The U.S. civil society group Freedom House opposes Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s $1.3 billion aid waiver for Egypt because it says military and economic assistance makes it harder for Washington to press for protections for local and international NGOs.
The aid waiver was part of the diplomatic standoff sparked by raids on the Cairo offices of U.S. civil society groups and the indictment of pro-democracy activists.
Even after the Americans were allowed to post bail and leave Egypt, there was much talk at the State Department about withholding that aid until the case against local and foreign NGOs was resolved.
But Secretary Clinton granted the waiver, continuing the decades-long aid by certifying to U.S. lawmakers that Egypt is meeting its obligations under its peace treaty with Israel and has made “significant progress” toward democracy.
Civil society weakened
Freedom House Middle East director Charles Dunne says that is a mistake.
“What troubles me about the decision to waive is that it was taken without having first cut a deal with the Egyptians to end the NGO crisis. Which means we all are still under indictment in this case. We are all going to continue to face trial.”
Dunne, who is charged with using foreign funds to create instability in Egypt, says continuing to pay Egypt’s military weakens Washington’s case for civil society protections.
“Once you’ve told the Egyptians, as they have in effect, that this aid relationship will continue with no consequences, even if you are continuing to prosecute and repress NGOs, it makes it very difficult for the administration to come back and say wait, we’ve changed our minds,” he says. “They have already sent a very powerful signal to the Egyptian military. I hope they don’t repeat the same mistake with the new incoming government.”
Keeping Egypt under watch
Secretary Clinton says Washington is watching closely how Egyptian leaders treat civil society.
“We are going to watch their commitment to the rights and dignity of every Egyptian,” she says. “We want to see Egypt move forward in a democratic transition, and what that means is you do not and cannot discriminate against religious minorities, women, political opponents.”
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland says the considerable progress that has been made in Egypt is still incomplete.
“It’s incomplete not only in terms of the additional steps that need to be made electorally but in terms of protections for universal human rights, protections for civil society, including the rights of the NGOs, Egyptian and international,” Nuland says. ”And these are the kinds of things that we believe need to continue to advance in Egypt if it’s going to have the kind of vibrant, stable, strong democracy that the Egyptian people went into the streets for and that they deserve.”
Nuland says Secretary Clinton waived legislative conditions relating to the democratic transition on the basis of U.S. national security interests and the goal of maintaining a strategic partnership with Egypt.
Dunne says there is no denying the importance of that military alliance but questions whether it must come at the expense of good governance.
“Why has the United States not come to the conclusion yet that a stable democracy in Egypt, as in the other Arab Spring countries, is not also a U.S. national security interest? I think times have changed and politics have changed so dramatically in the region over the last year that this realization needs to be made and acted on. Both are important.”
Interests outweighing dispute
Middle East analyst Steve Heydemann backs the aid waiver, saying the multitude of interests at stake outweighs the civil society dispute.
“If we are talking about opportunities to preserve American influence and the chance to put the US/Egyptian relationship on a solid foundation in the long term, I think it’s very important at this very delicate stage of Egypt’s transition not to take decision because of very short term, transient kinds of differences of opinion between the two governments.”
Heydemann believes the NGO standoff was more about local Egyptian politics than U.S. relations.
“If we had played along with that and played into the escalation of this crisis and permitted it to disrupt US/Egyptian relations at a key moment, my own sense is that we would have done more long-term damage to US influence than we might have done as a result of seeming to condone behavior that we really very deeply disagree with.”
U.S. officials say they are working with Egypt’s new civilian leaders to protect the rights of local and international NGOs, specifically on the drafting of new laws to govern their operation.
Dunne says it is a change long over-due.
“The Egyptian NGO Registration Law is not designed to help facilitate the operation of NGOs,” he says. “It is designed to control and repress them, and it has been used to very good effect for a number of years.”
Scott Stearns is VOA's State Department correspondent. He has worked as the Dakar Bureau Chief, White House correspondent, and Nairobi Bureau Chief since beginning his career as a freelance reporter in the Liberian civil war. He has written for the BBC, UPI, the Associated Press, The Jerusalem Post, and The Economist. Scott has a Bachelors and Masters in Journalism from Northwestern University.