in its current form, may leave them in a worse situation than they were prior to the fall of the Mubarak Government in 2011. And -- after all the country has been through in the past two years -- that would be a truly tragic development.”

On AP's piece on US democracy promotion funding in Egypt

US democracy aid went to favored groups in Egypt:

Interviews and documents obtained by The Associated Press show that the workers' protest and the broader government crackdown with the raids helped expose what U.S. officials do not want to admit publicly: The U.S. government spent tens of millions of dollars financing and training liberal groups in Egypt, the backbone of the Egyptian uprising. This was done to build opposition to Islamic and pro-military parties in power, all in the name of developing democracy and all while U.S. diplomats were assuring Egyptian leaders that Washington was not taking sides.

"We were picking sides," said a senior U.S. official involved in discussions with Egyptian leaders after last year's revolution swept President Hosni Mubarak from power after three decades. The official requested anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomatic matters.

Since the December raids, U.S. officials have scrambled to repair their once close relationship with Egypt. But the damage wasn't done overnight or as a result of the raids.

Documents and interviews with U.S. and Egyptian officials show:

— U.S. diplomats knew as far back as March 2008 that Egyptian leaders might close democracy programs and arrest workers, and last year some even discussed the possibility of a stern Egyptian response to dumping $65 million into democracy training after the Arab Spring uprisings, a sharp increase from past spending.

— Democracy training programs with strong ties to the U.S. political parties received the biggest share, $31.8 million, and spent it with few strings attached. IRI refused to work with members of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, an Islamic group that holds more seats in the elected parliament than any other party in the country. IRI's Democratic counterpart, the National Democratic Institute, offered training and support to Brotherhood members.

— Nearly six years before the Egyptian government filed charges against the U.S. democracy workers, its leaders severely restricted the American democracy programs after a controversy over public comments by IRI's director.

A few reactions:

✪ Can we please defund IRI? And fire Sam Lahood?

✪ AP here is overstating the 2008 threat to close these programs by Egypt. In 2008, the US Embassy in Cairo moved to repair the relationship with the Egyptians and actually accepted Egyptian veto power over some of the money spent. After the revolution it moved back to the 2002-2008 position which was not to give the Egyptian government a veto.

✪ This particular bit has to be illegal under US law and should be subject to a Freedom of Information request:

Despite a U.S. commitment to make public the details of its democracy aid program in Egypt, USAID has refused to identify all the groups that received money and the grant amounts. The official said the agency disclosed the list to Egyptian leaders, but will not release information publicly about grant recipients that don't want to be identified. That has surprised some State Department officials.

"All I remember is, there were weekly meetings this time last year about how this all had to be posted publicly," said a senior State Department official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about sensitive diplomatic matters. More than a year after citizens rallied in Tahrir Square for new leadership, the U.S.-Egypt relationship remains fragile.

✪ The article quotes Frank Wisner — whom I consider too close to the Egyptian military. Wisner is a lobbyist for the US defense industry and was the Obama administration's conduit to the military during the 2011 uprising. He's hardly an impartial man.

✪ The article perpetuates the myth that it's all about Fayza Aboul Naga — the real question is, who egged her on and backed her and coordinated the campaign of anti-Americanism in the Egyptian state media? US officials focus on Fayza because the real target — the military and the intelligence services — they don't want to confront. (She's a handy scapegoat for Congress, too.)

Overall this uncovers one important element — contrary to its mission and its statements IRI was engaged in biased political activity, and in doing so has damaged any similar efforts by other organizations. In the overall take of the story, however, apart from the over-funding of IRI and NDI, the article gives the impression of US conspiracy against SCAF and the MB. This is hardly true, since the US has collaborated closely with the military and engaged vigorously with the MB. The money and efforts spent trying to support the "liberal" parties is minimal and not very effective.

There is no conspiracy to empower liberals in Egypt, there is only a focus on retaining core interest — military cooperation, Israel — no matter who is in power. Beyond that, democracy promotion through things like party training does very little except make US politicians who fund it feel good and give officials a talking point. I don't know whether the US can encourage more democracy in Egypt, but it can certainly encourage less autocracy — by stopping the military aid to the country.

Another law against NGOs in Egypt

Here is a statement by a group of Egyptian NGOs about a bill circulating to overhaul legislation governing how civil society operates — in part in reaction to the recent US-Egypt NGO crisis.

