As Tension Rise, the U.S. Should Stand with Egypt's Civil Society to Develop Democracy

Tensions between Washington and Cairo hit a new high this past week, after Egyptian officials raided the headquarters of democracy-building nongovernmental organizations and refused to allow six Americans to leave the country. The deteriorating relationship came to a climax with the United States embassy housing Americans fearing imminent arrest by the authorities, and the State Department threatening to withhold the sacred, and previously untouchable, $1.3 billion in annual military aid to the country.

These events, developing concurrently with the one-year anniversary of the Egyptian revolution, should force the U.S. to focus on how to help foster the shift toward civilian, democratic governance in Egypt. By vigorously supporting and defending the right of diverse civil society organizations to operate in Egypt, the U.S. can bring a commitment to democratic reform in the Middle East while demonstrating the influence we still wield.

This approach used to be politically precarious. Under former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s regime, Egyptian civil society existed but had little to no political clout; it instead focused on health and education. That all changed on January 25, 2011, as politically-minded organizations sprung up as a part of and in reaction to the protests. Unfortunately, what hasn’t changed is the ruling entity’s response to a robust civil society. The Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), under the leadership of Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, has been equally, if not more, repressive toward nongovernmental organizations. While the detained Americans made headlines last week, the assault began many months ago. It’s not just American-backed and other international entities, but respected and deeply rooted Egyptian-based civil society groups with a long history of serving the people.

 Consistent with President Barack Obama’s foreign policy strategy, the U.S. has shied away from being perceived as directly involved in the changes in the Middle East – and rightly so. While the military continues to blame the renewed protests on foreign meddling, it’s a toothless claim. But as Egypt moves closer to the deadline for SCAF to hand over power to civilian leadership, repressed nongovernmental organizations, such as the National Democratic Institute and the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, are critical for a robust, vibrant political climate leading up to and after the transition. The U.S. holds valuable cards to support local and international civil society institutions, without undermining local leadership and credibility. 

It’s a worthy cause for the U.S. to take up. A strong civil society ensures representation of diverse voices, and it provides means to build the necessary infrastructure for sustained and responsible political engagement — without abandoning the ability to mobilize large parts of the population to only those, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, who were strong before the revolution. If the Muslim Brotherhood, as the party controlling the parliament, chooses to sacrifice ideals for power, a civically engaged public will be key to holding leadership accountable to the ideals of the revolution.

So far, the U.S. has made its stance clear by tying the $1.3 billion in military aid to democratic progress. Furthermore, the State Department has issued sharp verbal condemnation of the Egyptian military’s actions. It’s a good start – but as SCAF only gets more bellicose towards civil society activities, the U.S. should more firmly stand its ground and leverage its desperately needed financial support. Effectively leveraging the longstanding military aid, a reality of geopolitical priorities for decades, would be a move toward aligning interests and values. 

If Secretary of State Hilary Clinton waived the ties to democratic progress in the name of national security, it would undermine much of the advancement made by President Obama’s nuanced foreign policy in the region, and seemingly further undercut our influence. But strong support for the institutions best quipped to shepherd Egypt to a more democratic future would demonstrate the influence we can still wield, while putting us on the right side of history. 

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Common