The trial of 43 pro-democracy activists, including almost 20 US citizens, on the charges of working illegally in Egypt, has left many puzzled and bewildered. Over the past two weeks, US diplomats, congressmen and military generals have been shuttling between Cairo and Washington in a frantic attempt to figure out what lays behind this sudden move and to secure the release of the charged US citizens. And while many Egyptians seem to have bought the official line that this was a long-overdue move aimed at subjecting foreign NGOs to local legislation and thus correcting a momentarily injured Egyptian sovereignty, pro-democracy activists suspect that the true purpose of the trial is nothing less than intimidating human rights organizations, and some even fear that the ultimate goal is to close down not only foreign, but all human rights organizations working in Egypt.
Puzzles and questions:
One of the most puzzling aspects of this case is the hyped recourse to xenophobia both in the prosecution’s dossier and in the coverage by the government-controlled press of the case. According to the New York Times, the prosecution’s dossier reiterated accusations that the pro-democracy NGOs in which the 43 defendants worked served “US and Israeli interests,” and aimed at “bringing down the ruling regime in Egypt, no matter what it is,” while “pandering to the US Congress, Jewish lobbyists and American public opinion." For four days running last week, the semi-official Ahram newspaper quoted people close to the investigations as saying that the targeted NGOs served foreign interests that aimed to undermine domestic security and to foment hatred and strife.
On the one hand, this language is in line with other xenophobic accusations that the official media has been leveling at the young revolutionaries from day one of the revolution. During the 18 days that preceded Mubarak’s abdication, state TV kept on spreading rumors that “foreign-looking” individuals were handing out free American fast food meals (the notorious kentaaki, i.e. KFC) to the Tahrir demonstrators. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces later issued unfounded accusations that the April 6 Youth Movement had been receiving foreign funding and that its members had been trained abroad to undertake subversive activities. A few weeks ago, and following the death of an American University in Cairo (AUC) student in the Port Said massacre only days before he was due to graduate, the SCAF had the chutzpah on its official Facebook page to accuse AUC for being a tool serving “the interests of the US administration and its intelligence agencies that aim at bringing down Egypt.” More recently, on the same page the SCAF lambasted Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist, for a critical article he had written and scolded him, like a school kid, for meddling in domestic Egyptian affairs.
On the other hand, this xenophobic language was out of character with the self-confident, humorous and witty Tahrir crowd. As someone who has been in Tahrir since 25 January, missing only a few Friday demonstrations since then, one of the most amazing things that I noticed was the conspicuous absence of slogans against foreign powers. It is not that people in Tahrir were oblivious of the role traditionally played by Saudi Arabia, Israel or the US over the past three decades in bolstering Mubarak and his defunct regime. Rather, it is that Egyptians (and I suspect Tunisians, Libyans, Yemenis, Syrians and millions of other Arabs) have felt, probably for the first time in a hundred years, that they don’t have to take their cue from Washington, London or Paris; that they are the ones who write their own history, and that they are the shapers of their own destiny. I consider this self-confidence, which is often infused with a witty, non-cynical sense of humor, to be the most important feature of the Arab Spring. And it is this self-confidence that the SCAF views as posing an existential threat and which it tries to counter with a venomous xenophobic discourse.
Beyond rhetoric, the charges brought against the NGOs also raise many questions. The prosecutor’s dossier accuses the organizations of contravening Egyptian law that requires prior approval before receiving foreign funding. There is little doubt that in this respect, the NGOs did in fact break the law. However, while Fayza Abouelnaga, the minister of planning and of international cooperation, who is leading this crusade against NGOs, seems to be intent on tightening government control over foreign funding, her enthusiasm in doing so does not seem to be stemming from a sincere desire to apply the law. For while she is going after US and German pro-democracy organizations, she seems to be unconcerned about the millions of US dollars that state media itself said Saudi Arabia and Qatar had sent to numerous Salafi organizations. Nor does she seem to be concerned about the fact that this money was used to finance candidates in the parliamentary elections, in a clear violation not only of the NGO law, but also of the elections law and the parties' laws.
The most serious charge in the prosecutor’s dossier is ostensibly that regarding registration. In her numerous media appearances, Abouelnaga insisted that these NGOs were not officially registered in Egypt and were thus operating illegally. The problem with this charge, however, is that registration, as is well known, used to be contingent on a security clearance, usually from the notorious Amn al-Dawla (State Security), a requirement that, itself, was illegal. To get around this conundrum, the existing NGO law required the government to respond within 60 days to a request for registration presented by any NGO; and if this period elapses without an official response, then the NGO would be considered automatically registered. From what state media has been reporting, it seems that the targeted NGOs did, in fact, present their request for registration but received no response. Thus, according to Egyptian law, these NGOs are considered to be officially registered even though they do not have official registration papers.
But the most bizarre “proof” that the prosecutor’s dossier contains is a map that purports to show the NGOs’ malicious intent to “create a state of chaos to undermine any genuine opportunity for Egypt to restore its regional and international status.” The map is in fact a Wikipedia map of Egypt showing the country divided into four parts. While Egypt is typically described as comprising four regions — upper and lower Egypt, greater Cairo and the Suez Canal and Sinai region — the prosecution suggested that the maps showed a plan to dismember the country. If this is how our security agencies read maps, then one is left in serious doubt about these agencies’ ability to protect the country from real, and not simply trumped up, threats.
