Steven A. Cook

From the Potomac to the Euphrates

Cook examines developments in the Middle East and their resonance in Washington.

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The Officers, NGOs, and Us

by Steven A. Cook
January 3, 2012

Protesters gather during a demonstration against the Egyptian military council in Tahrir square in Cairo (Ahmed Jadallah/Courtesy Reuters)

Last July, a team of senior Egyptian military officers visited Washington for the first time since Hosni Mubarak’s fall the previous February.  The officers, who not only made the rounds at the Pentagon, the State Department, and the National Security Council also held roundtables for the Washington policy community including an unprecedented on-the-record event at the U.S. Institute of Peace.  The officers came to Washington with three messages for the Obama administration, members of Congress, Beltway Middle East geeks, human rights activists, and democracy promoters: 1) the Egyptian armed forces would remain a force for regional stability, 2) Egypt would uphold all international agreements, thus allaying fears among some inside the Beltway that the uprising and its aftermath had put the Egypt-Israel peace treaty in jeopardy, and 3) the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces was preparing Egypt for a democratic future.  The Ministry of Defense’s consultants clearly understood what Washington wanted (needed even) to hear from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and the delegation did not miss a beat.

Yet beyond the reassurances of last July, which have been repeated often since, it is unclear what the first commitment actually entails other than abiding by the second.  As for their third, it has become abundantly clear that this is a case of the SCAF saying one thing and doing precisely the opposite.  Indeed, in addition to using violence against demonstrators as well as the arrest, harassment, and military trial of activists who oppose the Council, the military has added new evidence to the allegation that it actually does not stand with the “legitimate demands of the Egyptian people.”

Late last week, prosecutors and security forces raided the offices of at least 10 Egyptian and American non-governmental organizations including Freedom House, the National Democratic Institute, and the International Republican Institute. The three American organizations are, to varying degrees, beneficiaries of federal funding and it has been alleged that the Egyptian groups have received “foreign funds.”  The irony of this claim was apparently lost on the leaders of a military that receives $1.3 billion from a foreign source.

The SCAF justifies the raids—as all authoritarians do—on legal grounds. NDI, IRI, and Freedom House do not have licenses to operate in Egypt, though at least in NDI and IRI’s cases they applied for them years ago and were repeatedly assured that approval was coming so their activities were begrudgingly tolerated. Freedom House was told to establish an office before applying for a license. Of course, that office was raided because Freedom House does not have a license. Tails SCAF wins; Heads SCAF wins. Also, it is illegal for Egyptian non-governmental organizations to receive foreign funds without the permission of the government. Still, what have these organizations done other than help advance the cause of democracy?  Isn’t that what the SCAF has repeatedly claimed that it is doing, too? If so, it seems that rather than harassing these NGOs, the military should be welcoming them as partners and use its executive authority to change or abolish the law.  After all, the officers have never trained for their current mission and as a result, they could use all they help they can get.  The Egyptian government also contends that U.S. money is finding its way to groups that are intent on doing harm to Egypt.  Yet the SCAF has never produced any evidence to support the claim.

So what is going on here?  It is hard to tell exactly what strategy the military is pursuing.  It has long been the case that Egypt has demanded American aid on its terms alone. The military sees its aid not as a function of the generosity of the American taxpayer, but as its own money.  The officers argue—not in so many words—that the aid is a payoff for the peace treaty with Israel.  They also claim that the assistance cements a strategic relationship from which Washington benefits on manifold levels. Yet there is nothing in the Camp David Accords or the Egypt-Israel peace treaty that enjoins Washington to fund the Egyptian armed forces. And while the officers may be on firmer (not firm) ground to argue that Washington benefits from strategic ties with Egypt those benefits have diminished in the decades since these relations were established.

As a result, it seems remarkably shortsighted for the SCAF to provoke the ire of the Obama administration and the Congress whom the officers lobby furiously to ensure their annual aid package.  Then again, maybe it isn’t.  Perhaps the military’s strategy is as simple as snuffing out the demands for democratic change through brute force and the officers have calculated that putting an end to a democratic transition before it even began is worth whatever price they will have to pay in Washington.  Either way, in terms of U.S.-Egypt relations, going after the NGOs represents yet another step in the long goodbye between the two countries.

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