February 28, 2012

U.S.-Egyptian Relations In Downward Holding Pattern

One day after postponing the fates of 43 employees (including 19 Americans) involved with U.S.-funded non-government organizations, the three Egyptian judges assigned to their trial have quit their posts entirely. Only 14 defendants attended Sunday’s opening session and, after taking into consideration 1,500+ pages of documents and interpreter requirements, lead Judge Mohammed Shoukry dismissed the controversial NGO trial until April 26th.

Now Shoukry and his fellow judges have removed themselves from their bench, citing “uneasiness” in handling the cases of American, European and Egyptian workers.

Although this process is considered normal by Egyptian standards, uncertainty over the high-stakes trial may beget more uncertainty and potential instability. How the Obama administration can secure the release of every employee remains to be seen, but U.S. officials continue to bet on an eventual face-saving compromise with Egypt’s Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF). During her weekend trip to Morocco, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told CNN that the administration is engaged in “intense talks at the highest levels of the Egyptian government.”

"We've had a lot of very tough conversations and I think we're moving toward a resolution," Clinton informed the Senate Foreign Relations committee on Tuesday.

Some diplomats and analysts speculate that the additional time allows for the completion of a plea deal, one that cancels jail-time in return for fines or admissions of guilt (all defendants maintain their innocence). Another option, touted by Senator John McCain, would rewrite Hosni Mubarak’s previous laws to “provide legal basis for leniency toward the defendants.” McCain traveled to Cairo last week with fellow Senator Lindsey Graham, who told CNN after meeting SCAF and government officials, "Quite frankly, I'm very optimistic we're going to get this episode behind us. It's my hope (this will happen) sooner rather than later."

However the notion that Egypt’s NGO controversy is the product of an outdated legal system juxtaposes with the SCAF’s systematic anti-American campaign. The raids appear to have been engineered by International Cooperation Minister Faiza Aboul Naga in an attempt to advance her position in the next government, and she won’t back down easily. During her October testimony, Naga accused a “surprised” Washington of trying “to hijack the January 25 revolution and manipulate the situation in Egypt in accordance with its interests.”

"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.”

The SCAF also condemns “foreign hands,” meaning America, for interfering in Egypt’s democratic transition when the SCAF itself may be the largest obstacle. Concerned U.S. Senators and Representatives responded by threatening to withhold $1.3 billion in military aid, but the SCAF has exploited the disapproval of conditional aid and turned Congress’s warning into a minor factor at best - and an advantage at worst. Willing to play the issue from all angles, interim Prime Minister Kamal Al Ganzouri (a holdover of Mubarak’s rule) even attributed Egypt’s negative economic outlook on unfulfilled aid packages from Western and Gulf states.

Neither of these forces is positioned to backtrack from their own positions or intervene in a judicial matter, while Washington is similarly caught between advocating judicial reform and pursuing a special exemption. A Raymond Davis-style exit could inflame tensions across the social lines targeted by Egypt’s current government.

In the event that a trial does open on April 26h, the spectacle will coincide with an intense run-up to Egypt’s presidential election and the drafting of a new constitution. Whether or not the NGO crisis affects this process remains uncertain, but new friction between Washington and Cairo increases the odds of uncertainty. Naturally the Obama administration and GOP alike hope to reestablish relations in private and move on, rather than publicly confront the SCAF over the bulk of its counterrevolutionary activities. Private negotiations are necessary to salvage both parties’ images and finalize a plea deal - and avoid a stand-off between two allies.

“We want to see the travel ban lifted,” the State Department’s Victoria Nuland told reporters on Monday. “We want to see our people able to leave the country. We want to see the situation with NGOs, whether they’re American, international, or Egyptian, normalized and legalized. And we want to get back to the business of a democratic transition in Egypt that we can all support.”

CBS News observed, “the U.S. cannot be seen as pushing too hard against the ruling generals, who are viewed as the best hope for a stable transition for a nation that is a regional heavyweight and has been a lynchpin of Washington's Middle East policy for three decades.”

Thus the status of NGO employees remains central to Washington's narrative in Egypt, pushing a lack of political, security and judicial reforms down the list of priorities. Charles Dunne, director of Middle East and North Africa programs at Freedom House, explained the sentiments of local and foreign NGOs: "This isn't a war on American NGOs. This is a campaign against Egyptian civil society.” Unfortunately this campaign also offers the Obama administration an opportunity to reinforce ties with the SCAF and the future government that must cooperate with Tantawi’s generals.

When U.S.-Egyptian relations get back on track, they will still be headed down the wrong track.

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