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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

A Year after the Revolution: Egypt and the U.S. Battle over Democracy

Filed under: Egypt

In a move former President Hosni Mubarak’s regime did not dare to make, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) ordered Egyptian soldiers and police to raid the offices of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Cairo on December 30, 2011. At least 17 U.S.-based and local groups receiving foreign funding were targeted, according to activists and Egyptian state media. Among the U.S.-based groups targeted were the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International Republican Institute (IRI), loosely associated with the U.S. Democratic and Republican parties. The offices of local Egyptian NGOs targeted in the raid were reportedly sealed with wax, in a move rights groups say was aimed at stifling domestic dissent against the military.

Both U.S. pro-democracy groups, who say they take a neutral political stance, run programs to train members of nascent political parties in democratic processes. The work of NDI had fallen prey to what Egyptian pro-democracy campaigners say is a war between remnants of Mubarak’s inner circle and a rapidly developing civil society.

Since April 1, 2011, NDI has trained around 14,000 Egyptians in advocacy, voter education, and election monitoring, and has brought speakers with experience in democratic transitions to Egypt, including the former leaders of Poland and Chile.

Some Egyptian media pointed to American money poured into NGOs last year, to attempt to prove the existence of a U.S.-sponsored plot to subvert the course of change in Egypt. The U.S. ambassador to Cairo had spoken of “close to $40 million” invested in organizations including NDI and IRI.

The U.S. State Department said it was “very concerned” and urged authorities to stop the “harassment” of NGO staff. “This is not appropriate in the current environment,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said, adding that senior U.S. officials (including President Barack Obama and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta) had been in touch with Egyptian military leaders to express their concern over the raids.

Egypt’s military has vowed to investigate how pro-democracy and human rights organizations are funded and has repeatedly stated it will not tolerate foreign interference in the country’s affairs.

Documents and computers have been seized as part of the investigations and one report said that the IRI’s doors had been sealed with wax.

Reacting to the unusually severe reaction of the U.S., Egyptian authorities reassured the U.S. they will stop the raids on the offices of NGOs and that property seized in the raids would be returned to the groups, including the two U.S.-based groups.

Nevertheless, the Egyptian Authorities claimed that the raids were part of a probe by Egypt into allegations of illegal funding from abroad. Evidence suggested some groups were violating Egyptian laws, including not having permits to operate legally in Egypt. However, it seems that the steps undertaken were being orchestrated by the ruling generals to try to secure leverage over Washington while rallying support around anti-American sentiment and undermining the reputation of their most vocal critics in the Egyptian NGO community. These raids may be seen to be part of a broader move by the ruling military council to silence dissent after months of criticism of its human rights record. In recent months the military government has found itself the focus of protests, as activists questioned its commitment to democratic reform.

In August 2011, Egyptian authorities had announced the opening of an investigation into the alleged illegal funding of Egyptian NGOs with funds from abroad. Judicial sources said at the time that the survey was directed toward funds of U.S. origin. The survey comes as critics of the United States, close allies of the Egyptians for many years, are becoming more vocal against the government. Like other Western countries, on many occasions Washington deplored the violent repression carried out by security forces against demonstrators in recent weeks. Also in the firing line of the United States is the Egyptian army’s continuation of repressive legislation inherited from the old regime.

In the two months following the raids, none of the equipment, including computers and paper files, seized from both IRI and NDI has been returned to the organizations. U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters the situation is “unacceptable,” and called the foreign-funding charges “a very aggressive propaganda effort to scare the Egyptian people.” Faiza Aboul Naga, Egypt’s minister of international cooperation and a stalwart of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, announced that the organizations were promoting political instability in Egypt, and that they would remain under investigation by the public prosecutor.

