February 9th, 2012
03:00 PM ET

Free the 'Cairo 19'

Editor's Note: Will Marshall is the president and founder of the Progressive Policy Institute. Marshall serves on the board of the National Endowment for Democracy. 

By Will Marshall - Special to CNN

With deadly soccer riots, popular unrest and a tricky political transition to manage, you’d think that Egypt’s military rulers would have enough on their hands without provoking a confrontation with the United States. Evidently not.

Everyone knows the generals call the shots in Egypt, but they profess to be powerless to stop Egypt’s courts for trying 19 Americans on trumped up charges of funneling “foreign funding” to anti-government protestors. This outrage demands a calm but resolute response from President Obama. While avoiding public statements that further inflame Egyptian nationalism, Obama should quietly make it clear to the Supreme Military Council that persisting in this folly will lead to a cut-off of U.S. aid.

The crisis began in late December, when Egyptian authorities raided the offices of nine nongovernmental groups, including the U.S.-based National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute and Freedom House. These organizations operate around the world to assist local activists and civil society groups working for greater political and economic freedom. (Full disclosure: I’m on the board of the National Endowment for Democracy, which oversees the first two groups).

Having operated for years in Egypt under the Mubarak dictatorship, these groups now find themselves accused (in the media at least; no formal charges have been filed) of failing to register with the government and taking foreign funding. In fact, they have tried to register but got no response from Egypt’s infamously torpid bureaucracy.

The raids apparently came at the instigation of Fayza Abul Naga, minister for international cooperation and a Mubarak regime holdover. Echoing official media claims that the groups are fomenting protests, she accused them of plotting to “destabilize Egypt.” Altogether 43 NGO workers, including the 19 Americans, have been forbidden to leave the country, creating the impression of a quasi-judicial hostage-taking.

Why has Egypt’s supposedly pro-American military endorsed this farce? One answer is that government’s action is popular, and the military would lose more by failing to defend Egypt’s “sovereignty” than by irritating Washington. Another is that the generals, no less addicted to conspiracy theorizing than other Egyptians, actually believes U.S. and European NGOs are stirring up popular unrest. Blaming domestic strife on foreign interference is an autocratic habit that dies hard in the Middle East.

Nationalism, paranoia, cynicism - whatever the junta’s motives, they don’t bode well for Egypt’s coming political transition. Moreover, the NGO probe is part of a broader crackdown on civil society around the non-democratic world and in some countries, like Russia and Turkey, which purport to be open and democratic. Russia’s Vladimir Putin has complained that U.S.-based NGOs are behind an unprecedented spate of mass demonstrations against his government, while Turkey has been jailing reporters for “insulting” government officials.

The Obama administration has pushed back against this wave of repression. In an important 2010 speech to the Community of Democracies in Cracow, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton won agreement for a broad set of principles defending the right of association of NGOs to cooperate across international borders. U.S. officials probably didn’t expect that policy to be put to the test in Egypt, especially after Mubarak’s fall, but it’s time to invoke it and bring international as well as U.S. pressure to bear on Cairo.

The generals’ gambit is a reminder that U.S. relations with Egypt are becoming a lot more complicated. For 30 years, the United States has cemented its close ties to Egypt with $1.5 billion a year in aid, most of which goes to the military. According to the Brookings Institution’s Shadi Hamid, the generals evidently view the aid as an entitlement, or a bribe intended to keep Egypt faithful to its peace treaty with Israel.

It’s time for the United States to disabuse the military council on both counts. In these straightened times, U.S. taxpayers are in no mood to subsidize a regime in Cairo that’s both unfriendly and undemocratic. Of course, we’d prefer that Egypt honor its peace treaty with Israel, not as a favor to us, but because nothing would do more to blight the promise of a new Egypt than a ruinous war.

America’s interests are best served by Egypt’s successful transition to political pluralism and representative government. The NGOs targeted by the government have been working closely with Egyptians on the ground to nurture this transition - by monitoring elections, setting up magazines and websites, helping parties get organized, supporting the rights of women and labor unions, defending freedom of expression and religion, and otherwise creating basic building blocks for a free and open society.

Freeing the Cairo 19 is just the first step. If Egypt won’t let them go back to work, they shouldn’t get American aid.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Will Marshall.

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Topics: Egypt

soundoff (16 Responses)
  1. Katie

    In fact more than 40 professionals (accounts vary between 43 and 44) have been targeted for prosecution. Do these additional professionals, of different nationalities but who all worked for American NGOs, not also deserve our support?

    February 9, 2012 at 4:44 pm | Reply
    • Marine5484

      Those bozoes knew what they were getting imto when they chose to be in Egypt. The fact that this country supported the Mubarak regime is cause for a lot of Egyptian anger toward us right now. For all the Egyptians know, these people could be agents of the C.I.A. In other words, our foreign policies are coming back to bite us!!!

