The unraveling prosecution of pro-democracy NGOs in Egypt is threatening to blow up in the face of the authorities, potentially threatening a vital infusion of funds from international financial institutions.
The ruling military appears to have finally realized that, as a European diplomat puts it, “If the political reform stalls, the pipeline might dry up.”
The government has also managed to dissipate much of the good will the transition initially inspired.
“The revolution was an incredibly inspiring moment that got players around the world very interested in trying to be good partners with the new spirit that was emerging,” said a high-ranking U.S. Embassy official in Cairo. “Despite the adverse budget situation we’re living in, this enthusiasm was able to secure extra resources for Egypt and other countries in the region.”
But the dispute has had the inadvertent benefit of revealing the anatomy of the country’s new body politic, analysts suggest, exposing the ruling military’s ineptitude, the resilience of former regime elements and the opportunist collusion of the resurgent Muslim Brotherhood.
“The Muslim Brotherhood, which continues to maintain strong links with the military rulers despite occasional tiffs, is at pains to further enhance its popularity among ordinary Egyptians who view this issue as a matter of dignity,” said analyst Sharif Mansour.
By attacking U.S.-based NGOs for what one observer calls “fairly bland meat-and-potatoes democracy work – teaching political groups how to run focus groups, craft messages, and conduct polling,” the ruling military and allied Mubarak holdovers sought to “use their allies in the media and the Islamist-dominated parliament to portray their critics as agents of foreign powers while projecting an image of themselves as the nation’s true patriots,” one account suggests.
“The ban was lifted on humanitarian grounds, but the bail is way too high,” defense lawyer Tharwat Abdel-Shaheed, who represents some of the defendants, told The Associated Press:
[He] said the seven Americans, including the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, could only leave the country if they post bail of 2 million Egyptian pounds (about $300,000). They have also signed pledges to attend their next hearing….
Abdel-Shaheed said that all four U.S. groups — the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, Freedom House and a group that trains journalists — have completed registration requirements set by Egyptian authorities, a process that could greatly weaken the case against them.
“We do not have confirmation that the travel ban has been lifted. We hope that it will be, and we will continue to work toward that,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told lawmakers on Capitol Hill today. “The reporting is encouraging but we have no confirmation.”
“We believe we will resolve this issue concerning our NGOs in the very near future,” she said earlier. “That is my best assessment sitting here today.”
The travel ban was lifted a day after the judges trying the case recused themselves, reportedly due to their “unease” about the case.
“The judges legally have the right to withdraw without giving a reason,” said Abdel-Karim al-Kordy, one of the defense lawyers. “What the reason is behind this, we don’t know.”
Though an appeals court may quickly reassign the case to another judge, many speculated that the recusal could provide Egyptian authorities with an excuse to drop the matter, or at least delay it.
Under Egyptian law, a judge may recuse himself without disclosing the reasons, which could range from having a familial relationship to one of the defendants to feeling he cannot adequately adjudicate the case because of its political nature. Mr Kordy said that a judge could also recuse himself if he felt the case had no merit.
“The final resolution of the case….will be seen by some as a climb down by the generals in the face of U.S. pressure,” reports suggest:
The suspicion of foreigners among some Egyptians was exploited by the generals against the small but vibrant segment of the population opposed to their rule.
Curiously, the crisis erupted while the military — the Egyptian institution that benefited the most from the close ties with Washington — was at the helm. That prompted many to speculate that the generals may have all along intended to back down at the point where they believe they have harvested all possible domestic gains from the crisis.
Nonprofit, pro-democracy groups have trained thousands of young Egyptians in political activism and organizing, an education that played a key part in the success of last year’s uprising.
While the military and the Muslim Brotherhood have both insisted that they will not be “blackmailed” into halting the prosecution, the prospect of losing access to urgently-needed financial assistance is persuading them otherwise. But international actors want to see a commitment to genuine political reform before releasing funds.
“To support this process of democratization of the regimes, the G-8 said it will make additional money available,” said Marc Franco, a former E.U. ambassador to Egypt.
“But of course the financial assistance supports political reform,” he said. “If the political reform stalls, the pipeline might dry up.”
“Many of Egypt’s friends aren’t going to move until the I.M.F. loan is approved,” said Mohsin Khan, senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics and a former director of the Middle East and Central Asia department at the I.M.F. “And without it, Egypt is in big trouble. Every month the loan is delayed, Egypt’s needs for financing become that much larger.”
It’s true that she’s been seeking to bring the groups under her direct control for years, and played a hand in the temporary shutdowns of IRI and NDI in 2006. But Ms. Aboul Naga serves at the pleasure of Egypt’s ruling generals, and has no major independent political base of her own.
If this is the beginning of the end for the NGO trials, as seems likely, it will be the latest in a string of own goals for SCAF …. On the one hand, they’ve antagonized their most important aid donor for weeks, and created the biggest diplomatic crisis between the two countries since the 1970s. On the domestic front, it will appear they’ve caved to US financial pressure.
And the state-controlled media has insisted for weeks that Egypt won’t bow to foreign meddling in internal legal affairs, striking a popular nationalist note. The sizable proportion of Egyptians who agreed with Egyptian officials that the presence of the US NGOs was unseemly and illegal will now be disappointed with SCAF.