The Egyptian NGO Case: Politics and Diplomacy
by Ambassador (ret.) William A. Rugh, Ph.D.
For most Americans, the recent attacks on American non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working in Egypt have been puzzling and frustrating. From the American point of view the NGOs were only trying to help support that country’s efforts in the direction of democracy. But it is worth looking at what is going on behind the NGO controversy because it will give us some insights into where Egypt is today and where it may be going.
First, what are the main elements of the NGO story?
1. Charges against NGOs
Last December 29th, Egyptian police raided the Cairo offices of ten NGOs, including four American ones the National Democratic Institute (NDI), the International Republican Institute (IRI), Freedom House, and the International Center for Journalists. They confiscated documents and sealed the premises. Egyptian authorities charged sixteen Americans and twenty-seven other NGO staff with violating the law, and a judge imposed a travel ban on them. The authorities said that the NGOs had failed to register as NGOs, as required by Egyptian law, and that they had spent foreign money in Egypt without necessary permissions. Some of the Americans were not in Egypt at the time, but seven were ordered not to leave the country, and three of those took refuge in the American embassy to avoid arrest.
Reaction in Washington was surprise and indignation. The American NGOs have some U.S. government funding and high-level American support among members of Congress and other prominent American personalities. Senator John McCain is chair of IRI and Madeleine Albright is chair of NDI, and both boards include former and current members of congress. The IRI director in Egypt, Sam LaHood, a son of US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, was one of the Americans who was sheltered in the US embassy. Senior officials in the Obama administration criticized the Egyptian action against NGOs. Some voices on the Hill pointed out that Egypt receives more than $1.5 billion in financial assistance annually from the United States, and that Congress had instructed the Secretary of State to certify that Egypt was making progress toward democracy for that money to be released. Some suggested that assistance should be blocked because of the Egyptian move against NGOs.
Many other questions were raised about what had happened. Since $1.3 billion of the aid was for military assistance, why did the generals in the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the top governing authority in Egypt since the demise of President Mubarak one year earlier, allow this action to be taken against American institutions when it could jeopardize the US assistance the military presumably wanted very badly? Moreover, since the NGOs were only working to help promote Egyptian democracy that the Egyptian people themselves were obviously calling for with their revolution, why would the government not want that assistance? Ray LaHood told the press, “We simply support the democratic process; we do not pick winners and losers.”And why were they suddenly being targeted? They had been working in Egypt for years, and some had even participated in the 2011 parliamentary election as monitors, invited to do so by the authorities. There must be some mistake.
American diplomatic and private efforts went into high gear to try to resolve the problem. The US-Egyptian relationship has been a cornerstone of America’s Middle East policy for more than three decades, and is for U.S. interests arguably the most important country - next to Israel - in the entire region. The relationship has been fostered by the largest American assistance program in the world, after Israel, and by longstanding close personal ties between American and Egyptian officials. Those personal contacts, especially with Egyptian military leaders, were a crucial facilitating factor behind the scenes when the army presided over the departure of President Mubarak in February 2011. Thus when the NGO crisis erupted a year later, senior U.S. officials approached the generals in SCAF to help resolve it quickly, and Senator McCain flew to Cairo himself to make the case to them to lift the arrest order on Sam LaHood and the others.
2. Growing Criticism of America
Yet the crisis was not so easily resolved. Instead, voices in Egypt were heard that raised the stakes with inflammatory charges against the Americans. Faiza Abulnaga, the Egyptian Minister of International Cooperation, made public statements charging that the accused NGO personnel were actually working to undermine the Egyptian state. She claimed that the NGOs were trying to divert the Egyptian revolution to serve American and Israeli interests. Leading figures and the media echoed the accusations. Egypt’s leading daily newspaper, Al Ahram, published a front page story on February 12, 2012 with a banner headline: “Investigations Reveal Facts About Dividing Up Egypt (mukhattat taqsim masr).
The story reported details of the police investigation of the NGOs, and the headline referred to a map they found in an NGO with lines dividing Egypt into four quarters., which according to the paper proved that the United States wanted to divide Egypt into four separate countries for its own interests, as it had divided the Sudan in half. No evidence of such a plan was offered other than reports of the map, which was not published. The subhead said that the country would be cut into four states and added that there was an “Announcement About Files to Finance Religious Organizations”. The headline on the story’s full inside page promised details of the police report, and said that the police investigation into two American NGOs had discovered the transfer of $32 million to influence the parliamentary elections. Again, no evidence of that accusation was provided other than claims that the police had found suitcases full of cash at the NGO office.
