Egypt’s military-led government said Sunday that it would put 19 Americans and two dozen others on trial in a politically charged criminal investigation into the foreign financing of nonprofit groups that has shaken the 30-year alliance between the United States and Egypt.
The decision raises tensions between the two allies to a new peak at a decisive moment in Egypt’s political transition after the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak a year ago. Angry protesters are battling security forces in the streets of the capital and other major cities. The economy is in urgent need of billions of dollars in foreign aid. And the military rulers are in the final stages of negotiations with the Islamists who dominate the new Parliament over the terms of a transfer of power that could set the country’s course for decades.
The criminal prosecution is a rebuke to Washington in the face of increasingly stern warnings to Egypt’s ruling generals from President Obama, cabinet officials and senior Congressional leaders that it could jeopardize $1.55 billion in expected American aid this year, including $1.3 billion for the military. But for Washington, revoking the aid would risk severing the tie that for three decades has bound the United States, Egypt and Israel in an uneasy alliance that is the cornerstone of the American-backed regional order.
Since protests began at Tahrir Square one year ago, the struggle for control of Egypt has frequently focused on the question of accountability through the country’s legal system. How this process has played out has been extremely revealing, at any given moment, of whose hand is on the great rudder of state.
Crowds in the square demanded that Hosni Mubarak, his sons, and his inner circle, be held to account. Egyptian prosecutors resisted these demands for a short while, but soon found that such resistance was politically unwise. And so, cases were developed and loudly touted, members of the Mubarak family were taken into custody, and the presentation of charges and evidence became a media spectacle.
Remarkably, these probes never reached into the upper echelons of the military—the backbone of Mubarak’s rule, and the hand that took control upon his departure. The dissonance was clear. Mubarak had begun to accumulate his immense wealth, Egyptians learned, during his service as a senior air-force general; in the Sadat era, as in the one that followed, nothing stopped military leaders from profiteering from defense contracts. But prosecutors were careful not to shine light in the military’s direction.
The Egyptian parliamentary elections marked the rise of seemingly moderate Muslim parties favoring a continuation of the neoliberal economic policies of the Mubarak era. But the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies were also intent from the outset on coddling the military’s leadership and on eliminating any threats to them. Now we are seeing the spotlight of accountability pointed toward the assistance programs of foreign governments and NGOs, who are accused of illegal meddling in Egyptian affairs. Under attack are the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute—two venerable, congressionally funded organizations linked to America’s two political parties, each with a solid record of accomplishment in the global struggle for democracy.
It may well be that Egyptian prosecutors (and more importantly, the Egyptian military) believe that organizations dedicated to promoting democracy are actually working to overthrow the Egyptian state in the interests of some foreign power. Similar allegations were widely disseminated during the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan, the Rose Revolution in Georgia, and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. Throughout the Arab Spring, affected governments similarly whispered that the opposition had been instigated by some shadowy foe—be it Al Qaeda, Israel, or the United States. Placing the blame for domestic problems on the unseen hand of a foreign foe is an ancient and sometimes effective strategy for a government in extremis.
The developments in Egypt parallel the past nine years in Turkey. First, conservative Islamic parties committed to a market economy come to power in parliament. Early on, they focus on consolidating their political power and extending it to the quiet precincts of the inner state. To this end, they pursue accommodation with the military.
The Egyptian military leadership is revered as the country’s backbone and a key socializing force, much like the Kemalist military in Turkey. Egypt’s military, however, is suspected of the same profound corruption that infected every other power center of the Mubarak state. The Muslim Brotherhood’s decision to reconcile with the military, rather than to investigate it, is one of political expediency—it is following the Turkish example of inserting itself into other power structures in order to fully control the state. And so, it is uniting with the military to target common enemies.
At the top of the list are advocates of a modern multi-party democracy with less religious rhetoric in its political discourse, as well as those who press for the remaining vestiges of the old kleptocracy to be brought to account. The crackdown on NGOs was perhaps predictable, considering the country’s realignment of power; similar charges against foundations that promote democracy and human rights have emanated from Istanbul and Ankara for the past twenty years.
Whether they occur in Egypt, Turkey, Russia, Hungary, or Israel, attacks on NGOs, especially those focused on democracy advocacy and human rights, are the hallmark of illiberalism. In Egypt, they demonstrate how the revolution has run off course. And they show the country’s deep-seated suspicion of the United States. The Obama Administration is right to treat these developments with alarm. So should the Egyptians still protesting at Tahrir Square.