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Crisis in US-Egypt relations: the whys and whereofs

As the case against foreign NGOs opens in Cairo on Sunday Ahram Online tries to find an answer to why SCAF picked a fight with the US at this time, and where the crisis in Egypt-US ties may lead to

Ahmed Eleiba, Saturday 25 Feb 2012
Egypt military raids NGO
Egyptian military stand guard as officials raid a non-governmental organization's offices in Cairo, Thursday, 29 December 2011. (Photo: AP)
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The case against 45 non-governmental organisation (NGO) workers opens on Sunday at the North Cairo criminal court. The workers – who include 19 Americans – face charges of illegally receiving foreign funds and working in Egypt without licensing.

After raids of several NGO offices in December by security forces, charges were brought against the 43 NGO workers in February.

International Cooperation Minister Fayza Abou El-Naga, who had earlier filed a report to the court, has refused to comment on the case saying that the issue is now in the hands of the presiding judges. Yousry Abou Shady, former chief inspector of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and who is currently involved in observing the case, spoke to Ahram Online of a meeting he had had with Abou El-Naga on Thursday.

Abou Shady, who also heads the Silent Majority group formed to give voice to those who oppose pro-revolution demonstrations, said he suspects that the case will be dealt with very strictly for several reasons. He suggested that this strict approach may be linked to the fact that the funds sent to the five NGOs currently under investigation have doubled following Egypt's January 25 revolution.

According to Abou Shady, this adds to suspicions that the clashes between security forces and demonstrators – such as those by the Cabinet buildings in December and the interior ministry earlier this month – were funded.

Similarly, military expert Safwat El-Zayat believes that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) holds the recently raided NGOs responsible for attacks made against the ruling military council as well as for pressure on the council for a swift transition of power.

Efforts to de-escalate the crisis on the part of the SCAF or through parliament are planned, but not until the investigations are complete, said Abou Shady. He added that visits of US officials, such as Chief of Staff Martin Dempsey and Senator John McCain, did not contribute constructively, describing the visits to have been "tainted by US arrogance."

However, it would have been better, according to Abou Shady, had the US been "informed about the violations which had taken place without the matter being made public." He pointed to previous instances where the military council had interfered to release Egyptian prisoners upon the request of the US.

He added, however, that the SCAF is now in a weaker position since the newly elected parliament has the right to review any such decisions.

Abou Shady met with the US ambassador to Egypt towards the start of the NGO crisis, saying that the US is wondering why now. Indeed, given that Abou El-Naga was the minister of International Cooperation under Mubarak, Abou Shady says the reasons for the sudden change in position regarding US NGOs in Egypt are unclear.

Egyptian activists and NGO workers have raised the same question. Ibrahim Nawar, founder of Arab Press Freedom Watch (APFW) that has a branch in Cairo, explained to Ahram Online that while APFW never received formal approval from any official body, it never received any disapprovals either, not even from security authorities.

According to Nawar, it was common under Mubarak that applications for licenses were not approved, but for the regime to tacitly allow the NGO to operate.

Nawar wondered why the SCAF has maintained Abou El-Naga as minister in the two consecutive governments formed after the ouster of Hosni Mubarak. Abou El-Naga is one of only two Mubarak-era ministers to survive in government until now. Nawar suggested that Abou El-Naga's staying power may be because she controls the keys to Egypt's funds and loans. If true, this would not be in the SCAF's benefit, Nawar said.

Abou Shady, on the other hand, said, "Funds entering the country were known and it was also known where they were being spent… we always sent letters to organisations demanding that they legalise their sources of funding."

Military expert Safwat El-Zayat told Ahram Online that the SCAF is alarmed by the fact that the country's aid is now being channeled into campaigns against the military council. He added that what he considers "most dangerous" is US mentions of the idea to open communication channels with low ranking military officers, describing such attempts as "completely unacceptable and also worrying."   

An informed military consultant, who wants to remain anonymous, says the issue is in the hands of the US administration. Even if Congress has a particular stand on the issue, the White House has the authority to send back the file to Congress to re-inspect the case, because it considers it a national security issue, he said.

Blaming the media for fuelling the crisis, the source added "we should not consider this as a conflict regarding military aid." He added cryptically, however, that "this subject is now closed." He went on to explain: "this is a matter for governments; it is the prerogative of both SCAF and the White House."

Others however point to messages sent by the SCAF to the Muslim Brotherhood leaders and their political wing the Freedom and Justice Party, that point to a real military crisis. In these messages the military council has urged FJP Deputy Head and Head of Foreign Affairs Parliament Committee Essam El-Erian as well as FJP head Mohamed Morsi to make public statements linking US aid with the Camp David peace treaty with Israel.

Earlier this month, El-Erian said that any cut in US-aid would be seen as a breach in the terms of Camp David, giving Egypt the right to review its side of the treaty.

An FJP source confirmed to Ahram Online that a deal has indeed been struck between the party and the SCAF agreeing that the FJP will interfere to calm down the dispute over US aid. In return the SCAF would settle the dispute over the National Women Council, which the military council had earlier re-formed without consulting with the FJP or any other party.

The FJP source and Abou Shady both see a way out of the crisis through an agreement between the military council and Muslim Brotherhood- dominated parliament.

With US-aid apparently at risk, there have been a number of initiatives to addressing issues of aid. Salafist sheikh Mohamed Hassan, for instance, called on Egyptians to donate to a fund to replace US aid which he said is used to limit the autonomy of Egypt's government. Responding to this El-Zayat says "with all due respect to these initiatives and those managing them, this is not how the case can be handled."

While it was significant, he said, that LE60 million was raised in two days through a patriotically motivated initiative, "such initiatives cannot buy weapons and Egypt would not be able to obtain weapons if it broke from Washington. Although this is not likely to happen, the importance of the aid is being belittled." Similarly, military expert Adel Soliman told Ahram Online "we can gather national aid to buy wheat but buying weapons is a different issue." 

El-Zayat explained that after Dempsey and McCain's visits, head of the military council, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi had met with Mourad Mowafy, Director General of Egypt's Intelligence, and Egypt's prime minister. In these meetings, El-Zayat said, Tantawi demanded that public statements on US aid and relations with Washington are toned down.

Since September 2011 and as a result of the recent dispute, the US has started following a new policy which demands guarantees from Congress, the US Foreign Ministry and the CIA regarding Egypt's human rights situation, the roadmap for the transition of power and Egypt's relation to Israel.

Creating a patriotic case serves the interests of the military in more than one way: being seen to defy Washington will garner the military council support to make up for the ways in which its image has been tarnished in the previous months.

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