New York Times: Investigation of Civil Society Groups in Egypt is Preposterous

February 13, 2012

Egypt’s Unwise Course
The New York Times

Editorial

In Egypt, it’s unlikely that any group receives more money from foreign sources than the military — roughly $1.3 billion in United States government aid per year, more than $39 billion over the last three decades.

Yet, the generals who have controlled the country since President Hosni Mubarak was ousted a year ago have started a preposterous crusade against civil society groups that on average get far less per year from foreign sources, most of it from the United States.

Their paranoid argument? That the groups — which do voter and poll-worker training among other things — are “foreign hands” out to destroy Egypt at a time of unprecedented unrest. The generals portray themselves as defenders of the country’s sovereignty.

The army is under fire at home for holding back the democratic tide, abusing civilians even more than Mr. Mubarak and failing to govern effectively, so it is using America as a scapegoat. The confrontation is poisoning relations with a key ally at a time when Egypt needs all the friends it can get. It is diverting attention from solving the country’s profoundly serious problems: continued political turmoil and looming economic meltdown.

On Dec. 29, security forces raided as many as nine nongovernmental groups in Cairo, including three American-financed democracy-building groups — the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute and Freedom House. Employees were hauled in for questioning in a bogus criminal investigation.

Since then, 43 foreign and local activists — including Sam LaHood, son of the transportation secretary, and 18 other Americans — were barred from leaving Egypt and their cases referred to a criminal court. On Wednesday, one judge overseeing the probe vaguely outlined some charges. The Obama administration and Congress have rightly warned that aid may be cut because Egypt doesn’t meet pro-democracy conditions in United States law.

Egypt’s prime minister was talking tough on Wednesday, saying the case would not be influenced by the aid, which is 20 percent of the military budget and has bought hardware like jet fighters. But Egypt — where people clamor for jobs, food and education — unquestionably does need foreign direct investment and debt relief.

Alienating powerful countries like the United States, creating an environment in which groups that help build durable democratic institutions cannot operate and intimidating Egyptian civil society are a recipe for disaster.

The top American military leader — Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — discussed the issue with Egypt’s military ruler, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, in Cairo Saturday. They did not reveal any outcomes, but Field Marshal Tantawi told his government that ties with America are important. We hope that suggests the Egyptians are finally looking for a way to put this damaging incident behind them.