Free the ‘Cairo 19’
CNN’s Global Public Square blog
By Will Marshall
With deadly soccer riots, popular unrest and a tricky political transition to manage, you’d think that Egypt’s military rulers would have enough on their hands without provoking a confrontation with the United States. Evidently not.
Everyone knows the generals call the shots in Egypt, but they profess to be powerless to stop Egypt’s courts for trying 19 Americans on trumped up charges of funneling “foreign funding” to anti-government protestors. This outrage demands a calm but resolute response from President Obama. While avoiding public statements that further inflame Egyptian nationalism, Obama should quietly make it clear to the Supreme Military Council that persisting in this folly will lead to a cut-off of U.S. aid.
The crisis began in late December, when Egyptian authorities raided the offices of nine nongovernmental groups, including the U.S.-based National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute and Freedom House. These organizations operate around the world to assist local activists and civil society groups working for greater political and economic freedom. (Full disclosure: I’m on the board of the National Endowment for Democracy, which oversees the first two groups).
Having operated for years in Egypt under the Mubarak dictatorship, these groups now find themselves accused (in the media at least; no formal charges have been filed) of failing to register with the government and taking foreign funding. In fact, they have tried to register but got no response from Egypt’s infamously torpid bureaucracy.
The raids apparently came at the instigation of Fayza Abul Naga, minister for international cooperation and a Mubarak regime holdover. Echoing official media claims that the groups are fomenting protests, she accused them of plotting to “destabilize Egypt.” Altogether 43 NGO workers, including the 19 Americans, have been forbidden to leave the country, creating the impression of a quasi-judicial hostage-taking.
Why has Egypt’s supposedly pro-American military endorsed this farce? One answer is that government’s action is popular, and the military would lose more by failing to defend Egypt’s “sovereignty” than by irritating Washington. Another is that the generals, no less addicted to conspiracy theorizing than other Egyptians, actually believes U.S. and European NGOs are stirring up popular unrest. Blaming domestic strife on foreign interference is an autocratic habit that dies hard in the Middle East.
Nationalism, paranoia, cynicism – whatever the junta’s motives, they don’t bode well for Egypt’s coming political transition. Moreover, the NGO probe is part of a broader crackdown on civil society around the non-democratic world and in some countries, like Russia and Turkey, which purport to be open and democratic. Russia’s Vladimir Putin has complained that U.S.-based NGOs are behind an unprecedented spate of mass demonstrations against his government, while Turkey has been jailing reporters for “insulting” government officials.
The Obama administration has pushed back against this wave of repression. In an important 2010 speech to the Community of Democracies in Cracow, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton won agreement for a broad set of principles defending the right of association of NGOs to cooperate across international borders. U.S. officials probably didn’t expect that policy to be put to the test in Egypt, especially after Mubarak’s fall, but it’s time to invoke it and bring international as well as U.S. pressure to bear on Cairo.
The generals’ gambit is a reminder that U.S. relations with Egypt are becoming a lot more complicated. For 30 years, the United States has cemented its close ties to Egypt with $1.5 billion a year in aid, most of which goes to the military. According to the Brookings Institution’s Shadi Hamid, the generals evidently view the aid as an entitlement, or a bribe intended to keep Egypt faithful to its peace treaty with Israel.
It’s time for the United States to disabuse the military council on both counts. In these straightened times, U.S. taxpayers are in no mood to subsidize a regime in Cairo that’s both unfriendly and undemocratic. Of course, we’d prefer that Egypt honor its peace treaty with Israel, not as a favor to us, but because nothing would do more to blight the promise of a new Egypt than a ruinous war.
America’s interests are best served by Egypt’s successful transition to political pluralism and representative government. The NGOs targeted by the government have been working closely with Egyptians on the ground to nurture this transition – by monitoring elections, setting up magazines and websites, helping parties get organized, supporting the rights of women and labor unions, defending freedom of expression and religion, and otherwise creating basic building blocks for a free and open society.
Freeing the Cairo 19 is just the first step. If Egypt won’t let them go back to work, they shouldn’t get American aid.
Will Marshall is the president and founder of the Progressive Policy Institute. Marshall serves on the board of the National Endowment for Democracy. The views expressed in this article are solely those of Will Marshall.