The undersigned human rights organizations declare their utter rejection of the new draft law on non-governmental organizations (NGOs), prepared by the Ministry of Insurance and Social Affairs and which aims to nationalize civil society. Under this law civil society would be considered an institution of the government, and NGO staff would be regarded as civil servants. Furthermore, the new law would impose several new arbitrary restrictions aiming to terrorize civil society activists.

Read the rest here. Of course the bill prohibits receiving funding from abroad without government approval, as previous legislation did, forcing many NGOs to register as legal corporations. It also bars membership in international NGO networks without government approval — meaning that, say, an Egyptian anti-torture group might not be able to join an anti-torture network.

The bill was prepared by the Ministry of Social Insurance, where clearly the same mindset and mentality as the old regime thrives. It's about time MPs start drafting their own laws rather than let Mubarak-era technocrats do it. The only question is whether the Islamist dominated parliament might actually approve of this new text.

 

Now that the American NGO workers are safe, let's review aid to Egypt

A few minutes ago the plane carrying NGO workers out of Egypt took off, ending the diplomatic spat between Washington and Cairo. Concerns naturally remain about the other nationals, most notably the Egyptians involved who risk the most. And as predicted outrage over what appears to be a clear case of executive pressure being put on the judges is mounting, including from NGOs that have been targeted themselves and have denounced the case as a political fabrication from the beginning. For instance this press release from the Arab Center for the Independence of the Judiciary and Legal Profession:

The ACIJLP raises many concerns regarding the decision of judges' step-down in view of the reasons that have been announced by the judges which have been represented in "Feeling of Embarrassment", as well as the time of such decision which came before the judges' consideration in the complaint submitted by 8 foreigners regarding the decision to prevent them from traveling, a matter which make the ACIJLP believes that there is an inappropriate interventions which may be practiced against the Department of the Cairo Criminal Court with respect to this case.

Whether such interventions, about which ACIJLP is concerned, are practiced by members who belong to the judicial authority like the Head of the Court of Appeal in Cairo, or by executive bodies which led the judged to step down, this is considered the first event of its kind. It is considered an intervention in and breach of the independence of judges and the judicial authority in Egypt. The Egyptian judiciary has long been suffering from the practices which violate its independence like exploiting it in political disputes; starting from tracing opponents and political activists, imposing guard on syndicates, and at last banning civil NGOs work.

In support of the independence of the Egyptian judiciary, the ACIJLP calls upon the president of the Supreme Judicial Council to open an independent and urgent investigation to uncover the circumstances of the decision of the judges' step-down and to detect any pressure has been practiced whether by the government or those engaged in such pressure and to use fair trial, if necessary.

If I were an Egyptian politician, I'd be calling for the heads of a lot of the officials involved to roll.

But let us sidestep this issue and discuss the future of the aid relationship. Why should the US continue to provide aid for a country that accuses it of trying to split it up and, specifically, to a military establishment that is neither democratic nor that particularly friendly? There may be strategic reasons, but the core reason is one of political corruption — not in Egypt, but in the US. Shana Marshall makes this point well in Why the U.S. won’t cut military aid to Egypt:

The recent crackdown on foreign-funded non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Egypt has sparked a new round of diplomatic hand wringing over Washington's long-standing military aid program. Despite tepid threats from the White House and Congress, the United States is unlikely to end official military assistance -- not because of concerns over Egypt's peace treaty with Israel or Washington's desire to maintain influence over Cairo -- but because the aid benefits a small and influential coterie of elites in both capitals. In the United States, the aid program provides a large and predictable source of demand for weapons exporters, while in Cairo, collaborative military production with U.S. firms help subsidize the army's commercial economic ventures.

Although domestic interest groups are rarely invoked in the debate over military aid to Egypt, the $1.3 billion in annual assistance represents a significant subsidy to U.S. weapons manufacturers. For instance, the General Dynamics manufacturing facility in Lima, Ohio where the M1A1 Abrams tank is built will not have more work orders from the U.S. Army until 2017 when the current M1 tank fleet is up for refurbishing. Egypt's latest $1.3 billion order of 125 M1A1s (Cairo's 11th order since the late 1980s) will keep those production lines open until 2014 building knock down kits that are then shipped and assembled in Egypt. Although shipping fully assembled tanks to Egypt would employ more U.S. workers, without the contract the Lima plant (in a crucial electoral swing state) would shutter its doors and General Dynamics's bottom line would take a serious hit. Looming reductions in the U.S. defense budget have made General Dynamics and other defense producers even more concerned with keeping such funding channels open.

