Egypt’s NGO Crisis: How Will U.S. Aid Play in the Controversy?
By Abigail Hauslohner / Cairo
Was this the tell-tale evidence? Egyptian authorities say they found maps in the offices of raided pro-democracy NGOs, the country’s Justice Ministry told reporters on Wednesday. Maps that divided Egypt into zones. Maps containing English writing. “We found a number of maps scribbled on in English and divided in to four parts,” one of the investigating judges, Sameh Abou Zaid, told reporters at a press conference. “However these are still being investigated.” The potentially incriminating evidence cited by the Egyptian Justice Ministry in the quickly escalating criminal prosecution of 19 Americans and 24 other foreign and local NGO workers might sound laughable by American justice standards. But it’s not a laughing matter in Egypt. It’s quite serious when it comes to the future of one of the United States’ most important bilateral relationships in the Middle East.

The Egyptian government’s ongoing crackdown on 10 NGOs — including prominent Washington based democracy promotion groups Freedom House, the International Republican Institute (IRI), and the National Democratic Institute (NDI) — has angered U.S. lawmakers and is threatening to undermine a decades-long partnership with the Arab world’s largest country, involving billions of dollars in American aid.

For Egypt’s ruling generals, however, the diplomatic contretemps may not quite be a smartly calculated move in international chess; it is more likely to be domestic propaganda gone awry. “If we assume that they are well-organized and clever tacticians, then it is really hard to understand what they’re doing. But that might not be the case,” says Michelle Dunne, a Middle East expert at the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank. “I really think they might have gotten themselves into a situation that has become more of a confrontation with the United States than they perhaps anticipated.”

Egyptian authorities raided the 10 NGOs last month. But the crackdown began in the chaotic aftermath of President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster. Faiza Aboul Nega, the minister who coordinates international aid and a Mubarak holdover, began to raise suspicions about foreign funding — and particularly American funding — of NGOs in Egypt. She encouraged state media to publish lists of activist groups and NGOs that had received U.S. funding, igniting a popular witch hunt that even affected young liberal groups like the April 6th Youth Movement that had briefly enjoyed some popularity for leading the anti-regime uprising. Within months, Dunne says, the media campaign had snowballed. “It really started to spin up, until it became an official government investigation,” she says. “And by the fall of last year it had really taken on a bureaucratic life of its own.”

The Ministry of Justice launched a formal investigation into organizations — both Egyptian and American — that it alleged had received U.S. funding late last year. It searched bank accounts, ramped up the rhetoric, and on Dec. 29th, raided the NGO offices in the most aggressive attack on U.S. interests in Egypt in decades. On Feb. 5th, the government announced that 43 people, including Sam LaHood, the head of IRI and the son of Obama’s Transportation Secretary, had been placed on a no-fly list, pending trial. Some of the Americans have taken refuge at the U.S. Embassy. And on Wednesday, investigating judge Sameh Abu Ziad told reporters that investigators had he collected 160 pages of evidence so far. “There is a lot of evidence, some of it dangerous,” he said. He cited findings that one of the NGOs under investigation had sought to launch an online page that identifies the location of certain churches, as well as army units. It’s unclear why that activity would be considered illegal, but the charge is consistent with a broader conspiracy theory propagated by the military-led regime over the past year that “foreign hands” are seeking to destabilize the country. Responding to the mounting crisis, Army General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is set to travel to Egypt later this week to push for the charges to be dropped.

The timing of all this is critical. In December, Congress decided on a new set of conditions for the Egyptian military’s $1.3 billion annual aid package, and Egypt so far isn’t meeting them. The conditions include demonstrating a commitment to Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, progress toward democratic reforms, and the protection of free expression, association and religion. “Right now, they’re meeting one of the conditions; there’s a big question mark over the second one; and they’re definitely violating the third,” says Dunne. That leaves the U.S. government with little choice when it comes to ratifying the 2012 aid package, which is set to start flowing soon.

The conditions can be waived for national security concerns, and that may be one thing that the Egyptian government is banking on while it looks for domestic ways to save face. Last week, even as the crisis escalated in public, some developments appeared to hint that the government was still looking to extricate itself from the mess. Even after several defendants had already learned of their position on the no-fly list, an internal memo circulated by NDI said that the Egyptian government was still — paradoxically — proceeding with protocol to renew the group’s operating license, a source close to NDI told TIME.

Most likely, Egypt may be gambling that the United States will simply prove unwilling to jeopardize the two countries’ strategic alliance — ensured by its unfaltering $2 billion annual aid commitment — no matter the cost. “Minister Aboul Nega is convinced that because of the importance of Egypt, if they just hang tough, they’re going to get this,” says Dunne. “I don’t think that’s going to work.”

Here’s why: The subject of Egypt’s aid package has periodically erupted into Congressional debate in the past, but this time the Americans are furious. And if Egypt’s generals get away with the NGO crackdown and the political humiliation of its biggest foreign benefactor, it’s going to set a dangerous precedent for other regimes testing the waters of democracy. Then for U.S. policymakers and indeed, an increasing number of Egyptians, there’s also the question of whether Egypt really needs the money. Egypt’s economy is on the rocks and certainly could benefit from the roughly $250 million in non-military aid. But Egyptian liberals and youth activists who have taken to the streets increasingly in recent months to protest military rule say the powerful apparatus left behind by Mubarak doesn’t need any more help from the United States.

There’s also the oft-neglected question of what all that military aid — more than $30 billion since 1987 — has really guaranteed. In recent years, the aid has facilitated U.S. military use of Egyptian air space and the Suez Canal — critical, perhaps, during U.S. operations in Iraq, but less so now. Officials in Washington argue that the aid has functioned largely as a guarantor of Egypt’s upkeep of its peace treaty with Israel, something conservative lawmakers warn that Egypt’s newly elected Islamist parliament could prove less willing to uphold without conditions-free aid.

But many experts, including the man who brokered the treaty, say the aid has nothing to do with it, and Egypt will uphold the treaty regardless, and that it can’t cut off access to the Suez Canal. “The peace treaty that I helped negotiate between Israel and Egypt is so precious and so beneficial to Egypt [that] to renounce it and to take a chance on going back to war with Israel — as they did four times in the 25 years before I became president — is almost inconceivable,” former U.S. President Jimmy Carter told TIME when he visited Egypt last month.

Of course, given the Egyptian military’s leadership track record over the past year — which, according to Dunne, has followed “a general pattern of poor judgment and mismanagement” — there’s always room for disaster. But as many Egyptians and U.S. policy makers are pointing out, so much money funneled over the past 30 years into a dictator’s military hasn’t bought a whole lot either.

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