How Not to Save a Friendship: America's Losing Strategy With NGOs in Egypt

The relationship between the U.S. and Egypt is in a perilous state. Egyptian authorities have set February 26 as the court date for several Americans and those of other nationalities, accusing them of interference in Egypt’s internal affairs. American aid to Egypt is now under threat as well, as senior lawmakers have all but made the continued aid, totaling $1.3 billion, contingent on the release of the accused Americans. This in turn has led the Muslim Brotherhood, the majority in Egypt’s new parliament, to say that aid cuts could affect the Egypt-Israeli peace treaty. Rather than risk a slide from a perilous regional peace, the U.S. needs to take a step back and realize that while the American-Egyptian relationship might have to change, it should not fracture over the issue of the NGOs.

Rather than focus on the well-covered American side of the issue, it would help to look at the American missteps. First, several news articles cite the military as being behind the raids, while in fact the raids were not carried out by military forces. The instigator is the ironically named Minister of International Cooperation, Fayza Abdul Naga. News articles note she is a Mubarak-era holdover, a remnant of the Mubarak regime, or in some way stressing her ties to the ousted Mubarak to discredit her, while some of these same articles don’t even mention the military’s ties to the former strongman. The Project on Middle East Democracy’s excellent in-depth backgrounder on the issue even fails to note that one of the indicted organizations, Freedom House, has never tried or at any point pretended that it wished to obtain legality in Egypt.

Hypocrisy from the U.S. side hasn’t helped. The Obama administration seems perplexed that telling the Egyptian side what to do isn’t working. In Congress, 40 members signed a letter to Field Marshall Tantawi demanding that the groups be able to carry out their activities in an unfettered manner, something that is not allowed by foreign groups working in the U.S. The visa violations committed by the Americans, as they were working there while under tourist visas, are pointed to as minor infringements. However, visa violations in the United States by Egyptians led to a national manhunt.

Additionally, diverse groups have helped along the drama for their own ends. The SCAF refuses to intervene in the affair, citing judicial independence, and hoping to show Egyptians that they are free from American influence. Various Islamist groups and Egyptian newspapers have thrived on ferreting out non-existent conspiracies, such as those Minister Abul Naga accuses the groups of being behind. On the American side, Republicans have castigated Obama on the topic, excited at another election issue to use against him in 2012. American media have also fallen into the conspiracy trap. And, of course, there is genuine concern of seeing Americans being tried in cages.

The end result of this absurdity built on falsehoods and conspiracy theories is a relationship that should have been renewed, but is now on life support. Whether the U.S. should continue its large amount of aid to Egypt is a legitimate question, but it should not be politicized by the issue of some Americans who could be tried in an Egyptian court, especially when the civil courts are well known for their independence. Indeed, while the attack on foreign organizations is nothing to be scoffed at, the attack on the many Egyptian NGOs and the arrest of Egyptians is a far more worrying trend for Egypt’s civil society. Congress and U.S. media need to stop the righteous indignation and the Obama administration needs to use diplomacy, not bullying, to solve the issue.

Photo Credit: U.S. Central Command

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Jonathan Bertman

Jonathan Bertman holds a MA in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Edinburgh. He is interested in politics and economics in the Middle East and North Africa.

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