February 17, 2012

U.S.-Egyptian Media War Intensifies

They talk about convincing Egypt’s generals of their “seriousness,” but they should look in the mirror if they truly expect results.

After reassuring the Senate Armed Forces Committee that General Hussein Tantawi finally felt Washington’s urgency, General Martin Dempsey exited the chamber to find himself face to face with another propaganda barrage: “America” feared and interferes with the January 25th revolution. Neither Egyptians or U.S. officials are positive of the connection between Faiza Abul Naga, Egypt’s interim Minister of International Economic Cooperation, and the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF). Some suspect that one of Mubarak’s holdovers went “gone rogue” in an attempt to secure a higher political position in the next government. Others believe her collusion with the generals sent U.S.-Egyptian relations into a tail-spin.

"We can safely say that Faiza Abul Naga started this, but I think it has gotten out of control since then," Lorne Craner, president of the International Republican Institute, told the House Foreign Affairs Committee. "With her lies about our activities, she has managed to convince some of the military that we were doing nefarious things.”

Either way, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s (CJCS) message was significantly reduced by the time he testified before the House of Representatives Appropriations Committee.

"When we use funding to separate ourselves from prior partners, nothing good comes of it," Dempsey told one of several panels in charge of foreign aid. “There have to be some consequences for the choices they've made, I fully agree with that. But you know, we do have a very close partnership with them... they grant us great overflight rights, they grant us priority passage through the Suez Canal. I mean, we get things for our aid that truly we need."

Dempsey obviously ignored the elephant currently running down the street - Egypt’s treaty with Israel - which the Muslim Brotherhood is openly stalking. He also seems to ignore the reality that his freshest comments undermine the “seriousness” of U.S. concerns over non-government organizations and their personnel. Although U.S.-Egyptian relations possess an undeniable strategic component at a bilateral and international level, the general’s comments reinforce the notion that Washington is willing to trade democracy for security. Dempsey would conclude, "Cutting off aid, and therefore cutting off from them, means that the next generation won't have that benefit (of close ties with the U.S. military).” The SCAF, in turn, continues to believe that Washington has no real card to play.

On the surface, the State Department’s Victoria Nuland produced a sterner reaction to the NGO controversy now hanging over Washington and Cairo (the White House has issued no response to Naga’s testimony). However Nuland’s winding explanation of U.S. policy is no less counterproductive than Dempsey’s. In the same way that administration officials exploit the NGO controversy to obscure Egypt’s wider counter-revolutionary trends, the spokeswoman maintained this emphasis in order to deflect valid (albeit imprecise) criticism against U.S. policy. Nuland rejected Naga’s allegations as “patently false.”

“I think what we’re concerned about is the misunderstanding and, frankly, some misinformation being spread in the Egyptian media and elsewhere about what these NGOs do, whether they’re our supported NGOs, other international NGOs, or Egyptian NGOs themselves, that they are being portrayed as tipping elections one way or the other, they are being portrayed as foreign interference. And these organizations are doing the same thing, as you know, as we do in 70 other countries around the world. We don’t pick candidates. We don’t put our thumb on the scale of elections. We support Egyptian political parties, election observers, et cetera who want to learn how to do campaigning, et cetera.”

When told that Egypt’s media negativity isn’t “emerging out of some sort of bubble,” but “some sort of concerted effort from whomever to whip up anti-American sentiment,” Nuland responded, “And that is concerning. That is very concerning.”

By funneling attention towards Egypt’s recent parliamentary election and the mission of U.S.-funded NGOs, U.S. officials continue to evade self-judgment amid their quest to secure long-term influence in post-Mubarak Egypt. Even after considering the possibility of interference from NGOs such as the International Republican Institute (IRI) and National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI), this intrusion still pales in comparison to the Obama administration’s overall response to Egypt’s revolution. Washington didn’t foresee every aspect of Egypt’s revolution (Nuland’s final response to Naga’s allegations), but all visible parts were targeted for control. Every component of the U.S. government hesitated before moving against Mubarak, attempted to hold on through intelligence czar Omar Suleiman (who accused foreign actors of instigating the revolution) and happily settled for SCAF oversight.

The State Department’s spokeswoman criticized Egyptian officials for engaging in propaganda, when her narrow focus on NGOs doubles as propaganda. The SCAF’s anti-revolutionary crackdown, interference over a new constitution, and Tantawi’s “thug” stamp on the revolutionaries drew minimal complaints - none threatening the status of U.S. aid. Now the SCAF has managed to wrestle the upper position, or at least maintain a stalemate that Washington cannot afford to wait out. On Thursday Sameh Shukri, Egypt’s Ambassador to the US, echoed Dempsey by telling Ahram Online that the “current turbulence” will not derail the "clearly strategic relationship between the two countries."

Foreign Policy's Cable reported, “a realization in the U.S. government and in Congress that the Egyptian government can't make concessions during or immediately after a high-level U.S. visit because the optics of such a move would be politically damaging for them domestically, multiple Senate aides said.”

This arrangement, however, encourages the crisis to intensify and generate new gaps of distrust, both at the political and popular levels. Fundamentally, Washington continues to lack leverage beneath the SCAF and major actors competing for a spot in the next government. Shukri warned (or taunted) the Beltway by claiming, "Despite the views voiced in Congress and in the US media, the US administration remains fully aware of the value of the US aid program – not just to Egypt, but also to the US.” These “voices” happen to say what the administration is unwilling to admit due to political motivations.

“At a time of ongoing protests against military rule in Egypt, the SCAF seems determined to use its attacks on civil society to bolster its position,” Daniel Calingaert, vice president of policy at Freedom House, wrote in Thursday’s Wall Street Journal. “By accusing foreign groups like Freedom House of instigating unrest, the SCAF aims to distract from its own ineptitude and undermine the credibility of Egyptian pro-democracy activists, who have been pressing of their own accord for a transition to civilian rule.”

The Obama administration has also steadfastly defended the SCAF’s time-line to “civilian rule.” Although some political parties (including the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice) believe the additional time was necessary to contain the SCAF’s authority, street protesters accuse the SCAF of delaying a transition in order to protect its legal and economic interests. Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, naturally directed her attention towards Cairo’s stranded Americans and Europeans, but she also predicted, “For even if this issue were resolved tomorrow, this episode will color the way in which assistance is provided to Egypt.”

Ros-Lehtinen’s statements cut through the heart of Egypt’s NGO controversy: the Obama administration seeks to resolve the matter and restore normality. It does not want to challenge the SCAF’s political authority and security crackdown, viewing these developments as a “necessary price” for Egypt’s “democratic” transition. David Kramer, president of Freedom House, told lawmakers that “only the suspension of U.S. military assistance will get the Egyptian government's attention,” except this threat is unlikely to pay off. While 1.3 billion in direct military aid represents an enormous sum to many people, Egyptians generally reject conditional U.S. aid and the SCAF could eventually secure funding from the Saudi-bankrolled Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Reducing Washington’s political shield around the SCAF presents a more consequential threat, but Washington is equally powerless to feign this outcome.

Nevertheless, Egypt’s plot runs far deeper than NGOs and the generals will continue to strong-arm Washington until the Obama administration acknowledges this reality.

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