That's why Washington does not want aid cut: it's, among other things, a subsidy for the US defense industry. No doubt there's also senior Pentagon and DoD officials who want to back it in the hope of landing plush jobs at Raytheon and elsewhere when they retire (in this respect the US is not unlike Egypt) and Congresspeople like pleasing donors and creating jobs for constituents.

Yet the aid to Egypt is worth reviewing, both sides, now more than ever before — and that conversation should start with the new president of Egypt, who hopefully will not be a front for the Egyptian military.

 

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.

✸ ✸ ✸

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.

✸ ✸ ✸

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.

Judges in Egypt's NGO case recuse themselves

From al-Ahram:

Three judges  in charge of handling the recent case filed by the government against a number of US and Egyptian non-governmental organisation (NGOs), announced Tuesday afternoon that they have submitted their resignation from the case "for reasons of discomfort." The 14 Egyptian and 29 foreign aid workers face trial for receiving illegal foreign funding and for working without a formal license: they have been accused of posing a threat to Egypt's national security.

Judge Mahmoud El-Khodairy, lawyer and head of the People's Assembly Legislative Committee, explained Tuesday night to private TV channel Al-Hayat that a judge stepping down for "reasons of discomfort" could be due to an existing relationship the judge has with any of the defendants, the accused or the lawyers. A judge may also relinquish the case, he added, if the court itself was involved in any details of the case. When a judge does resign from a case, the lawsuit is transferred to another district court within a "brief" time period, El-Khodairy concluded.

Reasons of discomfort? Try talcum powder. But seriously, this either means something fishy is going on or that the trial will take even longer than planned. The next date was meant to be April 26, which is a while away.

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.

Aronson on the US-Egypt NGO debacle

This opinion piece on the US-Egypt NGO crisis was sent in by Geoffrey Aronson. Aronson is director of the Foundation for Middle East Peace in Washington and author of From Sideshow to Center Stage – US Policy towards Egypt.

There is an increasing chorus of US voices among the policy cognoscenti and Congress threatening to stop over 1 billion in US aid to Egypt or to make it dependent upon some politicized certification of Egypt’s democratic bona fides. This course risks undermining the foundations of a core relationship at the very moment when the promise of building a new and reinvigorated partnership is on the horizon. However good it may feel, being right about what the State Department has described as Egypt’s “persecution” of US employees of the International Republican Institute, National Democratic Institute and Freedom House for assisting local civil society groups is not as useful as being smart. The emotive issues highlighted by their conflict with the Egyptian government cannot be permitted to become the centerpiece of bilateral relations. Doing so plays into the hands of counter-revolution, creates the impression that US-Egyptian relations are simply a test of wills, and feeds Egyptian suspicions that the West is using “democracy” as a cynical tool to short-circuit the revolution.

Washington has a choice. It can play the part reserved for it in this sordid drama, or take a very deep breath and keep its eye firmly fixed on its interest in partnership with Egypt as it moves, in fits and starts, towards a better future.

The revolution in Egypt is first and foremost a social upheaval—demanding that rulers respect and honor the dignity of every citizen. The revolt and its imagery are essentially tied to domestic issues. Palestine for example, has not been an important motivator of revolutionary discontent, certainly not as much as it was in the aftermath of the Arab defeat (Nakba) in 1948. Similarly, it is not opposition to US support for and celebration of Egypt’s autocrats — Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak — over recent decades that has brought Egyptians into the streets and polling places.

This is as it should be. But the growing dispute between Washington and Cairo over the treatment of US and European-supported NGOs – unfolding on the margins of the Egyptian revolution — risks strengthening the worst instincts of the still-uncertain Egyptian upheaval and US policy towards one of its closest allies in the region, pushing each down a road of confrontation and dislocation that will serve neither Egypt nor the US national interest.

The dispute between Washington and Cairo over the former’s financial support for the work of foreign and domestic Egyptian organizations promoting democracy in Egypt predates the revolution. The Mubarak regime was understandably opposed in principle to the work of such organizations, and Washington was on the whole solicitous of its opposition.

Mubarak’s ouster and the widespread popular mobilization that precipitated it created a new context for the dispute. Washington and other donors see themselves doing God’s work, instructing willing and now empowered Egyptians in the tools of democracy. As in all things however, the Egyptian government, and particularly the “deep state” headed by the ruling SCAF, viewed the revolution in an entirely different and more complex manner. Throughout 2011, Washington insisted on continuing and even expanding its efforts in this field, notwithstanding official Egypt’s continuing objection.