      February 9, 2012 at 7:19 pm | Reply
  2. Gips

    I am an Egyptian, and for good relations with the US. Egypt benefits from US aid and the US benefits from having a strong ally in the region including safeguarding its vital oil supplies in the region, priority passage for its warships in the Suez canal and maintaining the peace treaty with Israel. Our military's supreme council of the armed forces (SCAF) who is governing Egypt at the moment is not popular among its own people and is going out of power soon so it is trying to pick a fight with the US by selling false patriotism to Egyptians. I think the US should exercise restraint at the moment and wait to see the upcoming government. In the meantime the US should try being less bias to Israel in order not to give ammunitions to SCAF and the anti-American camp in Egypt, and really, for decades the Palestinians have been having a humanitarian crisis which is the main cause of resentment to the US in the region making selling democracy to Egypt by American NGOs rather unbelievable.

    February 9, 2012 at 5:01 pm | Reply
    • 28mAmerican

      I respect what you say. We understand the people in power are not the people we supported in the protest. Hopefully it can be made right before things collapse.

      February 14, 2012 at 12:03 am | Reply
  3. Gips

    I am an Egyptian, and for good relations with the US. Egypt benefits from US aid and the US benefits from having a strong ally in the region including safeguarding its vital oil supplies in the region, priority passage for its warships in the Suez canal and maintaining the peace treaty with Israel and sizable trade partnerships. Our military's supreme council of the armed forces (SCAF) who is governing Egypt at the moment is not popular among its own people and is going out of power soon so it is trying to pick a fight with the US by selling false patriotism to Egyptians. I think the US should exercise restraint at the moment and wait to see the upcoming government. In the meantime the US should try being less bias to Israel in order not to give ammunitions to SCAF and the anti-American camp in Egypt, and really, for decades the Palestinians have been having a humanitarian crisis which is the main cause of resentment to the US in the region making selling democracy to Egypt by American NGOs rather unbelievable.

    February 9, 2012 at 5:02 pm | Reply
    • Stuart

      Gips, get over the Pals. Even the Palmer Report to the UN said there is no humanitarian crises in Gaza. Arab dictatorships have been using the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for decades to distract their own people from their problems at home. Gips, fix Egypt first. Then perhaps Egypt will be ready to play a constructive role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

      You should ask yourself, why Egypt never gave the Pals a state while it *occupied* Gaza following the 48-49 war? So don't start whining about how much Egypt cares about the Pals.

      February 11, 2012 at 5:53 pm | Reply
  4. Kreggs

    Remember that the aim of the American NGOs is not to help Egypt but is to further the interests of the USA. Arresting their staff is just the sensible actions of a sovereign nation.

    Also, the US is paying the Egypt army billions to carry out US foreign policy in the Middle East. Egypt has the right to say no to that money and carry out its own foreign policy. It could instead look to Russia or China to help it meet a shortfall in funding. Remember Suez when Nasser turned to Russia to build the Aswan dam because the West refused to finance it. That's how Russia got in last time. The US cannot afford NOT to give billions to Egypt. And will just have to accept its NGO people getting pwned.

    February 10, 2012 at 12:40 am | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      What Egypt's SCAF did is pathetic. It kidnapped a bunch of NGO worker and accused them of helping destablise the country. It thought it could intimidatie the protesters and silence dissent after months of criticism of its human rights record. Now it's trying to extort political gains at home and abroad.

      February 10, 2012 at 10:35 am | Reply
  5. Glenn Davis

    What a joke! These agents of a foreign power are getting what they deserve. Just imagine if a foreign government, say Russia, was caught funneling millions of dollars to the Occupy movement. Do you think our rulers would praise these agents for promoting democracy? The level of naivete and foolishness never ceases to amaze.

    The US is the King of dirty tricks. If a sovereign government refuses to kiss its hind quarters, watch out...We're gonna send in the "Promoters of Democracy" to destabilize you.

    February 10, 2012 at 1:35 pm | Reply
    • Marine5484

      How so very true that rings, Glenn. Thank you. The U.S. is always sticking it's nose into other peoples' business!!!

      February 11, 2012 at 12:34 pm | Reply
    • Stuart

      That's funny, but I don't recall these organizations receiving a penny from the US Govt.

      February 11, 2012 at 5:57 pm | Reply
  6. 28mAmerican

    Translating this post =
    Oh noes they are onto us. Not only did we act too quickly in egypt to turn on them causing them to stop overthrowing governments and handing them to us, but they realize by fareeds post about cutting them slack democracy takes time was fareed's attempt to sway public opinion and convince them democracy is slaughtering 91 people and injuring 1400.

    Nothing you can say now will put the cat back in the box. You are basically the spokesmen for the jihadist. You have spun each story so this could happen. Once you started championing for egypt while they were prosecuting the people sent to help them transition to democracy and freedom (the lie that got our support) and slaughtering people your intentions were clear.

    February 13, 2012 at 11:57 pm | Reply
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    April 2, 2012 at 1:01 pm | Reply

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