Congressional lawmakers gave a collective sigh of relief at the news that Egypt had lifted the travel ban on the American civil-society workers facing trial in Egypt. But the crisis isn’t over yet.
The Americans from prominent Washington-based groups such as the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute, including the son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, are still facing criminal charges of illegally accepting foreign funds and stirring unrest; they promised to return for their trial. Even if the case against them is dropped before then, Egypt’s broader crackdown on activists and civil-society groups in the country means that the longer-term debate over whether the U.S. can provide Egypt with its annual military package will still continue for some time.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said she was “very pleased” that the courts had lifted the travel restrictions after the NGOs — which receive U.S. government funding — posted nearly $5 million in bail. Still, Nuland cautioned that the United States has not yet determined whether it can, under current law, provide the annual package of $1.3 billion in military aid to the country.
The exodus of seven Americans who had been barred from leaving Egypt doesn’t resolve the legal case against 43 civil-society workers– including 16 Americans—or the larger issues concerning pro-democracy and human-rights groups, Nuland said. “We remain deeply concerned about the prosecution of NGOs in Egypt and the ultimate outcomes of the legal process.”
The virtually sacrosanct package of $1.3 billion in military aid remains at risk for the first time in decades, since Congress passed new requirements on the fiscal 2012 military aid requiring the administration to certify that Egypt was supporting the transition to democratic government and implementing policies to protect due process of law and freedom of expression, association, and religion.
So far, the civil-society groups are not convinced. The International Republican Institute said in a statement on Thursday that it remains “very concerned” about the charges against its expatriate and local staff, and the impact of the continuing investigations of Egyptian civil-society groups on the country’s ability to move forward with the democratic transition. Activists have claimed that the initial late-December raid on civil-society groups’ offices was meant to make an example of a few organizations on a list of some 400 NGOs under investigation.
On Capitol Hill, lawmakers were relieved that Americans would not be tried in cages in an Egyptian courtroom. At least in the near future. “Thank God, it didn’t happen,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said on the floor, adding that it would have “destroyed the relationship” with Egypt.
But Graham, the ranking member of the Appropriations State and Foreign Operations Subcommittee, also worries about Egypt’s democratic transition. “We hope the Egyptian people embrace tolerance, that Coptic Christians are going to be welcomed … that religious minorities will be reflected, that women will not be taken back into the darkness, that the constitution will reflect an Islamic nation that understands the concepts of tolerance and free enterprise,” Graham said.
He added, “We’ll be watching.”
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., said on Wednesday that Washington should not “reward Egypt with aid when it is demonstrating hostility to Western, democratic entities, and is engaging in an ongoing dance between authoritarians and the Muslim Brotherhood.”
For those in Congress especially active on human-rights issues, such as Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the episode is an opportunity for the Obama administration to enforce the new conditions on aid designed to communicate to the Egyptian people that the United States supports their demands for democracy and fundamental freedoms — and to send a clear message to the Egyptian military that “the days of blank checks are over.”
The crisis is only “one-third resolved,” Leahy, chairman of the State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee, told National Journal. “The criminal charges remain in effect, millions of dollars in bail have been posted, and there is the question of whether these NGOs’ applications for registration will be granted.”
Egypt’s military council has for months targeted Egyptian civil-society and human-rights organizations. It has sent as many as 12,000 civilians to face military trial, and some military units are accused of torture and sexual abuse. All the while, activists have slammed the Obama administration’s apparent reticence to take a tough public stand against the military council’s human-rights violations, giving weight to public opinion there that the United States would rather preserve its own interests at the cost of an undemocratic government, as it did for 30 years under Hosni Mubarak.
“We pride ourselves on being a symbol of democracy,” Leahy said in an interview earlier this month. “If we were to say … ‘We stand for democracy, but here, take the money, because we don’t care what you do,’ we lose all our credibility.”
This discussion certainly won’t end any time soon. If the military’s behavior does not change, Leahy warned, “I’m not putting money [for Egypt] in the foreign-aid bill next year.”