Like Egyptians themselves, the Obama administration saw an opportunity to push the generals in the direction of freedom and democracy. Washington’s effort however, is insignificant in the broad context of Egypt’s revolution. The social and political forces mobilized for revolutionary change have little need of Washington’s assistance or time to learn the lessons imparted by its well-meaning but overmatched foreign instructors.

In purely political terms, those elements in Egypt most interested in Washington’s helping hand have proved least able to win public support in the polling booths. Revolutions unleash all kinds of sentiments, good and bad. In Egypt, the serial errors of the SCAF, the lingering power of the ancien regime and growing public frustration with the uncertain fruits of revolution have soured the atmosphere and created an explosive context for efforts of the kind that Washington-supported NGO’s promote. What was once a relatively unimportant sideshow now risks moving to center stage, thanks to the mutually reinforcing missteps of all parties.

The Obama administration and Congress view its support for the activities of NDI, Freedom House and IRI as transparent, self-evidently beneficial and benevolent. The view that Egypt should be “punished” for stifling these programs by withholding or cutting military aid is a popular one.

Most Egyptians have a different view. The SCAF retain Mubarak’s distain for foreign interests playing the public square. The state and its legal institutions follow rules and laws that continue to reflect the hostility of the ancien regime towards such activities. The public at large, where the collective memory of foreign demands for special treatment and the long history of malevolent foreign interference in Egypt’s destiny is ever-present, is wary of the outsiders’ “hidden hand” in growing instability and unrest. Counter-revolutionary elements are anxious to exploit these sentiments for their own purposes – to weaken the SCAF, to push someone other than themselves into the bulls eye, to create a convenient scapegoat for all that is wrong in Egypt today. Explaining these realities, however, does not excuse them, neither in Cairo or Washington.

The United States has a real and lasting interest in empowering Egyptian civil society. As the Arab Spring unfolds, the challenge for all parties is to embrace change as it moves societies away from autocracy, regimes of emergency rule, and the crushing of civil society and towards democracy and creation of national political and governing institutions that derive power from their citizens. Undersecretary of State Bill Burns made this point during a recent visit to Cairo.

For their part, Egyptians of all stripes want to maintain good relations with Washington. One leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose party won a parliamentary majority in recent elections notes that, “the democratic transition in Egypt is hanging in the balance […] We strongly advise the Americans and the Europeans to support Egypt during this critical period as compensation for the many years they supported a brutal dictatorship.”

A point of clarification on US aid to Egypt and peace with Israel

It has been much-reported that Muslim Brotherhood spokesman / head of parliamentary foreign relations committee Essam al-Erian threatened to review the peace treaty with Israel should aid be cut. See for instance:

In the clearest of multiple Brotherhood statements on the subject, Essam al-Erian, who is chairman of the Parliament's foreign affairs committee, said the aid was ''one of the commitments of the parties that signed the peace agreement, so if there is a breach from one side it gives the right of review to the parties''.

 

''We will be harmed,'' he added, ''so it is our right to review the matter.''

Other Muslim Brotherhood leaders have repeated the argument that a cut in aid could lead them to review the treaty, or that such a cut would be in breach of the treaty.

To my knowledge, this has no basis in law. The MB may want to review the peace treaty, as many others in Egypt want to, in order to renegotiate the degree to which the military can operate in Sinai. There are good reasons to do so in order to gain better control of the Peninsula. But the aid has nothing to do with the treaty. This was confirmed recently by Jimmy Carter when he was in Cairo, and you can check the text of the treaty itself.

Generally speaking, there is a confusion of terms on this issue.

  • The 1978 Camp David negotiations led to the drafting of a broad set of principles known as the Accords, that would look at a global solution to the Arab-Israeli crisis, including its Israeli-Palestinian component. While signed by the US, Egypt and Israel, the accords were never implemented, largely because the Israelis did not want them to be.
  • The 1979 peace treaty between Israel and Egypt delineated borders, paved the way for the return of the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, and imposed restrictions on military activity in Egypt. It does not contain any provisions for aid.
  • An aid relationship exists between Israel and the US and Egypt and the US (with the latter since 1975). It was informally framed after Camp David as partly a reward for the peace, and partly to ensure that Israel would get proportionally more aid than Egypt and be helped by the US to retain a military edge. These terms were negotiated, and later renegotiated between the militaries and governments of the three countries, but there is nothing in the treaty itself that obliges the US to disburse aid of any kind to either country.

