Egypt has marked the first anniversary of its uprising against the autocratic rule of President Mubarak by declaring war on U.S.-based nonprofit organizations that work to spread democracy. The transformation of Egypt’s “Arab Spring” into a new form of repression should concern all who cherish democratic values and human rights.
Police raided the Cairo offices of ten NGOs in December, and the next month banned their foreign employees—including the son of the U.S. secretary of transportation—from leaving the country. The government has now announced it will put on trial 19 Americans and numerous Egyptians associated with four NGOs. They are charged with operating without official permission, gathering information for the United States, and interfering in Egyptian politics in the interest of outside parties. Several of the Americans have taken refuge in the U.S. embassy; but most, thankfully, have managed to leave Egypt. The fate of the Egyptians employed by the NGOs remains uncertain.
Two of the targeted organizations, associated with the American Republican and Democratic parties, teach the techniques of democracy; another, Freedom House, trains young activists; and the fourth, the International Center for Journalists, provides guidance on operating a free press. All deny the charges and insist that they have operated in conformity with the law of the land.
In light of these recent events it takes some effort today to remember the euphoria that greeted the Egyptian revolution a year ago. Anti-government demonstrations, which began on January 25, 2011, were met with brutal government repression; hundreds were killed and thousands wounded. But the uprising, powered among young people by social media, spread, and President Mubarak was forced to step down on February 11. A constitutional referendum was passed overwhelmingly on March 19.
World leaders were virtually unanimous in praising the revolution. President Obama spoke for many when he publicly welcomed the forces of change evident in many parts of the Arab world and urged their activists, “Let’s look at Egypt’s example.” On February 15, 2011, the U.S. announced it was giving $150 million to Egypt to ease its transition to democracy, and a month later Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Egypt to reaffirm the longstanding ties between the two countries.
But two forces have derailed Egypt’s democratization, one the Islamist predilections of the Egyptian electorate, and the other the continuing role of the country’s military. While they find themselves at loggerheads on many issues, both Islamists and militarists consider it in their interests to discredit Western democracy, and the U.S. in particular.
The Muslim Brotherhood, banned under the Mubarak regime, won 47 percent of the vote for the new Egyptian parliament, and, together with other parties that share its commitment to making Islamic sharia law the basis of the new constitutional system, controls a solid majority. For the Islamists who are poised to run the new Egypt, Western democracy, with its protection of the rights of individuals and minorities, is anathema—as evidenced by the treatment accorded the Coptic Christians—and American NGOs are seen as subversive.
The Egyptian military, which kept Mubarak in power for so long, is distrusted by the people who made the revolution, an antagonism enhanced by each new incident of violence between protestors and soldiers. Even the recent riot at a soccer match that killed at least 74 people and injured many more was largely blamed on the military. It therefore serves the purpose of the generals to ascribe all such internal unrest to outside elements. And who better than Americans touting democracy, widely perceived as enemies of Islam, to play the role of scapegoat?
The anti-NGO crackdown, a symptom of a deeper anti-Americanism that, tragically, appears likely to abort the promise of Egyptian democracy, demands urgent attention and firm response. The U.S. currently supplies $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt, support originally granted on the understanding that Egypt is an American ally. Congress must make it clear that continuing this aid is dependent on Egyptian behavior. The threat of a cut-off should make both the Islamists and the military think twice.