New York Times’ Tom Friedman: Case Against Pro-Democracy NGOs is Trumped Up by an Old Mubarak Crony

Egypt’s Step Backward
The New York Times
By Thomas L. Friedman

Sadly, the transitional government in Egypt today appears determined to shoot itself in both feet.

On Sunday, it will put on trial 43 people, including at least 16 U.S. citizens, for allegedly bringing unregistered funds into Egypt to promote democracy without a license. Egypt has every right to control international organizations operating within its borders. But the truth is that when these democracy groups filed their registration papers years ago under the autocracy of Hosni Mubarak, they were informed that the papers were in order and that approval was pending. The fact that now — after Mubarak has been deposed by a revolution — these groups are being threatened with jail terms for promoting democracy without a license is a very disturbing sign. It tells you how incomplete the “revolution” in Egypt has been and how vigorously the counter-revolutionary forces are fighting back.

This sordid business makes one weep and wonder how Egypt will ever turn the corner. Egypt is running out of foreign reserves, its currency is falling, inflation is rising and unemployment is rampant. Yet the priority of a few retrograde Mubarak holdovers is to put on trial staffers from the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute, which are allied with the two main U.S. political parties, as well as from Freedom House and some European groups. Their crime was trying to teach Egypt’s young democrats how to monitor elections and start parties to engage in the very democratic processes that the Egyptian Army set up after Mubarak’s fall. Thousands of Egyptians had participated in their seminars in recent years.

What is this really about? This case has been trumped up by Egypt’s minister of planning and international cooperation, Fayza Abul Naga, an old Mubarak crony. Abul Naga personifies the worst tendency in Egypt over the last 50 years — the tendency that helps to explain why Egypt has fallen so far behind its peers: South Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brazil, India and China. It is the tendency to look for dignity in all the wrong places — to look for dignity not by building up the capacity of Egypt’s talented young people so they can thrive in the 21st century — with better schools, better institutions, export industries and more accountable government. No, it is the tendency to go for dignity on the cheap “by standing up to the foreigners.”

That is Abul Naga’s game. As a former Mubarak adviser put it to me: “Abul Naga is where she is today because for six years she was resisting the economic and political reforms” in alliance with the military. “Both she and the military were against opening up the Egyptian economy.” Both she and the military, having opposed the revolution, are now looking to save themselves by playing the nationalist card.

Egypt today has only two predators: poverty and illiteracy. After 30 years of Mubarak rule and some $50 billion in U.S. aid, 33 percent of men and 56 percent of women in Egypt still can’t read or write. That is a travesty. But that apparently does not keep Abul Naga up at night.

What is her priority? Is it to end illiteracy? Is it to articulate a new vision about how Egypt can engage with the world and thrive in the 21st century? Is it to create a positive climate for foreign investors to create jobs desperately needed by young Egyptians? No, it’s to fall back on that golden oldie — that all of Egypt’s problems are the fault of outsiders who want to destabilize Egypt. So let’s jail some Western democracy consultants. That will restore Egypt’s dignity.

The Times reported from Cairo that the prosecutor’s dossier assembled against the democracy workers — bolstered by Abul Naga’s testimony — accused these democracy groups of working “in coordination with the C.I.A.,” serving “U.S. and Israeli interests” and inciting “religious tensions between Muslims and Copts.” Their goal, according to the dossier, was: “Bringing down the ruling regime in Egypt, no matter what it is,” while “pandering to the U.S. Congress, Jewish lobbyists and American public opinion.”

Amazing. What Abul Naga is saying to all those young Egyptians who marched, protested and died in Tahrir Square in order to gain a voice in their own future is: “You were just the instruments of the C.I.A., the U.S. Congress, Israel and the Jewish lobby. They are the real forces behind the Egyptian revolution — not brave Egyptians with a will of their own.”

Not surprisingly, some members of the U.S. Congress are talking about cutting off the $1.3 billion in aid the U.S. gives Egypt’s army if these Americans are actually thrown in prison. Hold off on that. We have to be patient and see this for what, one hopes, it really is: Fayza’s last dance. It is elements of the old regime playing the last cards they have to both undermine the true democratic forces in Egypt and to save themselves by posing as protectors of Egypt’s honor.

Egyptians deserve better than this crowd, which is squandering Egypt’s dwindling resources at a critical time and diverting attention from the real challenge facing the country: giving Egypt’s young people what they so clearly hunger for — a real voice in their own future and the educational tools they need to succeed in the modern world. That’s where lasting dignity comes from.

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