Egypt-US: one year after

Hichem Karoui

Egyptian soldiers stand guard in front of the U.S. NGO National Democratic

The Gulf Today, February 11, 2012

As Egypt celebrates the first anniversary of its revolution, the relationship with the USA is at one of its lowest moments. Tension between the two countries has escalated after Egyptian investigators filed criminal charges against 43 foreign and local activists, including 19 American NGO workers. Egyptian prosecutors raided offices of 10 NGOs in December on suspicion of illegal funding and operating without licences. The NGOs included prominent democracy-promotion groups, Freedom House, the International Republican Institute (IRI), and the National Democratic Institute (NDI).

Speaking before the parliamentary committee on human rights, Egyptian minister of planning and international cooperation Fayza Abulnaga said that civil society organisations not registered with the Egyptian government have received $175 million from March to June 2011.

A heated controversy ensued: Kamal Al Ganzouri, the army-appointed prime minister, said his government will not “back down” in the investigation, despite a US warning that it could prompt a cut to Cairo’s $1.3 billion in annual military aid.

Actually, the crackdown and the aid might well be tightly connected. The raid against the NGOs’ offices occurred on Dec.29, just after Congress decided to link the $1.3 billion annual aid package to conditions that include “demonstrating a commitment to Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, progress towards democratic reforms and the protection of free expression, association and religion.”

Some observers say the current Egyptian social and political scene doesn’t look like it is going to meet these conditions. Behind the present rigidity of the Egyptian government, looms the will to push Washington to waive the conditions for “national security concerns,” for example. However, other observers argue that those who decided to move against the NGOs might well have miscalculated the risks, for the situation could be exploited by the radical wing of the Islamists that is completely opposed to maintaining Camp David accords. The military establishment itself is not immune against the wrath of an uncontrolled mob move.

US senators John McCain, Kelly Ayotte and Joe Lieberman said Egypt’s government is “exacerbating tensions and inflaming public opinion in order to advance a narrow political agenda.” They continued, “a rupture in relations would be disastrous, and the risks of such an outcome have rarely been greater.”

The nature and the scope of these relations have often been questioned and criticised in Egypt by a number of intellectuals and observers, who consider them flawed, unbalanced and responsible for the depreciation of Egypt’s stature in the Arab world and on the international stage.

“For nearly 35 years,” wrote Galal Amin, “Egypt kept saying yes without deviation to whatever the United States asks of it: in its foreign policy, its policy towards the Arabs, its relations with Israel, and its economic policy. The result has been a continuous decline in Egypt’s political and economic standing internationally and within the Arab world while Israel has been increasing its gains at Egypt’s and Arab expense.”

Such an opinion is far from being isolated in today’s country. It is indeed shared by many people among the intelligentsia and different social groups, military not excluded.

There is indeed since the revolution a feeling that Egypt-US relations need to be re-assessed; but this is not a new feeling. It has just been reinforced. Nor is it exclusively the concern of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists who dominate the current parliament. Other political organisations and trends, from the centre to the left, may also share it.

Paradoxically, the United States may hardly scold the Egyptian political class for showing “too much” independence. For many years, the matter of human rights and democracy has often been a “scowling” tool in the hands of the US diplomacy that was used to pressure Cairo into obedience. It is no secret that Washington has had several contacts with the Muslim Brotherhood during the Mubarak era, and was frequently pushing for addressing the thorny problem of private and public freedoms.

In the 1990s, president Clinton supported the strategic liberalisation of political systems in the Middle East. Officials in his administration spoke of “improved governance,” “political participation,” “pluralism,” and “greater openness.” Nevertheless, pro-democracy initiatives were neglected when they conflicted with core “high policy interests.” This was acknowledged by then US secretary of State Madeleine Albright: “We did nudge at times, supporting Kuwaiti leaders in their initiative to give women the vote and encouraging the creation of representative bodies in Bahrain and Jordan. But we did not make it a priority.”

However, post-9/11 changing international dynamics resulted in the US growing more seriously concerned about democracy, because of the linkage between authoritarianism and terrorism. The Bush administration seemed willing to move democracy promotion from low to high-level policy. While developing the case for removing Saddam from power, Bush said for instance: “The world has an interest in the spread of democratic values. A new regime in Iraq would serve as a dramatic and inspiring example of freedom for other nations in the region.” In another speech in 2003, he said: “We support the advance of freedom in the Middle East, because it is our founding principle … the hateful ideology of terrorism is shaped by oppressive regimes….”

This policy was criticised as a new cover for an old US policy that was still interest-driven. But this is another debate.

The Obama administration was more seriously confronted with internal dynamics of political change in the Arab world than any other was previously; and it had to take quick and decisive decisions concerning battered rulers that used to be US-supported. It tried to cope with these dynamics of the Arab spring until it was faced with the case of the NGOs in Egypt.

Ostensibly, the US-Egypt relations have reached a turn. It is not an easy one.

Imagine a train full of people launched at a maximum speed. This is the train of the revolution.

If the pilot is good, he would try to control the speed before taking the hard turn.

Yet, what if there is not a single pilot in the cabin, but several men (the SCAF?) busy trying to defend themselves against a large group of travellers attacking their cabin and asking them to get out and leave the train to them?

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