Al-Ahram Weekly Online   15 - 21 June 2006
Issue No. 799
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Two to go

Gihan Shahine delves into the controversy surrounding the suspension of two US non-governmental organisations in Egypt

The Egyptian Foreign Ministry recently ordered two US non- governmental organisations -- the International Republican Institute (IRI) and its twin, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI) -- to halt their activities in Egypt until they are licensed. The US-based institutes, which are propagated as advancing democracy and monitoring political systems in 60 countries, said they had applied for licences and were waiting to finish the paperwork. The Foreign Ministry, however, denied such claims, saying the two centres never actually applied for licences.

Although a legitimate reason why the institutes should have their activities stopped, the lack of a licence appears to be no more than a minor knot in the sudden tug of war. The institutes had already been engaged in monitoring parliamentary elections and the government -- although not cooperative -- did not try to stop them.

"The decision to halt the activities of the two institutes has to do with the regime's new agenda to curb public dissent and is not in any way linked to press claims that they are threatening national security," argued Bahieddin Hassan, director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS).

The opposition had accused the institutes of being involved in "espionage" and of "posing a threat to national security". The independent daily Nahdet Misr, which spearheaded the campaign, has called for the halt of the "illicit activities" of the two centres and accused them of having "a hidden agenda meant to incite sectarian strife" in Egypt. According to the same paper, the IRI had been liaising with other NGOs and preparing data for an international UN conference that will reportedly be held in cooperation with the International Coptic Federation and the US-Jewish Council to discuss what it terms "spreading tolerance towards minorities in the Middle East".

MP Mustafa Bakri, who is also the chief editor of the weekly Al-Osbou, has requested an immediate investigation into the activities of the two institutes which he feared was "a hazardous tear in the Egyptian social fabric".

The institutes are the financial affiliates of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) established by Congress in 1983. They are propagated as "uniquely qualified to provide technical assistance to aspiring democrats worldwide" and "advancing democracy". Press reports, however, lambasted the NED as a guise for the CIA claiming it was involved in inciting sectarian strife and supporting the powers that would serve US plans in the region. Al-Osbou published reports that the NDI allegedly spent "50 per cent of its budget on financing the US-led war on Iraq" and "is notorious for rigging and financially supporting US political alliances and tilting election results in favour of the powers that most serve US interests".

Bakri, however, said the government "did not halt the activities of the two institutes for any security concerns but rather because they were critical of the reform process in Egypt."

The rift seems to have erupted when local IRI head Gina London said in a recent interview with Nahdet Misr that political reform in Egypt had not been achieved in the past 25 years and that the institute would work to speed up political reform in the country. A statement by the Egyptian Foreign Ministry immediately slammed the comments as blatant interference in the country's internal affairs and ordered the institutes to halt their activities until they obtained licences.

"The message is clear here," Hassan commented. "The state can no longer tolerate any criticism from local or foreign sides." He said the limited margin of freedom the state allowed for almost two years has led to unprecedented political dissent which, albeit not massive enough to pose a direct threat to the state's legislative infrastructure, was "likely to widen rifts among major political powers within the regime over who should take the future rule of Egypt -- a military personality or the president's son." Today, the regime has decided it can no longer take that risk," Hassan said.

Hassan added that the current cordial US-Egyptian relationship had further empowered the state to take a firm stance towards official and non-official criticism from outside. He said the government manipulated the results of last year's parliamentary elections, where the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood won one-fifth of all seats, in order to bridge gaps with the US over issues of democratisation.

"The state showed that the rise of the Brotherhood would be a threat in case of democratisation, and the two sides [Egypt and the US] seem to have reached a consensus on how the Egyptian government should manage its local portfolio and curb public dissent," Hassan added.

For Hassan, the suspension of the two institutes is thus no more than a storm in a teacup and a "friendly reproach between the two lovers".

Hafez Abu Seada, secretary-general of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights (EOHR), would similarly perceive the recent government attitude towards the two American centres in the context of Egyptian-US relations.

"The recent halt is no doubt a political decision," Abu Seada told Al-Ahram Weekly. But, contrary to Hassan's argument, Abu Seada would see the recent move as symptomatic of "some tension in US-Egyptian relations after Egypt obviously stepped back from its reform plans. The number of those supporting the reduction of US aid to Egypt increased to almost equal those who opposed it."

Both Abu Seada and Hassan, however, would refute claims that the two institutes are posing any threat to national security. "Those who attacked the two institutes and rose in defence of national security were actually incited by the government to do so since they paradoxically remained silent on Egypt's support for the US on key Middle East issues which were publicly declared during the congressional debates on US aid to Egypt," Hassan said.

Abu Seada similarly argued that, "boosting programmes that allow for better electoral systems does not represent any interference in local affairs."

However, he conceded that the IRI and the NDI had failed in fulfilling that role so far. "They have worked directly with the public, creating sensitivities and failing in their primary role of providing technical assistance to NGOs working in the field," Abu Seada told the Weekly.

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