As if collecting red flags to emulate a twisted United Nations’ parkway, Egypt’s Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) hoisted two more flagpoles in anticipation of the revolution’s “Friday of Departure.”
One is forged from relatively new material. Facing down Washington over the status of several U.S.-funded non-government organizations (NGO) - and lying in the process - the SCAF and its political representatives continue to play hardball with the Obama administration. Weeks of pressure have failed to release 19 Americans (including Sam LaHood, son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood), and Prime Minister Kamal el-Ganzouri seemingly doused all hope for a legal or diplomatic resolution on Wednesday.
"Egyptian government won't back off in its criminal investigation into financial aid,” el-Ganzouri, a former prime minister under Hosni Mubarak, told a press conference following Wednesday's cabinet meeting. “Egypt will not kneel down to anybody and will overcome the crisis through unity.”
The SCAF posted a separate statement on Facebook in case anyone missed its message: "Since the great Egyptian judiciary started handling foreign funding for civil society organizations, a series of pressures, warnings and threats was being practiced by Washington against Egypt to the degree that Washington threatened Egypt to cut annual US military and economic assistance to Egypt, which is unacceptable.”
With an estimated 70% of Egyptians opposed to U.S. aid, the generals appear to be banking on this sentiment to cover its potential losses.
Despite the bluster and high stakes on both sides, political stalemate over NGOs should continue to benefit the Obama administration in the near future. After relying on Egypt’s parliamentary elections to divert attention from the SCAF’s grip on power, the administration has turned the status of 19 Americans into an inverse lightening. Their fate now serves as the focal point of U.S. criticism amid Port Said’s tragedy and the ensuing 10 days of demonstrations. Nearly all U.S. attention (political and media) has been devoted to the NGO crisis, conveniently ignoring the SCAF’s hostility towards pro-democracy protesters.
The tougher U.S. officials talk, the more obvious the Obama administration's front becomes. All eyes are directed towards the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, not the heavily-guarded Interior and Defense Ministries, where Egyptians gathered on Friday to demand the end of military rule. They also requested a cessation of violence against peaceful protesters, judicial reforms and a complete overhaul of the Interior Ministry, which has escaped genuine accountability. High-profile activist Asmaa Mahfouz tapped Al Jazeera to deliver her own message as she marched on the Defense Ministry, arguing, "Mubarak faces charges of instigating the killing of protesters during the revolution. So the SCAF should also be tried for the crimes committed under its rule."
"Whoever wants to know the truth should hit the streets," Mahfouz told Al Jazeera. "For those who say we're a bunch of thugs, we're not carrying any weapons and aren't damaging public property."
Feeling the pressure from Port Said, the Muslim Brotherhood has similarly escalated its anti-SCAF rhetoric in an attempt to neutralize its own negative perceptions. Last Friday the Brotherhood’s General Guide, Mohamed Badie, blasted the military during a speech televised by the group’s satellite channel. Badie would flip the SCAF’s script against the revolutionaries by accusing certain “individuals” of “plotting to burn this homeland and demolish its institutions.”
“They are trained for this,” he warned. “They are known to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and the police, who are delaying bringing them to justice, which is totally unacceptable.”
While the Brotherhood isn’t acting in concert with the revolutionary movement, the two forces combine to apply significant pressure inside and outside of the established political system. Components of asymmetric networks often operate in isolation, and most of the SCAF’s backtracking has resulted from their joint-effort. After previously resisting popular calls during negotiations with the SCAF, a position attributed to establishing constitutional authority, the Brotherhood now seems committed to an accelerated transition to civilian rule. Deputy chairman Khairat al-Shater would follow al-Ganzouri’s Wednesday briefing by calling on Parliament to replace him.
"The government has failed in managing the country,” added Mahmoud Ghozlan, a Brotherhood spokesman. “In any nation in the world, such a disaster would force a cabinet to give up power... We cannot go on like this forever. Egypt needs a firm government that enacts the rule of law and that is serious about the transition.”
Naturally the SCAF perceived Friday’s demonstration and the Brotherhood’s rhetoric as threats to its power, and responded with the appropriate hostilities. al-Ganzouri condemned these “demands and strikes” for “aiming at bringing about State failure,” telling “those calling for the downfall of the military rule to remember the situation in Iraq.” The SCAF then released its own statement on state TV, but such threats don’t qualify as “news” anymore.
"We will be honest with you that our precious Egypt is subject to plots that aim to hit the revolution in its core and sow strife between Egyptian people and between them and their armed forces... Never will we bow to threats, nor succumb to pressures, nor accept ultimatums. We face conspiracies hatched against the homeland, whose goal is to undermine the institutions of the Egyptian state and whose aim is to topple the state itself so that chaos reigns and destruction spreads.”
This language, however, is especially insulting to the revolutionaries when mixed with self-adulation, and the SCAF continues to praise its own “revolutionary” leadership. The council insists that “armed forces protected the revolution in its more critical time” and “stood as a supporter of the people." These statements were more accurate prior to Mubarak’s fall, when the army formed the last line of defense from state security, but are now mocked in the streets. The SCAF is thus delegitimizing Egypt’s revolutionaries - implying their participation in “conspiracies” - while using their cause to woo Egypt’s more traditional segments.
The generals are employing the same scheme towards Washington: targeting NGOs for “foreign conspiracy” despite the Obama administration’s unflinching support for a SCAF-led “transition.”
The possibility of severing $1.5 billion in U.S. aid remains open due to Congressional pressure, but a likelier outcome suggests the continuation of Egypt’s status quo. Washington cannot afford to lose its access to the SCAF and, even if aid is withheld, political cooperation will remain ongoing. The Obama administration lacks a sincere unease over the SCAF’s handling of protesters (aside from any impact on the SCAF’s sustainability), and is simply waiting out the NGO cases to normalize relations. Yet the SCAF’s actions from Mubarak’s fall to the present leave no doubt that the military will continue to exert a disruptive political influence after a civilian transition.
al-Shater’s warning bears repeating: “We strongly advise the Americans and the Europeans to support Egypt during this critical period as compensation for the many years they supported a brutal dictatorship.”