You wouldn't think that the corybantic Charlie Sheen and the much more taciturn Egyptian military would have much in common, but recently watching the military council go about handling their interim ruling duties is like having to suffer through a rerun of last year's Charlie Sheen saga. It's ugly, hard to watch, and often depressing.
We always knew Charlie Sheen was a little off his rocker. Then his show got cancelled and he slid into the delusional territory with his crazy rants. Not long after, he lost any remaining modicum of credibility with his ghastly standup tour.
The Egyptian Military Council's decision to raid more than a dozen non-governmental pro-democracy organizations on Thursday is another in a series of fatuous and cringe-worthy moves that has them hurtling towards a similar path of self-destruction.
With crumbling support internally and more and more doubts being raised about the military's true intentions abroad, the Egyptian army attempted to flex its muscles and prove — if not to the people, at least to themselves — that they are still all tough and mighty. In total, 17 NGOs were raided during the operation, three of which were American-based. Apparently $1.3 billion in American foreign aid money went a bit farther under Mubarak than it does now.
According to Adel Saeed, spokesman for the general prosecutor's office, the actions were "part of an investigation into allegations that groups may have received illegal foreign funding and have been operating without licenses from the Foreign Ministry and local ministries."
Yet David Kramer, who is the president of Freedom House, decried the crackdown as "an escalation of repression unheard of even during the Mubarak regime."
With rising levels of dissatisfaction with military rule and increasing turmoil, it seems hardly believable that the military is truly preoccupied with "illegal foreign funding" or "proper licenses" (I think it's safe to assume that the State Department-backed Freedom House has been operating with proper registration for decades).
Rather, the military is likely more concerned with tracking democratic activists who could pose a challenge to their authority, which would explain why army officers hauled away financial records, laptops, electronics, video equipment and personal files of activists. As one associate of the raided National Democratic Institute summed up, "They [the army] took everything, every shred of paper, computers, personal laptops."
Such confiscations of the NGOs property is a very troubling development for western observers on two fronts.
First, the fact that three American-based NGOs were raided signals a growing distrust among Egypt's military commanders of America and our intentions. Egypt is a vital strategic ally and the two countries maintained a uniquely close relationship under the Mubarak regime. Egypt's willingness to raid and seize property owned by the State Department is an indication that the relationship may be fraying as the military pushes back against the American pressure to transition to a more open democracy. Worse still, if America loses some of its influence with Egypt, it could have dire consequences when it comes to how Egypt approaches its treaty with Israel.
More worrisome for Egyptians, however, is the likely second reason for the raids: to collect information and track democratic activists. In just 10 months since the fall of Mubarak, the Egyptian army has already tried over six times as many activists/detainees as compared to under the 30-year rule of the former president.
More than 12,000 people have faced military tribunals, which are used by the ruling Supreme Council Allied Forces to circumnavigate proper legal due process. Thursday's raids were another attempt to gather names of activists and intimidate them from further participating in the democratic process.
Rattled by the sustained protests and the determination of the young revolutionaries, the Egyptian military appears to be taking a page out of the Bahraini playbook by attempting to use surveillance and data collection to silence protesters. NGOs such as Freedom House and the National Democratic Institute have long been providing funding and training for candidates, elections, and political parties. That the names of hundreds of activists have fallen into the military's hands is troubling, especially given SCAF's resistance towards going forward with a democratic transition.
Already Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) has spoken out against the raids along with several State Department officials as well. America must be clear that such actions will not be tolerated and make sure that our $1.3 billion in annual aid is not helping to fund another authoritarian regime.
Photo Credit: David Dietz