Facts and figures:
Throughout this campaign, Abouelnaga and the state-controlled media who have been championing her nationalist cause have portrayed her campaign as a crusade to restore Egypt’s sovereignty. Mubarak, she argues, has been a lackey of America and has been too easily wooed by the US$1.5 million he received annually from the US, so that he squandered Egypt’s independence and rendered her foreign policy ineffective. With the triumph of the 25 January revolution, it is time to restore Egypt’s dignity and to hit hard at those who undermine her sovereignty. Problem is, unless she has been discrete about her revolutionary zeal, Abouelnaga is not known to have been particularly active in Tahrir. In fact, for ten years she has been faithful to Mubarak, loyally serving him as minister and passionately defending him and his policies in numerous international forums.
The real target of Abouelnaga’s crusade is not foreign NGOs receiving foreign funding. Her real targets are human rights organizations that have been campaigning to defend basic freedoms before and after the 25 January revolution. The reason is simple: it is human rights organizations, more than official political parties or even the press, which have uncovered cases of police brutality under Mubarak’s dictatorial rule, which have defended helpless victims in numerous cases of outright injustice, and which have raised public awareness of basic and constitutional rights.
Abouelnaga’s wrath against human rights groups must have fallen on the SCAF’s receptive ears. Again, more than the press and definitely more than our sterile Parliament, it is human rights groups which have launched a courageous campaign to end military trials of civilians; it is they who have sued the SCAF for allegedly conducting the notorious virginity tests on protesters; it is they who have been pressing the SCAF to restructure the security sector; and it is they who have highlighted and documented the SCAF’s bloody practices in Maspero, Mohamed Mahmoud Street, Cabinet Street, and Port Said. Given how incompetent the SCAF generals have been since they came to power a year ago, they must be grateful to be receiving this generous assistance from a veteran Mubarak loyalist who has experience in how to intimidate the opposition and how to cow them into submission.
Playing with fire:
For all her tact and erudition, however, Abouelnaga might have overplayed her cards. For years, she and her colleagues in the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs have honed in the message they repeatedly send to their American interlocutors: if you press too hard on the democracy button, the regime may fall, and we will no longer be able to protect your interests in the region, especially helping you in safeguarding Israel. For years, Egyptian politicians and diplomats have perfected this line whenever they encounter a new incumbent in the White House, a new Secretary of State, or the occasional congressperson who passes through Cairo on their way to Jerusalem.
Following the collapse of Mubarak, but not his regime, Abouelnaga seems to be sending two messages, one domestic to the SCAF, and the other foreign to her US interlocutors. To the SCAF, she seems to be telling them, “Your reputation has been receiving blow after blow lately, and these troublesome human rights NGOS are indeed a pain in the neck. Let me handle them. I know how to stir up public opinion against them and depict them as fifth columnists hell bent on undermining Egypt’s sovereignty. As to America, I know how to deal with them. They will never dare to cut the annual $1.3 billion they give you, as they need to keep you in power more than you need their money.”
To the American, she seems to be telling them, “You lost Mubarak. But don’t despair. His regime is intact and is willing to do business as usual. Just gentle with this democracy business. You know it is not in your interest to press hard on that button. So we will raise some fuss about NGOs for domestic consumption, but we still need your money.”
The problem with this line, however, is that Abouelnaga seems to have overplayed her hand. For this time, her interlocutors are no longer the lone politician or the wandering diplomat who can turn a blind eye to human rights atrocities committed in the name of maintaining stability. This time it is American public opinion which neither Abouelnaga nor any Egyptian politician has ever understood, let alone cared about, believing that this public opinion is always blindfolded by the “Jewish lobby” in America. With hardly a day passing without the story of this scandal hitting front page of major US papers, showing American citizens being hounded by Egyptian authorities and forcing some to seek refuge in the US embassy, it is difficult to imagine how Congress can turn a blind eye and acquiesce to renewing the aid. Abouelnaga, therefore, might have been giving the SCAF disastrous advice, and she might end up cutting their main lifeline.
And yet, much that Abouelnaga has been calling for is not without merit. NGOs, both those working in human rights and others, need to be monitored. It is doubtful, however, if the current monitoring regime is the best one. We need a new NGO law that is based on the premise that these organizations are an asset to society, that they have done a great service to the country and that the law organizing them should make things easier rather than more difficult for them to operate.
The US aid to Egypt also needs to be revisited. We need a societal debate about the history of this aid and the strings that might have been attached to it. Above all, we need an account on how this aid has been spent over the past 30 years. However, the manner in which Abouelnaga has opened this can of worms is both impulsive and irresponsible as it leaves little room for a sober, reasoned analysis.
Our relations with both the US and Israel also need to be reassessed in light of our revolution. But this reassessment should not be managed by the military whose business is defense and not diplomacy, and most definitely it should not be managed by unelected officials who lack a mandate from the people and who owe their official status to a dictator who has been deposed. Whipping up public opinion in a demagogic manner, and pandering to base human instincts, is a cheap way to hold on to power and to enhance one’s precarious position. It is also a very dangerous tactic. We once tried whipping up public opinion against foreign elements in order to cover domestic problems. This was back in 1967. And we only know what catastrophe this led to.
Khaled Fahmy is a historian and chair of the history department at the American University in Cairo