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PV Vivekanand: NGO affair sparks another crisis
March 04, 2012
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The departure from Egypt of seven Americans on trial over charges their pro-democracy groups fomented unrest and nine others might have eased a bit tensions between the administration of US President Barack Obama and the military rulers of Cairo.

However, the root cause for such crises remains very much in place. Egypt’s ruling generals, who took charge after long-time president Hosni Mubarak resigned in February last year in the face of a popular rebellion, are no different from the ousted regime. They do not want to accept the reality that the Egyptians want a democratic country where elected representatives of the people wield absolute legislative, executive and judicial power. The generals want no dissent against their decisions and no challenge to their privileged status that was granted to them by the three presidents who ruled the country following the overthrow of a monarchy in the 1950s. They do not want any local or foreign group to propagate democracy among the people by educating them on how democratic societies function and what their privileges and responsibilities are. They have seen how thousands of young Egyptians trained by the NGOs in political activism and organisational abilities led the Tahrir Square rebellion that brought down the Mubarak regime last year.

The records of first president Jamal Abdul Nasser and Anwar Sadat and Mubarak who followed him clearly show that none of them gave any attention to democracy beyond their need to consolidate their reign. If anything, the three – all of whom came from a military background – are also being accused of adopting policies designed to hold down the growth of democracy to the point that people had lost trust in elections.

The generals now in charge in Egypt come from the same mould as the ousted regime. They continue to believe that the military is the supreme authority in the country and should remain so for ever if only because it was officers from the armed forces who overthrew the monarchy in 1952.

It was their distaste for anything democratic that led to the latest spat. They were closely watching the work of the non-governmental organisations such as the International Republican Institute and other foreign groups. They were alarmed by the growth in democratic awareness among the people as a result of the NGOs’ works.

It is clear the generals were spurred by their fears that democratisation will come at their expense to move against the NGOs following a crackdown on pro-democracy and human rights groups.

That the generals were not ready for a diplomatic compromise and insisted on charging the foreign activists in a court of law before granting them bail (of $330,000 each) and allowing them to leave the country is indicative of the military rulers’ determination not to allow democracy take deep root in the country.

For some time, the generals behaved as if they could not care less if the US administration withheld the annual $1.5 billion aid for Egypt, mostly channelled to the military.  Clearly, Washington applied strong pressure on the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) in order to have the travel ban imposed on the activists lifted and the 16 allowed to leave the country.

International aid to Egypt is also at stake. The Egyptian government is negotiating a multi-billion-dollar line of credit with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). And discussions are also under way for low-interest loans from the World Bank, the African Development Bank, the European Union and the US and Japanese governments. These loans are contingent on approval for the IMF loan and then on progress in spheres like human rights, freedoms, elections and law and order.

“Existing loan programmes from international and regional organisations amount to about $10.8 billion,” said a recent report carried by the International Herald Tribune. “This is money that Egypt desperately needs, since the revolution and post-revolutionary violence have destroyed tourism – a key source of foreign currency – and stalled much of the economy, including the energy industry and agriculture.”

In a way, the NGO affair could be called an indicator of how the ruling generals of Egypt are thinking along the lines of the Iranian regime, which detains foreigners at the slightest pretext for some time before charging them but allowing them to fly out after granting them bail. But that is as far as it goes. The Egyptian military cannot and will not be a friend of the Iranian regime unless of course the Cairo generals want to be as internationally isolated as Iran itself.

The departure of the Americans from Egypt is not the end of the crisis. In fact, it has triggered a new one.

The Islamist-dominated parliament Egypt’s parliament wants to investigate and “hold accountable” anyone who intervened to allow the foreign activists to leave the country.

According to Speaker Saad Al Katatni, parliament would summon Prime Minister Kamal Al Ganzouri on March 11 to explain the decision and “hold accountable those responsible for this crime, which represented a blatant intervention in the affairs of Egypt’s judiciary.”

The key question is what upset the MPs most: the charges against the pro-democracy activists or that they were allowed to leave the country.

The foreign NGOs had dealings with all political parties in Egypt, including the Muslim Brotherhood and the more hardline Salafist party. But the Freedom and Justice Party of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafist Al Nur Party would have kept them at arm’s length because Western NGOs are always viewed with suspicion in Egypt (like in most other developing countries).

The other side of the equation is whether the MPs give more weight to the charge that the military-supported government intervened in the affairs of the judiciary. That seems to be the case, in view of the behind-the-scene tug-of-war between MPs and the military over the still unclear division of powers between the government and parliament.

In the meantime, a new court is scheduled to hear the NGO case on March 8. If convicted, the defendants could face up to five years in jail. Not that any of the Americans could be expected to return to Egypt to face trial.

Washington has said it still wanted the charges against the activists dismissed.

The generals cannot ignore the politics involved and ask the new court to drop the charges. But they cannot escape American pressure either, and the possible suspension of the annual aid and negotiations on loan programmes leading not only to further strains in the relationship but also a disastrous economic crisis.

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