So when the Brothers make threats about a cut in aid leading to the collapse of the treaty, they either don't know what they're talking about or are making baseless threats. And moreover, by linking aid to the treaty, they are in effect suggesting that Egypt's policy towards Israel is indeed up for sale, and that they will gladly take the money to remain quiet on Egypt-Israeli relations. Is this what they meant to say, after having spent much of the last three decades denouncing the treaty and Egypt's slavish acquiescence to pro-Israel US policies?

Enquiring minds want to know.

Who is escalating the US-Egypt NGO crisis?

To me, the answer has been clear for two weeks or so and more so in the last week, when Tantawy's reassuring words in a cabinet meeting were followed by the launching of an extremely aggressive state media campaign led by al-Ahram. And guess what is supposed to have happened today: the editor of al-Ahram was replaced.

The state media in Egypt has been fragmented, but state television and major organs like al-Ahram have long been the province of General Intelligence. Their men ran these places, and perhaps they still do.

The only logical alternative explanation would be that SCAF is consciously playing a good cop-bad cop routine where they set themselves up as the nice guys but point to bad guys (and public opinion, and the Brothers) who can be much more trouble than just dealing with the military.

The other interesting point here is that senior US officials have discreetly made the rounds in Washington in the last week saying that SCAF was not responsible for the crisis (which may be to protect SCAF from Congress, but is still telling.) More likely in my opinion is that this is partly true, and we are dealing with a fragmented regime today much as we were in the last years of the Mubarak era. Or a mixture of both good cop/bad cop and inner-regime intrigues. 

The FT puts it well here:

Some analysts, however, argue that there is more to the argument than distraction, suggesting that forces in the unreformed security services that underpinned the Mubarak regime could be laying the ground for an attempt to torpedo the country’s political transition.

“I am hearing assertions that the military council does not want this fierce [anti-American] campaign,” said Ezzedine Choukri Fishere, a former Egyptian diplomat and an analyst. “This is something that is organised but within a more general situation of chaos ... The army and the council care about the military aid, but not so the security ­services.”

Especially if the security services are worried that SCAF will sell them out to the incoming civilians to win their own immunity.

Games, and games within games. If this goes on Egypt's politics will start to resemble Algeria's.

Egyptian NGOs condemn foreign orgs crackdown

A large number of Egypt's leading human rights and social development NGOs have issued a statement condemning the indictment of 44 NGO workers that has created a diplomatic crisis between the US and Egypt. This is the first concerted condemnation of the manufactured NGO crisis, and comes as the Egyptian media in recent days (despite SCAF head Tantawi's conciliatory statements towards the US after meeting with Pentagon officials) unleashed a campaign against the US and NGOs more generally (as being foreign pawns, etc.). I consider this a very positive development, and a courageous move for these NGOs that have a lot more to lose from a crackdown on civil society.

Here's the opening part of the statement:

February 15, 2012

Orchestrated campaign against human rights organizations: Facts absent; the public intentionally misled

The undersigned organizations strongly condemn the ongoing slandering and intimidation of civil society organizations, particularly human rights groups, and note that the referral of 43 Egyptian and foreign nationals to a criminal court is politically motivated. The affected institutions have been operating for several years without being asked to suspend their activities and without their offices being shut down. Moreover, in October the Egyptian government asked two of these organizations to monitor the parliamentary elections, although Article 2 of Decree 20/2011 regulating the role of civil society in monitoring elections - issued by the chair of the Supreme Elections Commission - specifically bars non-Egyptian NGOs from monitoring elections unless they present a permit from the Foreign Ministry authorizing them to do so in Egypt. Although this permit is limited to election monitoring, it nevertheless legitimizes the licensed organizations, insofar as a permit to engage in such a specific activity necessarily assumes the organization’s legal, legitimate presence in Egypt.

In a sudden disregard of these facts, the raiding the offices of these and other Egyptian organizations with armed forces and their referral to trial raise numerous questions. Indeed, it makes one question whether this development is in fact based on considerations for “the rule of law” and “judicial independence,” as senior government officials claim. 

Here's the full statement in PDF.

