Numerous news reports in the United States and in Egypt suggest that the American NGO workers who have been prevented from leaving the country may soon be allowed to travel. So would that be a happy ending, closing this unhappy chapter well?
Not so fast.
Perhaps the lure of American aid dollars finally led the Egyptian military, which is still running the country, to find a legal way of setting the young Americans free. We do not, however, yet know what their exact legal situation is. Perhaps they were forced to post bonds (or the U.S. Government posted them), and perhaps they are still regarded as criminal suspects in Egypt--meaning among other things that they cannot return there without great risk. We do not know if the criminal case against them has been dismissed.
What’s more, the government of Egypt has not said that promoting democracy and human rights is welcome, as it should be in any country seeking to build a democratic system, rather than considered to be a criminal offense. There is every reason to think that the kind of activity NGOs like the National Democratic Institute, International Republican Institute, and Freedom House do all over the world will still be prevented in Egypt. In fact, the situation of NGO staff may still be worse in Egypt 2012, "after the revolution," than it was under the Mubarak dictatorship.
If that turns out to be true, the Egyptian government should not be rewarded by a full renewal of our aid program. For the United States to say in effect "never mind" would be to declare open season on NGO activities and staff around the world. Before aid is given, we should wait to see what laws and practices Egypt will adopt. Why subsidize a system that criminalizes help for democracy?
I have no illusions about how effective the American groups are, or about whether their activities will have a major impact on Egypt’s political trajectory. But that only makes the campaign against them by the Mubarak hold-over Minister of International Cooperation Fayza Aboul Naga more sinister. She knows, as the Egyptian Army must know, that their impact is small, so the official action against them is a matter of principle. Fine: so must our reaction be.