Politicians and media pundits took up the charges. Thus the Shaikh of al Azhar, the Islamic world’s most respected leader, announced on February 16 that he supported the call for “Rejection of American Assistance”, and said he was establishing a “Fund for Dignity and Respect” (sanduq al ‘azza wa al kirama) to raise five hundred billion Egyptian Pounds from private sources so that the country would be independent of foreign influence. (Al Ahram, February 17, 2012). He indicated that it was an affront to Egypt’s dignity to accept foreign money and its people could get by perfectly well without it.
Such bravado raised eyebrows among Americans who knew that the Egyptian economy was suffering badly from the loss of foreign investment and tourism revenues, that foreign currency reserves were dwindling fast, reportedly down to one-third of the level under Mubarak. The government has maintained subsidies so food prices have not risen and this is a very important political measure. But serious import shortages could soon occur if something was not done, and Egypt would need foreign assistance to deal with the crisis. The Arab Gulf states had promised billions of dollars in aid after Mubarak fell but had delivered little of it, and Egypt seemed to exacerbate the problem by turning down an IMF loan in 2011.
3. Temporary relief
On February 26, the first session was held of the trial against the 43 NGO staff members accused of crimes. Some of the accused Egyptians showed up for the hearing but none of the Americans did; their attorneys said they had not been formally summoned. Then the three-judge panel suddenly resigned from the case and it was transferred to the appeals court. On February 29, the head of that court, Judge Abdel Moaz Ibrahim, announced that the travel ban on the suspects had been lifted. The four American NGOs posted a reportedly five million dollar bail bond for their staffs, and the next day, March 1st, six of the Americans, along with seven foreigners, left Egypt on a special plane brought in by the U.S. government.. One American chose to remain behind. Although the Egyptians said the Americans had signed statements that they would appear for the trial if summoned, it is entirely possible they will not go back.
The departure of the Americans promptly led to Egyptian public criticism of the judges and Egyptian authorities, including SCAF and Faiza Abulnaga. Judge Ibrahim came under fire from other judges for allegedly bowing to political pressure, which he denied. The generals in SCAF were accused of interfering in the judicial process, which they denied. Judge Magdi Abdul Bari, who had issued the order cancelling the travel ban, felt he had to defend himself by saying the charges amounted only to a misdemeanor - which did not require a travel ban- and anyway they were obligated to return for trial. Newly elected Speaker of Parliament Saad El Katatni said a judicial matter should not be resolved by political interference and scheduled hearings to look into the matter. Prime Minister Ganzouri, feeling the heat, felt obliged to declare that “Egypt will never kneel, will never submit, and will never change its stand on the issue of foreign funding.” He added that Egypt would “not yield to threats over the annual aid it receives from the US.”
The US government welcomed the decision to lift the travel ban and State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland tried to smooth over the relationship by saying, “Despite the recent strains and differences on certain issues, the fundamentals of this strategic relationship remain strong.” But she added, “We have continuing concerns that the NGOs issue be settled completely, ending up in the registration not only of our own NGOs but also of Egyptian NGOs.” With that last comment she was responding to remarks by Egyptian civil society leaders who had expressed fears that not only foreign but also local NGOs were going to be targeted by the regime.
After Senator McCain met with General Tantawi, the head of the ruling SCAF, McCain spoke optimistically about a solution to the problem, saying that SCAF was working diligently to resolve it. After the travel ban was lifted, when Fox News suggested to McCain that the Muslim Brotherhood was behind the NGO problem because some of their leaders had supported the crackdown, he disagreed, saying the Brotherhood was not responsible for it. This was interpreted by some in Egypt as saying the Brotherhood was helpful in the case, which Muslim Brotherhood leader Muhammad Iryan felt compelled to deny quickly. In fact, the Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice Party specifically criticized the lifting of the travel ban.
