SCAF’s Chinese surprise in 2012

The recent Egyptian crackdown on American NGOs may be a sign to the Americans that its foreign aid is replaceable.

The recent SCAF crackdown on quasi-official US NGOs has had the effect of rallying activist groups [GALLO/GETTY]

Irvine, California – Last week’s raids on some 17 Egyptian civil society and human rights organisations by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which included attacks on several prominent American-sponsored NGOs, presents a unique opportunity to explore several questions at the centre of the historic, but still tenuous changes Egypt is undergoing as the revolution completes its first year.

The first surrounds which interests ultimately control American foreign policy. SCAF’s opening of investigations into Egyptian civil society organisations based on charges of foreign funding is not new. But with the US Congress now tying future aid to a successful democratic transition; raiding quasi-official American NGOs – such as the National Democracy Institute, the International Republican Institute and Freedom House – which have powerful political patrons in Washington, is quite something else. It’s thus not surprising that senior Obama administration officials, including Defence Secretary Leon Panetta, called to complain to their counterparts in the wake of the raids.

As I explained in a previous column, human rights has become a central component to the pro-democracy protests across the region because it focuses on “ends” issues – bread, freedom and dignity – that represent the fundamental core needs of citizens. In contrast, political discourses surrounding “democracy” or various economic ideologies are ultimately the “means” to achieve more fundamental societal goals.

Because human rights are by definition universalist in nature, while civil society organisations encourage pluralism and tolerance that enable a diversity of views to be heard and respected, they constitute a significant challenge to the kind of nationalist and/or religious discourses deployed by the Egyptian government as part of its attempts to marginalise opposition to their continued power.

Grounded in the definition and exclusion of “others” who are not part of, and therefore a threat to, the core community, nationalist and religious discourses are easily deployed against perceived “foreign enemies” and citizens accused of aiding them. Human rights and civil society grounded discourses are among the most powerful responses to such discourses of exclusion. They constitute, as the Nadim Centre for Human Rights in Egypt put it in a December 29 statement, the country’s most important “oppositional voice” [ARABIC], which is precisely why SCAF is so threatened by them.

A potential treasure trove of information

A day after the raid, SCAF announced it would stop the attacks on civil society and promised to return all the confiscated computer equipment. But SCAF has promised to stop attacking, harassing and killing Egyptians numerous times during the last year, only to expand the violence soon thereafter.

As for the seized computers and mobile phones, unless employees were extremely vigilant about remotely storing sensitive information such as contact lists or off-the-record interviews with victims of abuses and government officials, the raids could allow SCAF not merely to learn about potentially damaging investigations, but to create a detailed map of how Egyptian human rights community operates and what are its primary strategies, goals, methods and web of relations.

Such knowledge could severely hamper the human rights community’s ability to monitor abuses and coordinate advocacy against continued SCAF violations of human, political and civil rights. Pissing off the US State Department would be a small price to pay for such a valuable intelligence haul.

On the other hand, the raids have had the effect of rallying together activist groups that have been at odds since before the revolution precisely over the issue of receiving any sort of aid or training from the US. Indeed, one’s position towards participation with these American sponsored organisations is one of the defining positions separating so-called liberal and more ‘radical’ activists among the revolutionaries.

Many if not most hardcore revolutionary activists I know have been dismissive of American groups like NDI, IRI and Freedom House in the past, and consider “liberal” activists who have received training by such groups or attended workshops and conferences they’ve sponsored as either naive or worse.

SCAF might well have gone after the more liberal, US-affiliated groups precisely because the recent attempts to paint the more hardcore socialist activists as operating against Egypt was met by a fierce and effective counter-attack. The anti-American policy line of the Revolutionary Socialists, for example, is so clearly articulated, and their ties to syndicates and labour activists across Egypt strong enough, that accusing them of foreign support or acting against the revolution would have a hard time gaining traction.

Determining SCAF’s calculations

It remains to be seen how the US will respond to this direct provocation by SCAF. The Obama administration and Congress could in the new year become serious about promoting democracy and human rights. If so, they would have to act on so far empty threats to tie continued funding of the Egyptian military to an end to human rights abuses and the enabling of a real transition to substantive democracy.

“SCAF either doesn’t believe the US will actually cut aid, or has determined that it has other options to make up for any downgrade.

– Mark LeVine

But it seems to the Egyptian leadership that SCAF either doesn’t believe the US will actually cut aid, or has determined that it has other options to make up for any downgrade in aid or US-Egyptian relations more broadly. Pakistan and Israel offer good comparative cases here; in both cases, government dominated by militaries routinely act against the wishes of their US patron.

