Egypt: NGO issue still unresolved
Mar 7, 2012Posted by Gregory Aftandilian
Last week, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, head of Egypt's SCAF (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces), finally came to understand that the United States was serious about cutting or suspending the $1.3 billion in U.S. military assistance after phone calls from President Obama and visits by senior members of the U.S. military and U.S. Congress, and decided to let the indicted Americans and other foreign NGO democracy workers leave the country after posting large bail money. Although some members of Congress, like Senator John McCain, praised this decision (McCain was one of the people who met with Tantawi) it is unlikely to mollify Congress as a whole; many members are still upset over the fact that IRI (International Republican Institute), NDI (National Democratic Institute for International Affairs) and Freedom House are still facing criminal charges, that their offices are closed and their equipment still confiscated, and that Egyptian nationals who work for these organizations are under arrest or indictment. These organizations retain powerful friends in Congress who are unlikely to restore a business-as-usual approach to Egypt so long as these organizations are under indictment.
The NGO issue and the lifting of the travel ban has also created a nationalist backlash in Egypt. Judges in the case essentially resigned from the proceedings after they got wind that the Egyptian military decided the lift the travel ban, saying that the decision was interference in the judicial process. Most Egyptian political factions have sided with these judges. The Muslim Brotherhood speaker of the lower house of parliament, Saad Katatni, for example, stated that all those involved in the decision to lift the travel ban would be held accountable. He also said that a special parliamentary session will be held on March 11 on this issue, and that he would summon Prime Minister Ganzouri and other government officials for such an inquiry into the circumstances of the case. Even some liberal Egyptians, normally supportive of democracy NGOs, have criticized the lifting of the travel ban for legal but, essentially, nationalist reasons. There is a general feeling in Egypt that the ruling generals buckled to U.S. pressure, and this action has stained Egypt's honor. However, for political reasons, the Brotherhood's wrath is directed at civilians like Ganzouri, not Tantawi. The Brotherhood sees the next few months as crucial in terms of its place in the Egyptian political system and does not want to pick a fight with the ruling generals over this issue.
Indeed, there are a lot of developments taking place in Egypt that are overshadowing the NGO issue domestically. Parliament is in the process of trying to figure out who should be appointed to the 100-member committee to write the new Egyptian constitution. This constitutional writing process is very important because not only will it set out the division of powers between the parliament and the presidency, but it will also deal with the role of religion in legislation and civil rights. In May and June, presidential elections will take place, and afterwards, the military has promised to go back to the barracks. But what role the military will retain in the political sphere is an open question and is subject to much debate within Egypt. And overshadowing all of this is the downturn in the economy and the lack of personal security that is affecting everyday life for the Egyptian people.
The bilateral U.S.-Egyptian relationship is in for some rough sledding in large part because each country has different priorities. For the United States, especially Congress, not only does it want to see a democratic process go forward (constitution writing that ensures civil rights for all Egyptians regardless of religion, and free and fair presidential elections), but the NGO issue resolved in a way that would absolve these organizations and staff from any wrongdoing and restore their property. For most Egyptians, the priority is also to see the democratic process go forward, but on the issue of religion and civil rights in the new constitution as well as the NGO indictments, they want no interference or even scrutiny from the U.S. Congress on these matters. And having finally caved in to U.S. pressure on the lifting of the travel ban for American democracy NGO workers, the Egyptian military is in no mood to accommodate the United States on other domestic issues, especially after receiving so much flak on this one.
Hence, the continuation of U.S. military aid to Egypt at this juncture is uncertain. The Obama administration will probably weigh in with Congress to say that strategic equities are at stake in the relationship and that, with the travel ban lifted, the aid should go forward. But Congress will be watching the NGO trials closely as well as how Coptic Christians view the new constitution, among other issues. If the outcomes of these developments are not favorable in the eyes of many members of Congress, then a suspension of aid is a real possibility.The views expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for National Policy.
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