Even after the Egyptian court lifted the travel ban on the Americans and they had left the country, a diplomatic dilemma remained for the United States. The court case against the NGOs had not been resolved, and they were expected to return to the country for trial. If they do not return, and the trial goes forward, they would be in contempt of court and fugitives, leading certainly to more negative comment about the United States from Egyptians of all kinds. Moreover, because of the demand from Congress that the administration issue a finding that Egypt was making progress toward democracy before the annual assistance package was released, if the case was not solved, the Secretary of State would have decide whether to declare a delay or cancel the assistance package, or declare an exception to the finding on national security grounds. Either way the administration would be criticized: if she delayed or cancelled the assistance, Egyptians would complain that the U.S. was unfairly using aid to interfere in Egypt’s domestic affairs. But if she let the aid go forward, the administration would be open to criticism from Congress and others for pandering to the generals.
4. Deeper implications of the NGO case
The NGO incident may or may not be over but already it has revealed some of the dynamics of the current Egyptian political scene. It told us something about the behavior of the players in the Egyptian transition, the mood of the public, and has given us some clues as to where Egypt may be heading.
First, did the Americans break the law?
Egyptian law that has existed for decades, under Mubarak, and not changed since he stepped down, requires all NGOs to be licensed, and it requires them to obtain permission before spending foreign money in Egypt. The American NGOs in question had applied for such licenses but had begun operating without receiving them, because the practice over the years has been that unless specifically denied, they could assume that they were functioning legally. As the President of Freedom House has pointed out (Washington Post, March 11, 2012), Egyptian Law 84, passed in 2002 during the Mubarak era, specifically states that lack of denial of an application within 60 days constitutes acceptance of the organization as a legal entity.
The American NGOs therefore understandably assumed that they were protected even though they had no license. Moreover, when the Mubarak regime fell, the NGOs continued to follow that practice and the Egyptian government (SCAF, the prime minister, and the other ministers including Faiza Abulnaga) did not tell them to cease operations. In fact when the government invited them in 2011 to help monitor parliamentary elections they logically assumed that they were in good standing with the authorities. Thus the one Egyptian law that is being enforced now had not been enforced before, while law 84 was apparently being overridden or ignored.
Faiza Abulnaga has argued that the recent actions against the NGOs are “no different from those undertaken by U.S. law enforcement officials” (Washington Post, March 9, 2012). She is probably referring to our Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), first passed by Congress in 1938. The act requires anyone representing a foreign “principal”, meaning government or organization, must register with the Department of Justice. However, FARA requires no specific licensing, it requires only disclosure. And the few prosecutions of FARA violations have usually ended in fines if anything, but certainly not threats of jail time as in the recent Egyptian case.
Secondly, why did the Egyptian government choose to apply the law at this time?
Faiza Abulnaga claimed in her US oped that Washington’s announcement last June that the U.S government was providing $40 million to the NGOs, brought the matter to Cairo’s attention and when they looked into it they found violations of the law. That may be so, but the manner in which the Egyptian government responded to that finding was extraordinary, given the history of excellent Egyptian-American relations. The Egyptian authorities did not raise the matter with our embassy or with the NGOs but instead sent armed police into the NGO offices, confiscating materials and locking their doors. Then Minister Abulnaga made very strong public accusations not only against the NGOs but also against U.S. Government that funded them, accusing Washington of trying to harm Egypt. Egyptian authorities then released official reports raising claims that the NGOs, backed by the US government, were using bribes covertly and plotting to divide Egypt into four separate states. These were serious charges. Beyond that, Abulnaga’s accusation that this was an Israeli plot, and the media claim that the NGOs were targeting religious organizations, were especially incendiary in the Egyptian political context.
Abulnaga’s words were a deliberate attack on the United States and there has been considerable speculation as to her motivation. Since she has been in fairly senior positions in the Egyptian government for a long time, she is well known to U.S. officials as very tough and adversarial. American ambassadors have tangled with her in the past and not always won the contest. But in some ways she represents a part of the new public mood in Egypt that reflects how things have changed since the Mubarak regime fell and Egypt has restored its pride and self respect.
Under Mubarak, most Egyptians were afraid of their government and afraid to criticize Mubarak’s friends, like the United States. Today there is a much greater willingness to criticize authority, especially the Mubarak system and everything that went with it. Standing up to the United States and publicly rejecting American and any other foreign influence, is more fashionable now, and certainly more possible.
At the same time, critics of Abulnaga, including some American officials, have pointed out that she is a holdover from the Mubarak regime, and they tried to paint her as a retrograde influence, seeking to turn the clock back to an authoritarian era. It is true that she survived the uprising and stayed in her senior government post when Mubarak fell, while other senior officials were removed or even put in jail for colluding with Mubarak. But not all senior Mubarak officials have been purged. In fact, the SCAF generals and other leaders have discovered that in order to have the government function effectively, they cannot disqualify everyone who had any association with the Mubarak regime. Ministries must be managed by people who know their operations and how to get things done. Apparently Faiza Abulnaga was regarded as one of those people.