Egypt: Abu Ismail's campaign against US aid

The above graphic is from the Facebook page of presidential hopeful Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, aka the world's cuddliest Salafi. It says "Buy your dignity for only LE72".

The calculation it makes is that Egypt's $1.3bn in US military aid amounts to about LE6bn, which divided by 84 million Egyptians makes just about LE72. What a bargain! Of course Sheikh Hazem — a Salafi from the Muslim Brotherhood (the MB-Salafi distinction becomes irrelevant away from syndicate and national politics) — is always full of brilliant ideas. His entry on Wikipedia says he "has presented 10 great national projects in all fields to overcome most of the Egyptian people problems." I'll have to do a fuller profile at some point.

Yet another sign that the US-Egypt NGO crisis is plumbing into new depths of facile populism. Of course, not only on the Egyptian side.

Names of indicted in Egypt's NGO affair

Via @adamakary who had the scoop and live-tweeted it, here are the names and nationalities of the 44 persons indicted by the Egyptian public prosecutor in the illegal foreign funding NGOs affair (actual spelling may differ):

  • Konrad Adenauer (2): Andreas Jacobs (DE) and Christina Baade (DE)
  • International Center For Journalists (5): Patrick Butler (US), Natasha Tynes (US), Mida(?) Michelle (US), Yehya Zakaria (EG) Islam Shafiq (EG) 
  • Freedom House (7): Charles Dunne (US), Sherif Ahmed Sobhi Mansour (US), Samir Salim (Jordan), Mohamed Abdel Aziz (EG), Nancy Gamal Okeyl (EG), Basem Ali (EG), Magdy Moharam (EG)
  • International Republican Institute (14): Sam Lahood (US), Sherien Sahany (US), Christine Angel (US) Sort Chik (Serb), Hans Homis (Serb), John George (US), Reeda Khedr (Palestinian), Osama Azizi (US), Sian Mark (US), Elizabeth Dugan (US), Ahmed Shawqi (EG), Ahmed Abdel Aziz (EG), Ahmed Adam (EG), Essam Borei (EG)
  • National Democratic Institute (16): Julie Hughes (US), Almadin Krotovich (Serb), Bomeedir Milic (Serb), Layla Gafar (US), Robert Becker (US), Kabir Moderibee (US), Mariana Koravitch (Serb), Sitia Sia Leenhag (US), Dana Dikono (US), Ali Suleiman (Leb), Maron Safir (Leb), Michael James (US), Mohamed Ashraf (EG), Radwa Sayid (EG), Hafsa Halawa (EG), Amgad Morsi (EG)

Al-Ahram has also published a full list with ages in Arabic, but not affiliations.

I must say I really don't know how this is going to play out. It may be they are being indicted to fast-track the judicial process so that they can go to mistrial and acquittal and get the whole thing done with. Or they may convict, sentencing fines and, for the good cop part, go ahead with registration of these NGOs. Or worse...

Update: A few more details via Abdel Rahman Hussein, for the Guardian:

Judge Ashraf al-Ashmawy confirmed on Monday the case had been referred to the Cairo criminal court, where the NGO workers will face charges of "accepting funds and benefits from an international organisation" to pursue an activity "prohibited by law".

They are also accused of carrying out "political training programmes", supporting election campaigns and illegally financing individuals and groups, the judge said in a statement.

Those involved waited in trepidation for further details. "It's inexplicable," said Julie Hughes, country director of the National Democratic Institute (NDI). "We don't even know what the charges are."

"I'm trying to stay optimistic but I'd be lying if I said this wasn't stressful on me, the organisation, our families. But I'm proud of the individuals working here. We'll hang in there."

Sen. Leahy declares war on Fayza Aboul Naga

From a statement on the dispute over US NGOs in Egypt by Senator Patrick Leahy:

Many suspect that the force behind this crackdown is Minister of International Cooperation, Faiza Aboul Naga, who was described in a Washington Post editorial this week as “a civilian holdover from the Mubarak regime” and “an ambitious demagogue [who] is pursuing a well-worn path in Egyptian politics – whipping up nationalist sentiment against the United States as a way of attacking liberal opponents at home.”  Given Minister Aboul Naga’s recent statements, I strongly believe that no future U.S. Government funds should be provided to or through that ministry as long as she is in charge.  As the chair of the Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on the State Department and Foreign Operations, I am confident there is strong support in Congress for this position.

Read the full statement here. This diplomatic spat has just gotten a whole lot more interesting.

[Via @kristenchick]