In Israel’s case, the government is safe in the knowledge that almost no action it could take would lead to an actual reduction in US military or diplomatic support. Does SCAF consider itself similarly secure? Since the Camp David peace treaty, American military aid to Egypt has been directly tied to its aid to Israel, and has thus been essentially equally secure, regardless of the repressive policies of the Egyptian government towards its people.

Egypt has been too central to the US Middle Eastern security system, and the hundreds of billions of dollars in weapons sales and military activities it generates, to allow the issue of democracy to get in the way of such a strategically important and lucrative relationship. But with the revolutionary democracy protests across the Arab world, of which Egypt and Tahrir Square have been the central symbols, the Obama administration has had to walk a much thinner tightrope while juggling rhetorical support for democracy with continued support for its Egyptian military clients.

By attacking US organisations, SCAF is directly challenging the US to put up or shut up when it comes to its democracy agenda. Like Israel announcing new settlement construction on the eve of official US visits, SCAF could be letting the administration know that in its estimation, the interests of the US military and its corporate allies in the defence, petroleum and heavy industrial sectors continue to determine US foreign policy, not the State Department. They can be counted on to ensure the gravy train keeps running regardless of how SCAF behaves.

On top of this, SCAF holds a trump card in its continued security relationship with Israel. The Egyptian leadership could reasonably assume that neither the Obama administration nor Congress will cut aid or otherwise punish Egypt, because they could retaliate by downgrading its co-operation with Israel and significantly weaken Israel’s security posture.

Such a calculation could well be wrong, however. Egypt’s position in the US security system is in fact more precarious than Israel’s. Many of the most pro-Israel politicians and policymakers in Washington deeply distrust the emerging Egyptian political system and the growing power of Islamists within it, as exemplified by the attacks on the Israeli embassy and the well-known anger, if not antipathy, towards Israel by religious and revolutionary forces more broadly (that said, Israel was not at all an issue in the January-February protests, nor has it been a major issue in subsequent returns to Tahrir).

Members of Congress, and especially Likudnik Republicans, are therefore quite willing to punish SCAF and even suspend aid if they conclude, or the Israelis tell them, that the ongoing transformation already constitutes a threat to Israel’s security.

But perhaps SCAF is looking not to Israel, but towards Pakistan as a model to follow in its future dealings with its American patron. In the Pakistani case, the military for a long time felt similarly secure in its funding, regardless of its actions on the ground. But as the US lightens its footprint in Central Asia and demands Pakistan abandon long-time allies and clients in the border regions with Afghanistan, the military establishment seems to have calculated that its close security relationship with the US is less beneficial to its long-term interests than in the past.

And so today the US-Pakistani relationship remains by most accounts, at its lowest point since September 11, 2001, while Pakistan is strengthening its relationship with neighbouring China, for whom Pakistan is not merely a useful wedge against the United States, but also against regional rival India.

The reality is that however central American aid and support has been to the Egyptian elite the last two generations, neither the money nor the support is irreplaceable today. The $1.5bn in US military aid Egypt receives every year constitutes well under one per cent of the country’s GDP. It’s not as if SCAF would collapse without US aid. And the emerging political and strategic environment in and surrounding Egypt offers SCAF other options than continued clientage to the US.

Internally, from Revolutionary Socialists to Salafis, the one commonality among Egypt’s myriad and often mutually hostile political parties is a broad antipathy towards US policies in the region. At the same time, China has rapidly increased its footprint in Africa, and been building up its presence in the Middle East as well.

It is not far-fetched to imagine that SCAF has concluded that cracking down on the human rights and broader civil society community is crucial to ensuring its long-term dominance of Egypt’s politics and economy after the transition to parliamentary rule, and therefore worth the risk to relations with the Americans to continue. Should the US prove too meddlesome and demanding about human rights and democracy and actually reduce or cut off aid, a move towards China would both remind the US that Egypt has other options and provide SCAF with a patron that has little interest in “meddling” in its internal affairs.

At the same time, such a move would play to Egypt’s anti-American political environment, which like most of the Muslim world, seems little concerned with the tens of millions of Muslims repressed by China than it is by the Muslims oppressed with the help of the US.

Indeed, it is hard to imagine that Chinese diplomats in Cairo haven’t quietly been whispering to SCAF or the emerging political elite about the potential benefits of pursuing closer ties. And given China’s huge foreign currency reserves, replacing lost American aid would be a small price to pay for gaining a crucial foothold in one of the US empire’s most strategically central and prized possessions.

