The curtain has temporarily closed on the crisis of foreign funding of civil society organizations between Egypt and the United States after three months of hit and run attacks between the two countries.
Though the exchange of statements between U.S. and Egyptian officials emphasized the countries’ private allied relations and suggested that the foreign funding crisis would not greatly impact their strong relationship dating back to almost a half-century, it came down to a different point. For the first time since the Camp David treaty was signed, relations between Cairo and Washington have reached the point of being at "the edge of identity.”
Starting last June, the Egyptian government and the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) insisted on continued escalation of this political issue based on weak evidence. When the Minister of International Cooperation, Faiza Abu Al Naga, announced that the door of investigations into this matter would be opened, it became clear that this action was backed by political motivations. In the end, this action was clearly prompted by differences between the two governments, in addition to Egyptian domestic politics, which prompted the Egyptian side to expedite the issue and end it before the upcoming presidential elections.
Further aggravating the situation was the inexcusable strategic mistake of the U.S. administration, which ignored the issue when the investigation began in June 2011 until it was moved to the Criminal Court in February 2012. Consequently, the Military Council believed Washington was arrogant in its response to Egyptian threats, which suggested that Washington assumed Cairo would not dare take serious action regarding the violations of the American organizations accused in the case.
The U.S. administration must hold itself accountable for failing to interfere from the beginning to put an end to this farce. From the outset, the U.S. should have appointed a specialized legal team to assess the potential outcomes of the claims set forth by the Egyptian government, which were well known since the beginning of the investigation last June. Additionally, diplomatic efforts should have intensified behind closed doors with the goal of resolving the crisis.
The two U.S. Republican and Democratic institutions are also responsible for not taking the threats of the Egyptian government seriously. Instead of legalizing their activities to calm down the crisis, they acquired more funding, expanded their projects, opened interim offices in several governorates, and increased the number of their employees.
Ironically, staff members of both institutes, the Republican and Democratic, are experts on the methods used by the former Mubarak regime to harass civil society. Likewise, they are perfectly aware of how the Military Council has spared no effort to silence and respond to their opponents. From the start, the staff treated the investigations with naivety.
Senior staff members of both institutes testified before Congress, stating that the Supreme Commission for Elections called on them to monitor the electoral process, which indicated that the Military Council would not take any measures of escalation against them. However, to a large extent, this logic was superficial. While the U.S. organizations received this statement, at the same time, the commission of inquiry in the case received approval from the Central Bank of Egypt to disclose information from the Egyptian bank accounts of activists, civil society organizations, and employees of U.S. organizations. Specifically, they received access to all information concerning wire transfers from February to September 2011. American organizations deliberately overlooked this situation, which could expel them from Egypt possibly for years.
The reason for listing the errors of the United States, whether committed by U.S. organizations or the Obama administration, is to prove that ultimately, this was a political issue to settle internal and external matters. If the real purpose of the investigation was to apply Egyptian law, then the Egyptian government would have rather closed down the NGO offices and given them the chance to legalize their status.
On the other hand, if the goal of the Egyptian government (and its media) was to claim that these organizations sought subversive activities, then Egypt’s security and counter-espionage apparatus would have dealt with the situation and not left it to independent judges.
Since the crisis has reached this stage, while waiting for the pending trial, the process of U.S. support for democracy in Egypt has come to a dead end.
To re-open the door, the United States must reconsider its relationship in full with Egypt post-revolution and re-construct a clear strategy outlining the relationship, including support for democracy and the reinforcement of the Egyptian economy as its foundation. No factor can be isolated from the other.
Following Egypt’s presidential elections and the emergence, completion, and adoption of the new constitution, Washington should start opening a broad dialogue with the new constitutional institutions—the People's Assembly, the Presidency, and the Judiciary—prioritizing the next stage and what the United States can do to help re-build it.
By deepening relations with all of the constitutional institutions after the transfer of power, the United States can overcome its mistakes of the past four decades in confining its relationship with only the heads of the Egyptian regime.
In parallel with its dialogue with the constitutional institutions, Washington should publicly engage with Egyptian civil society organizations, concerning how to help and rebuild their capacity, through the United Nations Development Programs or other international entities that have good legal standing in Egypt.
During this period in which the U.S. must work on a new contract between itself and Egypt, it must also strike an agreement with the Egyptian government and the Military Council to stop the media war and end the hostile exchange of statements, using phrasing such as “interference in the affairs of Egypt” and “the American plan for sabotage.” In return, Congress should end its continuous threat "to cut off military aid," because experience has shown that this is impossible—using the current crisis as proof—because calculations of military assistance far surpass the relationship of the current U.S. administration and Egypt’s Military Council. Rather, it is linked to regional security and the balance of power, which will not break down due to a temporary political crisis between the two countries.
Public dialogue between the U.S. and Egypt’s new constitutional institutions and non-governmental organizations—without the announcement of any agenda and absent from superficial threats to cut military aid—will give the new Egyptian regime the sense that the U.S. is a partner, not seeking to dominate the relationship. Simultaneously, this will help deepen the understanding of U.S. politicians regarding Egyptian affairs, which will in turn be reflected in their future performance. During the current crisis, the Obama administration used old policy on a new stage, which became a source of disaster.
Mohamed Abdelbaky is an Egyptian journalist based in Cairo, focusing on political reform and human rights.