The hidden sword behind the US-Egypt NGO debacle

Now that Egypt has lifted the travel ban on seven Americans facing criminal prosecution for their work with local NGOs, is that whole sordid debacle finally coming to an end?  Not exactly.  The seven are among a group of workers who were charged because NGOs need permits to operate in Egypt and are technically barred from receiving foreign funding — though, as many Egyptian wits like to point out, there is no greater recipient of foreign funding in Egypt than the military that rules the country.  It was the threat to cut off US military aid, in fact, that no doubt played a substantial role in getting the travel ban lifted, never mind what this reveals about the degree to which the ostensibly independent Egyptian judiciary is vulnerable to political meddling.  The ongoing problem is that NGOs exist in a semi-legal gray zone that leaves them vulnerable to these sorts of politically expedient crackdowns.

Prior to the lifting of the travel ban, Egypt’s former ambassador to Washington, Nabil Fahmy, wrote an evenhanded editorial in Al Shorouk — the Arabist has it in English, thanks to the worthy translation services of Industry Arabic — in which he explained where the errors were made:

All the foreign actors – both governmental and non-governmental – made a mistake when they provided funding and set up NGO branches in Egypt without getting permits. This includes both American and European bodies, as well as those from other nations. I will add, though, that the United States in particular committed an error as well, since an Egyptian-American agreement has been in place since 2005, which regulates NGO funding. The American side, however, completely ignored it even though they signed the agreement.

If the foreign actors have erred, then we too in Egypt are also in the wrong. We are in the wrong because we have let [unlicensed] foreign organizations work in Egypt – German and American organizations, among others – from anywhere between 30 and five years. The Egyptian government has made contracts with them, even though they did not obtain permits. So if we do not respect our own laws, or apply them only now and then according to the way the political wind is blowing, then it is only natural that other parties will disregard these laws, regardless of whether they have good or bad intentions. Moreover, we are also in the wrong because we have not applied the law equally across the board when we have decided to enforce the law, and we opened up space again for a tug of war between foreign NGOs and international financiers.

That sounds fair and reasonable, but in suggesting that Egypt ‘respect its own laws’ the ambassador has been too kind: these so-called mistakes regarding permits and the inconsistent application of the law serve the interests of the Egyptian regime.  In an undemocratic system — which Egypt remains as long as elections are poorly constituted and a military clique retains ultimate power — NGOs provide one of the few challenges to the authority of the regime and one of the only mediums by which it can be held accountable for poor governance.  It sounds like a simple matter of sovereignty to require NGOs to receive government-issued permits, but in a context like Egypt it leaves the NGOs at the bureaucratic gate-keeping mercy of a state that attempts to suppress all constraints on its power.  In years past, something similar was operative with the toothless opposition parties licensed by the regime and the nominally independent newspapers that had to be affiliated with one of these toothless parties in order to publish in Arabic.  Actual independence, which is essential to a vibrant civil society, was only possible in this gray zone that Fahmy describes so benignly, in which an NGO could operate without a permit — or a newspaper could pretend to be published in Cyprus — and the regime would grant de facto recognition by engaging with it but withhold de jure approval so that pressure could be brought to bear on it at any point that it became convenient to do so.  This is an age-old trick of authoritarian regimes: Russians will be familiar with it, as will many others in Asia, Africa and the Americas.  The Greeks, too: they called it the Sword of Damocles.  So it is true that the NGOs were operating illegally.  The Egyptian regime likes it that way.

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Click here to read about why it is so difficult for artists and writers to capture the Egyptian revolution in their work.  Or here to see a way that protesters can use video drones to document police actions.  Or here to read all of my posts on Egypt, North Africa, or the Middle East.

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2 Responses to “The hidden sword behind the US-Egypt NGO debacle”

  1. James222 says:

    blah blah blah, Ngo’s operating illegally, not with correct documents, incorrect procedures, on and on we go, round in circles, yawn yawn.

    How many column inches have been devoted to this NON-story. High-level talks between Washington and Cairo, crisis, escalation, most serious rift for decades, pressure applied etc etc. 

    Stern warnings given by Clinton, visits by high-ranking generals and the neo-cons, alarmist headlines from Fox news.

    Spin, confuse, distract, everyone including this blog joins in. It’s as predictable as Mubarak pretending he was’nt going to go in his final speech an then everyone being naive enough to think that things were going to change when he did.
    None of this matters does it when you understand who the puppet master in all of this? But no doubt, there will be many more articles about this NGO debacle and so many of you will have so much to say about it, the ins and out, inner regime splits and tensions etc etc.Why bother, its not a story, not real and while you do, your feudal lords congratulate themselves at how clever they are and indeed how much superior they are to the very stupid peasants and ineffectual middle classes as they successfully divide the population even more.

    • Anonymous says:

      In fact, I do not understand who the puppet master is. On the other hand, the legal status of NGOs in Egypt does matter, on the ground, for reasons that have nothing to do with whether US military aid is affected.

      Sean

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