February 13, 2012
Egypt has marked the first anniversary of its uprising against the autocratic rule of President Hosni 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 10 nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, in December, and last month barred 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 19 Americans and numerous Egyptians associated with four NGOs on trial.
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 Republicanand 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 events, it takes some effort to remember the euphoria that greeted the Egyptian revolution a year ago. The uprising, powered among young people by social media, spread despite initial government repression, and Mubarak was forced to step down. A constitutional referendum was passed overwhelmingly in March.
World leaders were virtually unanimous in praising the revolution. President Barack Obamaspoke for many when he publicly welcomed the forces of change evident in many parts of the Arab world and urged activists, "Let's look at Egypt's example." On Feb. 15, 2011, theUnited States 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 long-standing 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 Islamists and militarists find themselves at loggerheads on many issues, both consider it in their interests to discredit Western democracy, and the United States in particular.
The Muslim Brotherhood, banned under the Mubarak regime, won 47 percent of the vote for the new Egyptian parliament during the elections in December and January. 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 attacks on 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 protesters and soldiers. Even the recent riot at a soccer match in which at least 74 people died 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. 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 cutoff should make both the Islamists and the military think twice.
Lilli Platt is director of the American Jewish Committee Long Island regional office.