Why is Egypt prosecuting American freedom and democracy activists?

It’s baffling, no question about it. 

Look first at the “who” is behind this. “Egypt” is not behind this attack on American civil society activists; instead, it starts with one woman, Fayza Aboul Naga, the Minister of International Cooperation (yes, believe it or not, that’s her title). 

Minister Aboul Naga is “filul,” Egyptian slang meaning she is a “remnant”, a holdover from the Mubarak regime.  Indeed, Hosni Mubarak appointed her in 2001 as Minister of Foreign Affairs and later moved her to the position she holds now as Minister of International Cooperation.  When Mubarak was ousted on February 11, 2011, Abul-Naga remained in the cabinet and stayed there even after a shake-up or two in the past 12 months.  She’s a survivor.  She’s “filul”.  She’s also a FOS – a Friend of Suzanne (Mubarak).  Perhaps that is more telling than anything else.  Suzanne Mubarak continues to live free, while her ailing husband and her two sons, Alaa and Gamal, are all in prison and on trial.  Suzanne travels virtually unencumbered.  Is she stirring up some of this?  Is Abul-Naga’s persecution and prosecution of American democracy activists some type of payback against Obama and the US, for their abandonment of Mubarak, during the 18-day revolution of January 25 – February 11, 2011? 

Even if this clampdown on American activists is the work first and foremost of the ‘filul’ Fayza Abul-Naga, she is not doing this alone.   Enter the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), led by Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi.  The SCAF is the “collective President” of Egypt, and has been since last February 11.   Egypt’s military has received around $1.3 billion per year for over 30 years from the US.  Any military capabilities Egypt has built up since the mid-70s is due to this largesse and American military cooperation.  So why would they give their approval to Fayza Aboul Naga to do this?  Why are they giving her this “extended leash” to attack the NGOs, and the American ones in particular?   Perhaps her motivation is understandable (“friend of Suzanne”, demagogue, filul).  But why the military support for this?  It certainly isn’t the principle of “rule of law.”

The one answer most people tend to agree on is this – the diversion factor:  to offer up a distraction to Egyptians, and to provide some “evidence” to their claim that so much of the unrest in Egypt is due to “foreign hands”, stirring up trouble in Egypt.  The SCAF is failing as a “president”.  Security is negligible in Egypt, and there has been a prolonged spike in crime over the past 12 months – kidnappings are rampant; carjackings also; and the lack of police presence in city streets is especially disturbing to Egyptians.  The most horrific example of the SCAF’s failure to protect Egyptian citizens is the massacre of over 80 soccer fans in Port Said, when thugs and perhaps undercover ‘filul’ stabbed, beat, and trampled to death sports fans from the Ahly team. 

Under the SCAF’s leadership, Egypt’s economy has been in a tailspin.  Tourism revenues are down by over 30% from last year; foreign reserves down from $36 billion in mid-2011 to around $10 billion in early 2012; the Egyptian pound is weakening; food prices are rising and subsidies on food and other basic needs are being cut, leading to riots and strikes.  The IMF (International Monetary Fund) has been offering a $3.2 billion loan to Egypt since last summer; Minister Fayza Aboul Naga led the charge against such an “affront” to Egypt’s national integrity, and the SCAF went along with her then – rejecting the deal, despite the easy (or “soft”) terms and the great need facing Egypt.  In February 2012, those talks are back on, with the SCAF saying they may ask for an even larger loan – i.e., the economy has worsened that much since their summer 2011 rejection. 

As Egypt’s economy continues to fail; as the security inside Egypt continues to deteriorate; and as the US-Egypt relationship continues to suffer, Egyptian citizens are suffering and need support.  The US Congress is understandably threatening to cut off all military and economic aid to Egypt, if Egypt continues its scapegoating of American NGOs and democracy activists, finding in them the “foreign hand” working to undermine Egypt’s “revolution.” 

There is no “revolution” in Egypt today.  That revolution of January 25th was hijacked by SCAF and other “filul”, such as Mrs. Abul-Naga.  On February 11, 2011, the SCAF led a coup against Mubarak but also against the revolutionaries.  Those are the hands undermining Egypt, its youth, its economy and its hoped-for revolution.

And if there are “foreign hands” involved in pushing their agendas, these generally are working to get the “revolution” back on its course.  Some are guiding it toward Islamism (this is coming from Qatar and Saudi Arabia mostly, along with the free flow of millions of dollars for Islamist parties); some are guiding it toward “secular” or at least a more “liberal” democracy (this is coming from Europe and the United States, along with promises of millions of dollars that has been stopped by Minister Aboul Naga and her allies in the prosecutors’ offices).

If American NGO activists are prosecuted in Egypt, Congress is likely to cut or withhold all aid to Egypt.  This will ruin American-Egyptian relations, with negative impact for the region.   The Pentagon’s top military leader, General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will travel to Egypt this week to meet SCAF leaders, starting with Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi and Lt. Gen. Sami Anan.  If these three military leaders cannot find a solution to this crisis in US-Egypt relations, then the ‘filul’ win, American democracy activists suffer, and Egypt continues its descent into economic and security collapse. 

Denis Sullivan is a Professor of Political Science and serves as Director of Northeastern’s Middle East Center for Peace, Culture, and Development. He has worked, studied and lived in Egypt over many decades. He can be reached at d.sullivan@neu.edu.

Photo Credit: al-Ahram