Egyptian learning curve

 Inside Story – Egypt elections special

While numerous foreign policy questions are raised by the latest NGO raids, they also raise several questions about the domestic political environment. Among them are how susceptible the mass of Egyptians remain to government accusations surrounding “foreign hands” threatening the “revolution” that SCAF more than anyone has done its best to destroy. It is true, as many commentators note, that outside of Cairo and other main cities the reach of alternative information provided the internet, mobile phones and private satellite television networks is fairly limited, allowing SCAF, and now Islamist parties, to dominate the flow of political knowledge in large swaths of the country.

But this doesn’t mean that the majority of Egyptians are blind to the realities of SCAF’s repression. After all, Mubarak’s use of essentially the same discourse as SCAF failed last year, and the internet, mobile phone and satellite communications, and the alternative networks of knowledge they enable, have only penetrated more deeply into Egypt’s smaller villages and countryside in the last year.

The more SCAF tries to play up the “foreign hand” argument, the more the counter-argument – that SCAF itself is the second largest recipient of US aid and therefore is acting hypocritically and unjustly in attacking civil society groups that receive miniscule funding compared to the military – will begin to penetrate Egyptian society more broadly. As violence and inequality remain untouched in the emerging system, the “bullshit and corruption” that one officer recently defined as the two basic realities of the military-controlled system, will become impossible to paper over either with calls for patriotism or defending Islam.

This assessment was offered in a recently leaked diary of a mid-level Egyptian army officer. Its publication by the Guardian might have helped precipitate the crackdown on civil society organisations because of the frank and highly critical view of SCAF and its true objectives and policies it reveals, confirming the arguments by civil society and human rights groups that SCAF has in many ways moved the country further from, not closer to, democracy, and that Islamists are only too happy to get in bed with the military to secure their own position in the emerging system.

Islamists choosing sides

This argument reveals the final issue raised by the raid on the human rights organisations: the response, or lack thereof, by Egypt’s newly empowered Islamist movements to the increasingly harsh crackdown on human rights and civil society groups. The human rights and pro-democracy organisations are by and large not self-identified as Islamist or otherwise religiously grounded, yet most have repeatedly defended members of the Brotherhood or Salafis when they’ve been harassed, detained, tortured or worse by the government.

Today, however, Islamist movements like the Brotherhood, Salafis and their political parties, are close to sharing power with the vary forces that until recently repressed them (or at least a good share of their members). With their political power on the ascendency, will Islamist forces abandon the very civil society and human rights groups that have come to their aid in the past?

Which side Islamist parties choose to support in this struggle – SCAF or the largely secular human rights and pro-democracy NGO community – will tell us whether their numerous declarations of fealty to democratic principles during the election campaign were merely rhetorical, or whether they are willing to stand up for principles and for the grounding of a truly democratic system in Egypt, even if it means more conflict with the military at a time of sensitive power-sharing negotiations between them.

As of the time of writing, the answer seems, predictably, that the Brotherhood is throwing its lot squarely in with SCAF. In interviews with the Egyptian media, senior representative Rashad al-Bayoumi declared his support [ARABIC] for prosecuting human rights groups on the grounds of their alleged support from and for foreign, sectarian and even secular interests, while media spokesman Mahmoud Ghazlan declared support [ARABIC] for amnesty for SCAF (but not necessarily lower level and thus expendable officials) for the crimes it has committed against Egyptian citizens. Such positions will only alienate the Brotherhood from the core activist movements behind the revolution, a move which could come back to haunt the movement – and the religious parties more broadly – once the true nature of the new/old system becomes apparent to the broad swath of Egyptian society.

Revolutionary redux?

One thing is for sure, as January 25 and then February 11 rapidly approach: the likelihood for another, potentially bloody showdown between the activist movements who started the revolution and SCAF remains high. If the Islamists who are the new political elite choose power over principle and refuse to support the revolution, the army might be able to crush the pro-democracy movement in Egypt for the time being, enabling the elections to “democratically” establish a government that continues the status quo.

But in the long (and perhaps not so long) run, Egyptian society will understand that the new political elite has merely become part of the old system of repression and corruption, rather than being the “solution” they portrayed themselves as being. If despite all the attempts to repress them the liberal, revolutionary and labour movements who sparked and guided the initial stage of the revolution can penetrate more deeply into Egyptian society in the interim, they will be well placed to shape the next phase of Egypt’s political transformation when the realities of SCAF and the emerging political system become impossible to obscure, not merely in Cairo or Alexandria, but across the whole of Egypt.

Mark LeVine is a professor of history at UC Irvine and senior visiting researcher at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden. His most recent books are Heavy Metal Islam (Random House) and Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989 (Zed Books).

Follow him on Twitter: @culturejamming

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

More from Author
Most Read