To be sure, some of the strongest proponents of revolutionary change in Egypt have raised loud complaints about holdovers (falool) and editorials regularly appear in the press warning against those who are trying to thwart the revolution. Some criticized Abulnaga for that. It is difficult to know her true motivation. But she may just be an opportunist who is taking advantage of the popular wave of xenophobia that has come with the uprising and allowed to be manifested because of the turmoil in Egypt. She may just be trying to ride that wave to enhance her own power inside the system.
Why did the action against NGOs receive media and other support?
Why did the press, political parties, some of the judges, and even the Shaikh of Al Azhar express support for the actions taken against the American NGOs? First, few Egyptians know anything about these NGOs. They work quietly, cooperating often with local Egyptian NGOs, and they do not seek or get much media attention for the work they do. They apparently assumed that they would be welcomed in Egypt as the system was opening up and everyone was talking about developing a democratic system, which they were eager to help with. When the authorities shut them down and accused them of breaking the law and worse the public had no way to hear the NGOs’ side of the story, that they were only in Egypt to be helpful to the Egyptian people.
The political party representatives who spoke out on the matter also knew little about NGOs other than what they heard from the government, and since the official rhetoric put the case in terms of national pride and rejection of unwanted foreign influence, it was easy for them to applaud the action. The Shaikh of al Azhar, who under Mubarak might probably have checked with the president’s office first for advice on what to say, must have seen no reason not to join the chorus of those who supported the condemnation of the NGOs. Most of the media, although now headed by new chief editors, were still staffed by reporters who had been trained in the Mubarak era, and simply took the story from the government and ran with it, not bothering to do any investigative reporting to find out the American NGOs’ side of the story.
There were a few exceptions. Saad Eddin Ibrahim, Egypt’s most outspoken and courageous critic of Mubarak during the Mubarak era, who suffered in prison and then went into exile, returned to Cairo when Mubarak fell and began writing regular opeds in Egyptian newspapers. He used his columns to criticize Faiza Abulnaga sharply and defend the NGOs. But other writers and the public mood seemed to accept her allegations against the NGOs uncritically.
But what about the generals?
Why did they not step in to prevent the US-Egyptian crisis over NGOs? To understand that, it is important to remember that the SCAF, despite its legal authority as the highest political body in the land, does not have the actual power that President Mubarak had as president. They succeeded him, but they did not inherit any of the real levers of power he had developed over the years. Mubarak not only controlled the security services and appointed the prime minister, but he also completely dominated the parliament through his National Democratic Party which controlled the vast majority of seats; he appointed the heads of all major media outlets, including not only radio and television but the leading newspapers; he appointed the Shaikh of al Azhar and the university presidents; and he influenced many of the judges. The SCAF generals did not inherit any of this defacto power.
Moreover, the generals in SCAF assumed power on a temporary basis, and have consistently said that they would only keep that authority during a transition to democracy, with a new parliament and a new president. In February 2011 they were riding very high in popular esteem. The Egyptian army has long been respected by the public, in contrast to the police and other security forces that have been feared and hated for their corruption and brutality. The army deployed in Tahrir Square during the uprising provided a calming presence without the use of violence, and when the generals worked behind the scenes to ease Mubarak out of office in a peaceful transition, this only increased their prestige. Yet in the thirteen months since then, because they have been the highest governing authority in the country, they have been increasingly blamed for a variety of problems because they were “in charge”.
Street crime has increased, for example, and the generals have been blamed for not stopping it, although they explain that the army is trained to fight wars and defend the country’s borders, not to police the streets. The fundamental problem is the lack of a properly trained police force. At the time of the 2011 uprising, when angry mobs attacked the police and burned down police stations, many policemen fled and did not return. Many police now on the job simply stand by when crimes take place because they have been cowed by public anger and they are poorly trained. Coptic Christians are especially concerned because some crimes and threats have targeted them. The government has failed to undertake a significant effort to recruit new policemen and train them in proper law enforcement that is respectful and uncorrupt. The generals did assign several hundred army recruits to police duty as a stopgap measure but that is not nearly enough. Many Egyptians today believe that crime has become a big problem, and they will tell you stories of people they know who were mugged or robbed, and the American press has reported on this (Washington Post March 14). But as one Egyptian-American long time resident in Cairo told me, the Egyptians notice street crime now because it was essentially zero under Mubarak; this observer said it is still at a level lower than any big American city.
