Beyond NGOs:The battle for Egypt

Up until two days ago, Egyptian-American relations were facing their biggest crisis since June 1967, threatening a political, diplomatic, military, and security alliance that has endured for three decades. The crisis began with the arbitrary raid of pro-democracy NGOs, including American organizations. An international uproar ensued, which has at least temporarily been relieved with the lift of the travel ban on the American citizens employed by these organizations.

The media’s excessive focus on Planning and International Cooperation Minister Fayza Abouelnaga has, however, overlooked one important fact. The campaign against Egyptian rights organizations was already perpetuated by Egypt’s security apparatus before the January 25 revolution even started, without the participation of Abouelnaga. And in the revolution’s first week, the first military raid on human rights organizations took place without her involvement, specifically on February 3, 2011.

Indeed, Abouelnaga’s involvement in the case began only after the revolution, when the Obama administration withdrew the concession it had made to Mubarak in 2009, which gave the Egyptian government the power to decide which Egyptian NGOs are eligible to receive USAID funding.

Abouelnaga took a center stage only when her concerns over the role of civil society organizations after the withdrawal of Obama’s concession were taken seriously by the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF). The greater foreign funding scandal, however, reflects SCAF's inability to grasp the real reason for the revolutionary escalation after the ouster of Mubarak. In this case, blaming the escalation on foreign funded civil society organizations, a belief propagated by Abouelnaga and echoed by Omar Suleiman, the former director of Egypt’s General Intelligence, was the convenient answer to SCAF’s perplexity over the causes of revolt. 

According to a trustworthy source, in the first cabinet meeting following the US decision to fund pro-democracy NGOs in Egypt, Abouelnaga warned the Egyptian government that it should prepare for a new revolution, bringing the following question to the table: “if the January 25 revolution erupted amid restrictions on US funding of pro-democracy NGOs, what would happen when the restrictions are removed?” Some ministers in Essam Sharaf’s cabinet disregarded Abouelnaga 's remark, considering themselves part of a revolutionary government, which should ostensibly welcome the revolution, not fear its continuation. Abouelnaga’s  words, however, spoke to the deepest anxieties of the SCAF.

Since Mubarak’s ouster, the primary concern of the SCAF has been to avoid another January 25 uprising. That’s why it quickly forged an alliance with the Islamists, issued several laws to increase restrictions on demonstrations and strikes, and put in place legal obstacles to block the transformation of political youth groups into parties, ultimately targeting them with accusations of treason and military trials.

In his testimony in the Mubarak trial, Omar Suleiman also explained that the revolution took place due to the influence of foreign organizations in Egypt. The remarks of both Suleiman and Abouelnaga implicitly consolidate their belief that there was never any real justification for the revolution.  Instead, the revolution, they believe, is the product of foreign money and conspiracies, as if the Egyptian people are incapable of rebelling without someone paying them to do so.

For the SCAF, the aims of the revolution’s goal begin and end with preventing Gamal Mubarak from assuming power. But, the SCAF found in the “foreign funding” explanation advanced by Abouelnaga the answer to a nagging, puzzling question: Why do poor young people continue to demonstrate and protest, despite the high number of deaths and injuries, many of which caused some to lose their eyesight forever?

Since the SCAF could not find justification for the recurring angry waves of protests following the revolution – especially for the anti-SCAF cries that erupted in November, calling for the end of military rule, the rejection of a safe exit for the generals and protesting any special constitutional status for the military – Abouelnaga’s earlier remark on the role of foreign funding in inciting dissent thus provided a relief for their bewilderment.

But the most puzzling aspect arising from this NGO crackdown case is the ambiguity of the decision making process. In fact, if we are to follow this case, we’ll realize that there is a battle over decision-making that is taking place at the very top of Egypt’s high politics.

When US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said that Field Marshal Tantawi promised him over the phone to end the problem with American organizations, Abouelnaga held a joint press conference the next day with the minister of justice, in which both announced that the case would move forward as planned. When a member of the SCAF interceded to lift the travel ban on the accused Americans, the press announced the following day that the case had been referred to trial.

After the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff visited Egypt last week, Tantawi held a meeting with the prime minister, the director of General Intelligence, the ministers of interior and justice, and Abouelnaga, asking them to remain calm when addressing the issue of the US organizations. The next day, however, Abouelnaga —and those she speaks for—leaked to the same press inflammatory statements from the investigators of the case: the front pages of several newspapers carried statements, explicitly accusing the US of conspiring against Egyptian national security.

This was not the first indication of a struggle within the regime as indicative by how Tantawi's promises were contradicted, no only by Abouelnaga, but more importantly by whom she represents, either inside the SCAF or within the security establishment.

Last December, a member of the SCAF assembled US correspondents in Egypt to tell them that the parliament, which was still in the process of being elected, did not represent all sectors of the population and that it was unqualified to write the constitution. The next day, another member of the SCAF stated that his colleague had been expressing merely his personal views; since then, both men have disappeared from the public eye.

In this context, the question is no longer whether the SCAF will turn over power in June, but rather who has the power to take this decisive step. Has the security apparatus—which has been fed hostility towards Islamists for decades, considering them the primary internal enemy—prepared itself for the day when Islamists come to power? Or for the day after, when Islamists undertake an ideological purge of the apparatus to eliminate members that are perceived as antagonistic to political Islam?

The answer to these questions is not unrelated to the crisis of civil society organizations; indeed, it is closely related to the political environment that produced this drama, and the whole tension with the American administration. This political environment indicates an ambiguity in decision-making, one that produced such a messy crises. It is thus crucial to try to understand this battle over ruling Egypt. 

Bahey el-din Hassan is the director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies

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