There is no better summary of how U.S.-Egyptian relations have changed than news stories reporting that "a number of Americans whom Egyptian authorities have been barred from leaving the country have sought refuge at the American Embassy in Cairo." They need refuge because they may well be arrested without this protection.
Barred from leaving the country? Refuge in a U.S. embassy, behind the Marine guards? Rather odd for a country that receives $1.3 billion a year in military aid. While Hosni Mubarak and his regime hated the American NGOs--principally Freedom House, the International Republican Institute for International Affairs, and the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs--for promoting human rights and democracy, under Mubarak matters never reached this point.
Two comments seem in order. The first is that the authorities, meaning the Foreign Ministry and Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), should have been given a deadline for resolving this problem when it arose on December 29. It has been over a month now, which is too long. Aid to Egypt should be frozen until these Americans can leave the country, and it should not be resumed until the materials taken from their offices are returned.
The second comment is that the person behind all these problems is clearly identifiable--and has been identified in the press. She is Fayza Aboul Naga, Minister of Planning and International Cooperation. She was appointed to this post by President Mubarak and has miraculously managed to hold on to it throughout Egypt’s year of turmoil. She is a one-woman wrecking crew when it comes to U.S.-Egypt relations, and the democracy NGOs have long been a particular obsession of hers. Consider this fifteen month old news item:
As part of an ongoing investigation into the funding sources of local NGOs, the Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation revealed on Sunday that 12 Egyptian NGOs had received $5.8 million, while 14 US NGOs operating in Egypt had received $47.8 million illegally, according to reports. In an official statement, Minister of International Cooperation Fayza Aboul Naga slammed the funding of NGOs that were not registered with the ministry or whose funding was not overseen by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “It is not enough for the [US embassy] to notify the Egyptian government of the NGOs were given funds and this does not justify the continuation of their activities, which must cease immediately,” said Aboul Naga, adding that Egypt does not reject foreign funds to NGOs as long as they are processed within the agreed upon legal framework. She also specified that these funds should only go towards development projects and that funding for political organizations, whether civil society or political parties, is completely illegal.
Arab Springs may come and go, Tahrir Square may become a global symbol for protests, President Mubarak may be in a cage in a Cairo courtroom, but Minister Aboul Naga does not permit such fleeting events to affect her distaste for democracy promotion. This kind of thinking has now led to a real crisis in bilateral relations. Perhaps the SCAF feels too weak these days to discipline her; perhaps her form of nationalism is now popular in Cairo. Those are Egyptian problems to solve, and as long as she remains true to form she will create more and more of them. Donors considering economic aid to Egypt, including the U.S. Congress, should realize that this assistance will pass through her hands.
Having created this crisis, perhaps she will now seek to solve it. We must wish her luck. I would give her until Friday and then advise the Government of Egypt that she will never again be granted a visa to visit the United States.
If Egypt gets away with banning our democracy NGOs and threatening to jail their staff, if officials who lead such actions are later given warm official receptions in Washington, those NGOs may as well close up show: every undemocratic regime will start treating them the same way. We need to stand up for them strongly--and now.