The generals have tried to govern but it has not been easy. When they tried to set a parliamentary election date, the liberals said it was too early because they needed time to prepare, so the generals postponed it more than once. The Muslim Brotherhood and others have increasingly complained about various matters, such as military trials that the army held for civilian lawbreakers. The regular gatherings in Tahrir Square that started with the simple demand in January 2011 that Mubarak should step down, continued after he left and turned increasingly against the SCAF as the group now officially in charge. SCAF started its own website and Facebook page to communicate better with the street, and SCAF generals have appeared from time to time in Tahrir Square to make their case, but the criticism continued.
Thus by the time the NGO issue arose, SCAF was in a somewhat weakened and defensive position, and looking to leave power in a few months. All indications are that they did not know advance that the government was going to shut down the American NGOs. It was apparently an action taken by Minister Faiza Abulnaga using her authority as Minister of International Cooperation. They knew that the matter was going to the judiciary, and they must have realized quickly that her action was popular, so they were disinclined for political reasons to take any hasty action to put a stop to it. They knew, of course, that the issue was starting to cause problems with the US relationship but because of domestic political circumstances they could not easily resolve it for the sake of that relationship. They heard members of Congress calling for a reexamination of the assistance package but they seemed not to be too concerned that it was really in jeopardy. One general told a visiting American that he was confident that President Obama would not allow the flow of aid to Egypt to stop. This seemed to be a serious overestimate of the president’s ability to override Congress. Yet to some analysts looking at the nature of the military aid package, the president would in fact be likely to do everything possible to keep it going because of the substantial benefit to the US economy: the aid pays for US military equipment built in the US, such as M1 Abrams tank manufactured in Ohio, an important state in the 2012 US presidential election.
The generals assured US officials and Senator McCain that the problem would be resolved, so they may well have in fact found some way to persuade the judges to lift the travel ban as a move that would remove the immediate irritant that had caused the greatest criticism by Congress. Still, when the crisis first arose, it is likely that the SCAF was not behind it originally and was embarrassed by the tension that it had caused with Washington. They did not need that additional problem. When they became aware of the problem they did not want to go out on a limb to confront it directly, but perhaps they helped find a way to defuse it, even temporarily.
What about the Egyptian judges?
They may have played the key role in easing the tension in the NGO case. Egyptians like to think of their judiciary as an institution that is traditionally independent of political pressure. But during the Mubarak era, there were clearly some judges who were prone to follow the wishes of the regime in their decisions, while there were others who showed independence from the regime. The case of the opposition figure Saad Eddin Ibrahim illustrates that there were both kinds of judges in the system. Ibrahim was convicted during the Mubarak era on trumped-up flimsy charges by one judge and went to jail, but later on appeal he was released, by a judge who was apparently not intimidated by Mubarak and ruled on fairness. Today, when trials occur, savvy analysts look closely at who is the presiding judge to try to predict whether the defendant will get a fair trial. For example in the current ongoing trial of President Mubarak, analysts believe the presiding judge is one of the independent ones so the case might be decided on its merits.
In the current NGO case, the first panel of three judges to hear the case promptly resigned from it, for reasons that are still unclear. Perhaps they regarded the charges as excessive, or they did not want to get involved in a case that had been hyped in public politically as one allegedly involving an American-Israeli-CIA attempt to harm Egypt. Then the appeals court judge lifted the travel ban on the accused, saying the offense did not rise to such a level of restriction. Perhaps he too realized that the government had gone too far. Yet at the same time, other judges have complained about the lifting of the travel ban, and accused the appeals court of bowing to what they assumed to be political pressure from Washington, somehow communicated to the judiciary. It now remains to be seen how the judges who have been handed this case will deal with it. Whatever they decide, they are likely to be accused, in Egypt’s current atmosphere of more open debate on these matters, of one sort of bias or another.
