Posts Tagged ‘NGOs’

NGOs demand delay in proposed Gulf union

May 14th, 2012 Comments off

Leaders of six Gulf states are considering a proposal to form a unionLiberal civil society groups in Gulf states called Monday on Saudi and Bahraini leaders to postpone plans to announce a union between them, saying such a step must be preceded by a referendum.

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NGO blunder backfires

March 10th, 2012 Comments off

Days after the prime minister insisted Egypt would never bow to external pressure, foreign defendants in the high profile case against NGOs were allowed to leave the country. The public is furious, but will soon forget, writes Khaled Dawoud
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The American NGO Workers Can Leave: But What About the Egyptians?

March 2nd, 2012 Comments off

I am glad of course that the Egyptian government has lifted the travel ban on the foreign NGO workers; some of the charged Americans, including Sam LaHood, son of the US Transportation Secretary, have already left for Cyprus. What has transpired is not entirely clear. First, the trial was put off until April. Next, all the judges in the case recused themselves because of “discomfort,” whatever that means. (Undue Egyptian government pressure?) Then, the travel ban was listed. It’s still not clear if all will leave. The ban was lifted on seven of 16 charged Americans.

Clearly, somebody decided that actually putting the Americans and Europeans through a show trial was going to be counterproductive. Shana Marshall’s “Why the US Won’t Cut Military Aid to Egypt” at yesterday’s Foreign Policy notes the powerful economic interests at play; but it’s also worth remembering that there are Egyptian employees of the foreign NGOs, not to mention a number of local Egyptian NGOs targeted in the same investigation. And with the Americans and Europeans gone, does that mean the government is free to wrap up the NGOs’ operations with impunity? I’m sure if all the Americans get home free, even if they can’t go back to Egypt to do the jobs they’d been doing for years (with tactic government approval), US public opinion will be assuaged and military aid will continue. Of course, the NGOs won’t be operating. The US and European nationals will be okay, so that’s all right, then. Democratization programs crushed? Collateral damage.

Youm 7 videos of NGO employees departing:

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

March 2nd, 2012 Comments off

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.


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Travel ban lifted on US NGO workers

February 29th, 2012 Comments off

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? 


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In Translation: Nabil Fahmy on the US-Egypt NGO crisis

February 29th, 2012 Comments off

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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McInerney on the NGO crisis

February 25th, 2012 Comments off

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.

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NYT: Is Fayza Abu’l-Naga Challenging SCAF?

February 15th, 2012 Comments off

This New York Times article is portraying Egypt’s Minister of Planning and International Cooperation Fayza Abu’l-Naga’s campaign against foreign NGOs as being carried out in defiance even of the Military Council. In this view, authority is increasingly divided and the Minister appears to be alienating the US without the approval of SCAF. I am, frankly, skeptical.

I know SCAF has shown plenty of signs of disorganization, internal division, and incompetence, but that doesn’t mean it’s powerless. If the Minister of International Cooperation can alienate a key ally/aid donor unilaterally, why has every other Minister in the Cabinet, including Prime Minister Ganzouri, seemed to ask SCAF’s permission  before every statement? Admittedly, the alternative — that SCAF itself is behind the campaign against NGOs — requires assuming a level of Machiavellian scheming (pledging good relations when Field Marshal Tantawi meets General Dempsey, while pursuing the NGOs at the same time) that raises plenty of questions, too.

I think the NYT article could be the correct reading, but I frankly doubt it. I’d guess (and it is just a guess) that SCAF is gambling that it can play the popular “foreign interference” card domestically (and remove annoying democracy activists in the process) without losing the US aid package, calculating that the US military values the strategic relationship too much to jeopardize it. I suspect that may in fact be true of some in the US military, but they don’t make US policy in an election year, a factor SCAF may be badly underestimating.

On the other hand, I can easily imagine the generals leaking to the NYT the “fact” that they just can’t control this rogue crazy woman in the Planning Ministry, so don’t blame them for what’s happening, blame her. But again, I’m not there; I’m going on experience and instinct, and could be wrong.

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Crunch Time for US-Egyptian Relations

January 31st, 2012 Comments off

I can think of few moments since the first Camp David Accords and the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty when US-Egyptian relations, and the fate of US aid, have seemed so much in question. A high-level military delegation is in the US to discuss aid, led by Maj. Gen. Mohammed El-Assar, the Deputy Defense Minister for US Affairs and a member of SCAF, but he will no doubt have seen this morning’s Washington Post report that the US Embassy in Cairo is sheltering in place in the Embassy compound several US employees of NGOs who have been forbidden to leave Egypt due to the crackdown on pro-democracy NGOs. As everyone knows by now, one of these is the International Republican Institute’s Sam LaHood,who happens to be the son of US Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, a rare Republican in the Obama Cabinet (and an Arab-American as well, to add to the mix). Oh, and just to make General El-Assar’s visit even more challenging, over the weekend Egypt’s key Washington lobbyists announced they were quitting. Hello, we’re here for our annual $1.3 billion in military aid. Really, you’re upset about something? Actually, General El-Assar, whom I’ve met on earlier visits, knows the US scene rather well, and I doubt if he has many illusions about the task before him. Whether his fellow SCAF generals understand the hole they’re in (at the moment, though, they’re still digging) is a lot less clear.

