When Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., met with key Republicans and Democrats about the State Department budget bill, the Obama administration was vigorously pushing back against including restrictions on aid to Egypt. To persuade his colleagues to condition the $1.3 billion in security assistance on Cairo’s support for the democratic transition, Leahy showed them a photograph of an armored vehicle and an Egyptian demonstrator. “The Egyptian military was literally running over [him]. The assumption was that he died,” Leahy told National Journal. “I said, ‘Do you really want to vote for a blank check, and then see a picture like that the day after the vote, and have to explain it?’”
The chairman of the State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee made his point. Before providing the aid, the U.S. must now guarantee that Egypt is supporting the transition to civilian government and implementing policies to protect freedom of expression, association, religion, and due process of law. “You hope for the best, but you prepare for the worst,” Leahy said.
Some of those dire possibilities became apparent this week, after Egypt’s military council announced it intends to prosecute 19 American NGO workers—including the son of a U.S. Cabinet member—on charges of stirring political unrest and operating illegally in the country. The virtually sacrosanct package of American military aid to Egypt could be in real jeopardy for the first time in three decades.
Activists and lawmakers such as Leahy argue that the Obama administration must hold firm on the threat to withhold as much as one-quarter of the Egyptian military’s budget. A tough stance against the repression of civil society, they say, would show support for the democratic transition and improve Washington’s credibility among the Egyptian people.
The harassment of prominent Washington-based groups like the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute sparked a firestorm on Capitol Hill, but Egypt’s military council has for months targeted Egyptian civil-society and human-rights organizations. It has sent as many as 12,000 civilians to face military trial, and some military units are accused of torture and sexual abuse. All the while, activists have slammed the Obama administration’s apparent reticence to take a tough public stand against the military council’s human-rights violations, giving weight to public opinion there that the U.S. would rather preserve its own interests at the cost of an undemocratic government, as it did for 30 years under Hosni Mubarak.
“We pride ourselves on being a symbol of democracy,” Leahy said. “If we were to say … ‘We stand for democracy, but here, take the money because we don’t care what you do,’ we lose all our credibility.”
Last week, Leahy said that his conditions were designed to communicate to the Egyptian people that the United States supports their demand for democracy and fundamental freedoms -- and to send a clear message to the Egyptian military that “the days of blank checks are over.”
That sentiment is a long time coming for Egyptian activists such as Bahey el din Hassan, founder of the Cairo Institute of Human Rights Studies. The Egyptian government’s criticism of foreign funding of NGOs also took place during the Mubarak era—but Hassan said that the military council has for the first time in decades endorsed a campaign at the highest levels to “defame the community of NGOs as working against the national interest of the Egyptian people.” Hassan guessed that this was, in part, designed to pressure the groups to end their loud critique of the military’s human-rights violations during the transition.
Hassan told National Journal in December that he’s been disappointed with Washington’s mixed messages. “The U.S. doesn’t have any consistent strategy,” he said. “There are many statements just blessing the part of the [military council] and very lightly addressing the human-rights concerns. We hear contradictory statements in the same week, the same month.”
Leslie Campbell, NDI’s Middle East director, said that the initial late-December raid on the NGOs was meant to make an example of a few organizations on a list of some 400 NGOs under investigation. “It was quite a nasty thing,” Campbell said. Armed Egyptians detained staffers in one room as they seized money, computers, video cameras, and financial records. Still, Campbell was sure that the phone calls from President Obama and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to the leader of Egypt’s ruling military council would prompt Cairo to return the confiscated property and allow the offices to reopen. IRI’s president, Lorne Craner, hoped that the Egyptians would lift travel ban on his country director, Sam LaHood, and other IRI and NDI employees. That didn’t happen.
“The intent was to send a very strong message by the Minister of Planning and the [military council] that they are not going to put up with a civil-society regime where organizations can operate freely and without undue restrictions,” Campbell said. “They want to set the terms of civil-society engagement in the transition to democracy.” The result, Campbell says, is a “very high stakes” standoff over the way the U.S. conducts its relationship with Egypt.
The way the administration handles this issue could add to its credibility in Egypt, Campbell said. “The criticism, at least in the world of human-rights and democracy organizations in Egypt, has typically been that the U.S. was very close to Mubarak, close to the generals, and wasn’t very much in touch with the attitudes on the streets,” Campbell said. “If this whole episode means that the U.S. government is more attentive to what Egyptian people are saying … and a little less concerned about temper tantrums by a few people at the top, then that bodes well for the relationship.”
The brewing congressional outcry would make it extremely difficult for the administration to override the aid restrictions with its national-security waiver if the situation doesn’t improve. What’s more, Armed Services ranking member John McCain, R-Ariz., is IRI’s board chairman; also on that board is Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas., head of the Appropriations subcommittee that oversees foreign aid. Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of 41 lawmakers—including House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md.-- signed a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Panetta saying they won’t support certification until “fundamental human rights” are protected in Egypt. Amid the furor, an Egyptian military delegation slated to meet with some of these lawmakers while visiting Washington abruptly canceled at the last minute.
This discussion certainly won’t end any time soon. If there are not changes in the military’s behavior, Leahy warned, “I’m not putting money [for Egypt] in the foreign-aid bill next year.”