5. What’s next for Egypt?
It is very possible that the NGO matter and the US-Egyptian crisis that came with it may fade away soon and simply be forgotten, because the public and the political leaders have so much else on their minds. The two houses of parliament have been elected and are now sitting but nobody can be sure what direction they will take, especially since most of the members are new to politics and a majority of them are Islamists. The people will elect their new president by June and at that point the SCAF is supposed to cede power. The trial of Mubarak has been going on for months, and when the verdict is announced it could be a death sentence it will be a major event in Egypt’s political history. Meanwhile a committee is being established to write a new constitution; that work could be contentious and take up to six months. And urgent attention should be given by the government to the problems of the Egyptian economy and to the security situation. All of these major issues coming at once will probably push the NGO story off the front pages and out of focus for the public, but where do these other issues stand today?
Assessing the parliament.
The good news is that the process to create a democratically elected bicameral parliament has been conducted successfully. After Mubarak resigned, new political parties sprang up, and large numbers of Egyptians who had been totally apathetic and pessimistic about politics under Mubarak, became enthusiastic participants in the process because it was now open and allowed unrestricted involvement in politics for the first time in memory. Most party leaders sought to present their platforms as ecumenical and inclusive of multiple trends in society: the Coptic Christian billionaire businessman Naguib Suwairis formed the Free Egyptian Party that specifically appealed to Muslims (“If you are Christian, when you join me, bring three Muslims with you”), while the Muslim Brotherhood sought to attract Christians to its new Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). The series of elections came off in a manner that was peaceful and judged to be fair, which was a complete change from the blatantly rigged process under Mubarak.
The elections brought to the two houses of parliament, the People’s Assembly and Shura Council, majorities of Islamists representing mostly the Muslim Brotherhood in the FJP and the more orthodox Salafis in the al Noor Party. Success by the FJP was expected but the strong showing by the Salafists was a surprise. The Islamists benefitted from their superior organizational abilities around the country and the organizational weakness of the secular parties. The Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists are known and respected for their social services on the local level, and that helped the Islamists at election time. But the voting also reflected a strong sense in the electorate that the Islamist parties represented a feeling that Egypt needed leaders who were not corrupt, after decades of corruption by Mubarak and his cronies. It also reflected the fact that the vast majority of Egyptians consider themselves devout Muslims, and say in polls that Islam is important in their daily lives.
This does not mean that they necessarily want the newly elected parliament to pass strict “Islamic” laws such as a ban on alcohol or rigid restrictions on dress for women. (Egyptians analysts suspect that some of the Salafists are Egyptians who worked in Saudi Arabia and came back home with such ideas.) Most Egyptians do not want Egypt to become like Iran or even Saudi Arabia; they simply want an honest, uncorrupt government that provides basic services to the people.
It is not clear whether the two major Islamist parties in parliament, the Brotherhood’s FJP, which holds more than 40% of the seats, and the Salafists’ al Noor, which holds more than 20% of the seats, will work together. They may join to form a governing coalition, but they also may have trouble working together because they are rivals. The Muslim Brotherhood has had years of experience working within the political system, mostly as “independents” in Mubarak’s parliaments, and they are more familiar with parliamentary practices than are the Salafis, who stayed out of politics in the Mubarak era, and are more purely ideological.
In one of the early sessions of the new People’s Assembly, in February, a Salafist al Noor MP stood up from his seat at three in the afternoon and declared that it was prayer time and everyone should go to pray. The delegate presiding in the chair, also an Islamist but from the FJP, gaveled him down, saying he was out of order. The Salafist shouted his insistence that everyone had to go immediately to pray. The chairman calmly responded by saying that the Prophet Muhammad had allowed the faithful to delay their prayer if they were in the middle of an important activity, so the session would not be interrupted. The Salafist MP stormed out of the hall with his colleagues, complaining about the ruling.
A member of parliament I spoke with recently in Cairo, who was elected on a liberal platform, told me that early sessions of the people’s assembly have been pretty chaotic and unruly, since most of the members are new to the process and have not yet gotten themselves organized to conduct legislative business. He says there are some discussions across the aisle between Islamists and secularists, but most of these are based on previous personal friendships, rather than new alliances, which have not yet been formed. Members of parliament are slowly learning the legislative process, and it will probably take time before they are fully functional.
The presidency is the next institution to be filled, and the campaign for that office has just begun. If the race is close, there may need to be a runoff but in any case the winner is scheduled to be known by June 21st. At that point, it is likely that the SCAF will turn over formal authority as chief of state to the winner. The leading candidates are Amr Musa, who in the past was Mubarak’s Foreign Minister and more recently was Arab League Secretary General, and Abdal Mun’im Abdal Futuh, a former senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Abdal Futuh was expelled from the Brotherhood when he declared his intention to run for the presidency because the Brotherhood had said that it did not want to contest that office, so he may not automatically get the Islamist vote.