As if the raids were not enough to irritate the American administration, three Americans barred by authorities in Egypt from leaving the country have sought refuge at the U.S. embassy in Cairo as tensions sharply escalated. Egyptian authorities are preventing at least six Americans and four Europeans from leaving the country, citing an investigation opened after security forces raided the offices of ten international organizations. Egyptian officials defended the raid as part of a legitimate inquiry into the groups’ work and funding. Those banned include Sam LaHoud, son of U.S. transportation secretary Ray LaHoud, who heads the Egypt office of the IRI.

U.S. officials have warned that restrictions on civil society groups could hinder aid to Egypt, which would be a major blow to the country as it struggles with economic woes and continued turmoil since the popular uprising that led to Mubarak’s ouster last year. Egypt’s military has been locked in a confrontation for months with protesters who demand it immediately hand over power to civilians. Recent U.S. legislation could block annual aid to Egypt unless it takes certain steps. These include abiding by its 1979 peace treaty with Israel, holding free and fair elections, and “implementing policies to protect freedom of expression, association and religion and due process of law.”

The U.S. is due to give $1.3 billion in military assistance and $250 million in economic aid to Egypt in 2012. Washington has given Egypt an average of $2 billion in annual economic and military aid since 1979, according to the Congressional Research Service. Congress has approved this year’s payout, but it has also set conditions, including requiring that the secretary of state certify that the Egyptian government is supporting the transition. Aware of this condition, on February 4, 2012, after having met with Egypt’s foreign minister Mohammed Amr, Secretary of State Clinton issued a new warning to Egypt that the failure to resolve the bitter dispute over the status of non-governmental pro-democracy groups may lead to the loss of American aid to the country:

We are very clear that there are problems that arise from this situation that can impact all the rest of our relationship with Egypt….We do not want that. We have worked very hard this past year to put in place financial assistance and other support for the economic and political reforms that are occurring in Egypt….We will have to closely review these matters as it comes for us to certify whether any of these funds from our government can be made available under these circumstances.

In this context, Egypt’s military leader sacked the general responsible for media affairs to bolster an image tarnished by killings of protesters and accusations that the men in uniform are undermining Egypt’s democratic revolution. The change is the first in the military council since the generals took power from President Hosni Mubarak during the popular uprising last February.

Although it defused a violent confrontation by ushering Mubarak out, the military has also tried to crush subsequent protests by force, killing dozens. It has only grudgingly agreed to hand over power to a civilian president by June, and tried to protect its privileges and avoid civilian oversight.

The generals are not trusted by many young pro-democracy campaigners, who suspect they want to curtail civilian power by exploiting the fragile security situation.

Dozens died when the army tried to suppress protests on the streets of Cairo in November and December and video images of soldiers mistreating injured demonstrators sparked widespread anger. The army said troops were also killed. Army spokesmen blamed the violence on “invisible hands” determined to sow chaos among Egyptians and undermine the achievements of the uprising against Mubarak.

Egypt’s military ruler Field Marshall Tantawi has tried to improve the military’s public image, calling on Egyptians to unite behind the army and ordering the formation of a committee of generals to ensure positive media coverage.

Twelve months after the popular uprising erupted in Egypt, captivating the world and dislodging its authoritarian president, the question remains whether Egypt is on the right path and whether the revolution has delivered on its promise. The unity of last year’s revolution has given way to new realities and widening differences among Egyptians. The investigation against the NGOs shows how far Egypt has to go before such organizations can operate as freely as they do in much of the world, highlighting what Egyptian activists describe as the persistence of the Mubarak-era mentality – one of fear of allowing too much debate.

A year later the regime is still very much in place and the biggest mistake was entrusting the military with the keys to the revolution after it assumed power. The military has managed to outmaneuver other forces in the country (Islamists, revolutionary youth, liberals, the business elite and even foreign governments) by creating conditions on the ground whereby everybody discreetly feels the military should play a role in safeguarding the political process despite calls for its complete marginalization from political life. This is the new Egyptian reality and this is what the U.S. is realizing when confronting the SCAF on the NGOs and the process of democracy.