I know of course that the US aid relationship is unpopular in the Egyptian street, and I also know that some in the Army may feel the aid package is sacrosanct, the Army’s “payment” for keeping the peace with Israel. But both the Administration and Congress still have to approve that every year. The Egyptian economy is reeling, the 10-12% of it that is tourism based is in serious doubt, and US military aid is now in jeopardy. And without the US, hopes for IMF and World Bank assistance could also be in jeopardy.

SCAF’s out-of-touch, blundering approach to governance has rarely been more apparent. A breach with the US would perhaps be popular, but the Egyptian military’s own self-interest would be the first victim. And if they think they can replace it with Gulf funding, they might want to look at the record of Gulf monetary pledges versus actual funds delivered.

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On the US-Egypt NGO debacle

January 28th, 2012 Comments off

First US, German and Egyptian NGOs were raided in late December, and now US personnel that has been unable to work in Cairo because their equipment has been confiscated are barred from leaving the country, prompting outrage in the US. Congress is now putting emphasis again on the need for conditionality on US aid to the military, and the likes of Senator Patrick Leahy now say “But we no longer have a blank check for the Egyptian military.” A high-level delegation is now coming from Washington to defuse tensions.

There is a lot at stake in this first major spat between the US and Egypt since Mubarak is overthrown, and it’s gotten a lot more complicated than when it was just about Egyptian reticence to allow uncontrolled foreign funding and getting a bargaining chip over the military aid issue. Whether it is the real cause of the travel ban, there is a judicial process in the works, a real issue of sovereignty for Egypt. And there is what is interpreted an attempt by SCAF to cast activists as foreign-funded, distract from Gulf financing which may be overlooked (very few of the NGOs under investigation are Gulf-funded ones, despite widespread knowledge of millions being channeled to Islamic charities). NDI and IRI’s quasi-governmental aspect (they receive much of their funding through the National Endowment for Democracy and the US government) is one aspect of the problem, but so is the general legal limbo they have operated under for several years (it is true they are unregistered, but that’s because they were not allowed to so yet tolerated), as well as their more aggressive funding posture since the revolution and a certain amount of tone-deafness to Egyptian officials’ concerns about sovereignty.

This is a difficult issue because, as much as democracy-promotion might seem beyond reproach, the sovereignty issue is real: as an American (or Moroccan) I certainly wouldn’t want uncontrolled foreign government funding of charities and NGOs, particularly politicized ones. But Egypt’s rules of the game for foreign NGOs are patently unfair. An ideal resolution to this crisis would be a better NGO law in Egypt and more transparent operations from the US government (which perhaps should focus on institional-building, state-to-state developmental aid and let the more politically sensitive aid to others). That would take engaging Egyptian stakeholders, such as new MPs, towards this end: they should have a voice in this just as much as Egypt’s caretaker, military-controlled government.

Sheila Carapico has an excellent, nuanced piece on the whole debacle, highlighting that many Egyptians – not just the government – are cautious about organizations and political activism funded by foreign governments:

During last winter’s eighteen-day intifada, rumors were planted about foreign provocateurs. The international English-language press unwittingly fed these allegations. Their reports that Western democracy promoters nurtured fledgling democrats, sending a handful of young activists to study nonviolent resistance with the Serbian organization OPTOR, were recycled in the Arabic-language media.

Complicating matters, London and Washington decided to fast-track small grants to liberal groups, skirting labyrinthine Egyptian channels for the distribution of foreign aid. The Obama administration earmarked some $65 million for quick direct support to NGOs working on initiatives like training election monitors, educating voters and documenting human-rights violations. Mubarak-era bureaucrats cited sovereignty in defense of their patronage pyramids and clientalistic licensing procedures. Over the summer, the minister of international cooperation asked military prosecutors to investigate the “unauthorized” transfer of nearly $48 million to fourteen American organizations (including those besieged in December) and $6 million to twelve Egyptian groups not accredited by the Ministry of Social Solidarity.

The Arab Spring of 2011 inflamed sentiments on this polarizing issue. Even on the front lines, many were of two minds. Strangulating laws of association, expression and assembly were among the grievances against the old regime. The armed invasion of premises where the only weapons used were words defied international and even municipal legal norms. For ministerial and military establishments reliant on foreign largess to cry foul over small political projects seemed hypocritical to many and foolhardy to others. Liberal Egyptians working for international organizations saw how the crackdown on Western organizations diverted attention away from another outside influence: the funds flowing from Gulf monarchies to conservatives and counterrevolutionaries in the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi movements—and perhaps the military as well.

And yet many sophisticated Egyptians reason that Western political projects are ultimately more attuned to NATO security interests than Western ideals. Lots of patriots bridled at foreign meddling, including both foreign support of Mubarak after the fraudulent elections of late 2010 or, as some now insisted, in fomenting mass rebellion. Revolutionaries were insulted by the insinuation that in order to depose Mubarak they should learn from Serbs, who joined a NATO-backed campaign to overthrow Slobodan Milosevic.

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