Musa is urbane and sophisticated, and well known to American diplomats and other Westerners, but contrary to some speculation in Western media, he is by no means a sure thing to win the contest. For one thing he is being criticized for his long association with Mubarak, although he later broke with Mubarak and gained some popularity in doing so. To my surprise, many secular Egyptians I have spoken with said they would not vote for Musa because he is an opportunist and they do not trust him, so they plan to vote for Abdal Futuh because he is honest and not corrupt. There are others in the race, including the ultra conservative Hazim Abu Ismail, but they are less well known and probably have little chance.
Writing a new constitution
The drafting of a new constitution is a task that is pending and has important political implications. The new parliament is now working to establish a committee of 100 people to do that task, and they have up to six months to accomplish it. Already there is a debate as to who should be on the committee. The FJP members of parliament proposed that 40 of the 100 be parliamentarians, with the remaining 60 selected as experts from institutions and civil society organizations outside. Members of Naguib Suwairis’ secular Free Egyptian Party, which did not do so well in the elections, say that only 30 should be MPs and 70 should come from outside because they want to diminish the influence of the Islamists who have a parliamentary majority.
Debates over the writing of the constitution will be another test of where the Egyptian political system is heading. Discussions could be contentious, and may present an opportunity to the Islamists to test the new power they have won in the parliamentary election. If the Islamists try to alter Article Two, for example, which says, “The principles of Islamic law are the chief source of legislation”, they may insist that Islam be designated as “the” source of legislation. That would set off a fight with the secularists.
The trial of Mubarak and his sons
The trial is another pending issue whose resolution could be politically explosive. The former president has been indicted for allegedly giving the order to fire on innocent civilians during the January-February 2011 uprising. The prosecutor has asked for the death penalty in this case, and many Egyptians believe he deserves to die. On the other hand, Egyptian legal experts tell me that no conclusive evidence has been presented that would lead to Mubarak’s conviction on that charge, and it now seems unlikely that he will get the death penalty. At the same time, Mubarak and his two sons, Gamal and Galaa, have been charged with corruption and they could be found guilty of that charge and sentenced to prison. In any case, whatever the verdicts, they will be historic and cause a public reaction. The Egyptians who are disappointed with it and will undoubtedly point fingers of blame at the judges and alleged manipulators behind the scenes, including whatever government is in office. It is probable that the generals in SCAF are hoping that they are no longer responsible for leading the country when the verdicts are handed down.
SCAF is likely to leave its current responsibilities in 2012.
There has been regular speculation that the generals in SCAF will renege on their promise to give up the authority they now have once the democratic institutions are in place. This speculation comes from a natural suspicion about rulers not being ever willing to give up power that is a legacy of the Mubarak era, and it comes from the fact that the Egyptian military has been a major player in the country’s politics since 1952. Moreover, the army wants to see Egypt remain stable, so the generals might become tempted to prolong their stay in power if some new threat to stability arose.
In addition, the army actually owns a large portion of the economy (estimates are over 30%) that it certainly wants to protect: if the parliament or the writers of the new constitution threatened to take that away, the SCAF might stay to protect those vested interests. Another red line is protecting the military budget from parliamentary scrutiny. But all the signs at this writing are that the SCAF will in fact withdraw from political power as soon as the new president is elected in June, although it is possible they may want to wait until the new constitution is drafted. The generals in any case do want the army to return to the barracks with its reputation intact.
Egypt’s economic problems
The economy will be daunting for whoever is in charge of the government in the coming months and years. By late June, eighteen months after the uprising that ousted Mubarak, Egypt should have a new president, a new prime minister and cabinet, and the new parliament will be ready to pass new legislation. With those political institutions established, the attention of the public will in all probability have to turn to Egypt’s increasingly serious economic situation. Insecurity has decimated the tourism industry that is vital to Egypt, and has scared away most foreign direct investment. Promised funding from other Arab states has not been fully delivered; in 2011, for example, the Saudi government promised $3.75 billion but so far has only delivered $500 million. (Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al Faisal said recently the rest of the money would be coming soon but that has not happened yet.) America’s $1.5 billion is for the moment still in question. Egypt rejected an IMF loan of $3 billion in 2011 and is negotiating a new one now but that deal is not done. The government has managed to keep food prices from rising, but if it is not able to continue that policy, there would be political consequences. And worker strikes for higher wages are continuing. Economic problems are just some of the challenges for the new leaders, when they take office.
The NGO incident may or may not be over, but it has served to bring to light some of the characteristics of Egyptian politics today.
First of all, the Egyptian domestic political system has already changed very substantially and that is not likely to be reversed. It was tightly controlled from the top and sclerotic under Mubarak, but now it has opened up considerably. Parties, the media and individuals are freer than ever. But Egypt is still in transition after the uprising a year ago that ousted President Mubarak, because not all of the new institutions that are foreseen have yet been put in place or are fully operating. Yet the trajectory so far has shown some positive signs: a new parliament has been elected in fair and a relatively peaceful process, new political parties have emerged, and most importantly, the public has shown unprecedented enthusiasm to participate in politics. That is all new, and contrasts sharply with what took place during the Mubarak era. Moreover, the new system so far has been one of disbursed political power, in that even the SCAF that is carrying out the formal and legal authority of a head of state has nowhere near the power that Mubarak had exercised behind a facade of a sham democracy.
Secondly, the pride most Egyptians feel about the way their youth and their army behaved in removing President Mubarak, and the sense of national renewal as they try to transition into a truly democratic system, has come with a certain amount xenophobia about foreign interference in Egyptian internal affairs. That xenophobia has always been present below the surface but repressed by Mubarak’s heavy-handed control over the media and public discourse. By the same token, the Egyptians who harbored deep resentments for years against Mubarak’s rule also resented his close association with the United States and believed he followed Washington’s wishes on various policy issues like Israel/Palestine and the Iraq war So when he was overthrown their criticism of US influence over Egypt merged. Although Egyptians are not focused very much on foreign policy issues because so much is going on domestically, it is clear that resentment of foreign influence is an element in the current political scene in that country.
Third, it is clear that the Islamists will play an important role in Egyptian governance at least in the near future, but it is too early to predict exactly how they will carry out that mandate. Every indication so far, however, is that the Islamists who ran for parliament are not likely to move quickly to change society according to strict religious principles, but that they recognize and respect the longstanding traditions of the country. And if Abdal Mun’im Abdal Fatuh, a former senior Muslim Brotherhood official, wins the presidency, he too is unlikely to try to change Egyptian society radically.
Fourth, once the political transition settles down, with not only a functioning parliament but also a new president and new constitution, Egypt’s leaders will have to turn to fundamental problems of how to revive the economy that has been set back by the insecurities of the transition period. They will have to deal with other issues such as public safety and the creation of a new police force. And they will have to decide how they want to deal with other countries. The NGO incident revealed a side of Egypt’s new-found pride – which has many positive aspects – that can turn into an unhelpful discourse that demonizes foreign organizations that intend to be helpful to the Egyptian people.
The latent distrust of governments and their foreign allies is a legacy of the Mubarak era that the Egyptian leadership must overcome if it is to have constructive relations abroad. It is likely that, because the space for public discourse has opened up since the uprising, there will be more criticism of the United States and of its policies, and more criticism of Israel, emanating from various sources in the country. This will not lead to an abrogation of the treaty with Israel or a serious break with the United States, but it will probably increase the level of rhetoric.
American policy in this situation, during Egypt’s transition period, needs to be sensitive to the new currents that have been unleashed by the uprising and the more open environment that has been created during the past year. The United States has very significant interests in its relationship with Egypt, and Washington can nurture that relationship if it is open to new ways of thinking about a country whose political system had changed very little over the past four decades, but is now different.
It is wise that U.S. officials have opened a dialogue with Egyptian Islamists, the very people Mubarak did not want us to talk to, but who are now in key positions on the new political scene. Washington should push back against attempts to demonize our NGOs, but work with the Egyptian government to find ways to provide economic and other assistance that is welcomed rather than resented by the Egyptian public. Although American democracy is generally admired, if Americans are not culturally sensitive and careful when they try to advise Egyptians on how to change their system, their efforts will be resented. Yet Americans in the government and in the private sector should continue to maintain and expand their personal relations with Egyptians on all levels, from army generals to educators and students, so that a relationship that has been productive is maintained regardless of the changes that are taking place in Egypt.