Feb 23, 2012
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

To Watch this Weekend: Americans on Trial


AFP/Getty Images: Egyptian soldiers stand guard in front of NDI's office on December 29, 2011

This Sunday, 43 people, at least 16 of which are Americans, will be put to trial in Egypt for allegedly operating democracy programs without a license and transferring foreign funds to opposition groups.

The funny thing is that the groups these people work for, including DC-based IRI, NDI and Freedom House, were largely left alone during the Mubarak regime. Only now, after the dictator was ousted, are they under siege _ “a very disturbing sign”, in the words of Thomas Friedman, that “tells you how incomplete the ‘revolution’ in Egypt has been and how vigorously the counter-revolutionary forces are fighting back”.

Many say that it is the US-Egypt relationship that will be on trial. The situation has certainly strained their ties. A delegation of politicians, headed by senator John McCain, will arrive in Cairo on Monday to put some pressure on Egypt.

Although from most accounts it seems that the push for the trial comes from a handful of old Mubarak cronies, from the outside it appears that the government as a whole is adamant on pursuing the workers. According to Bloomberg, “Egyptian officials have increasingly gone public with their accusations, garnering particular praise from the Islamist parties that control Parliament [Muslim Brotherhood included] and the state-owned media. An editorial in one such publication, Al-Gomhuria , opined that now is the right time ‘to correct the course of Egyptian-American relations so that they are based on parity, a respect for sovereignty and the achievement of joint interests’”.

Other newspapers in the region are joining in that opinion, for example in Kuwait.

Some disagree. In a different Egyptian newspaper, columnist Amro az-Zanat, aiming at the Muslim Brotherhood, wondered “from where did the groups operating in the area of political Islam get their money” and why weren’t these funds, presumably supplied by foreign countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, subject to similar ‘NGO’ investigations.”

Meanwhile, some surveys offer interesting perspectives on the impact this discussion might have on the public of both countries. One such survey conducted by Zogby in Egypt last September shows that when asked about their political priorities, Egyptians ranked first employment, education, health care, and ending corruption at the top tier; democracy- related concerns appeared lower on the list. That is not surprising at all, given that most people in any country are primarily worried about bread-and-butter issues, but it is worth mentioning that the list of priorities is the same as it was before the revolution.

Another survey was conducted by ZRS last summer and showed that only 5 percent of Egyptians held a favorable view of the U.S., while with 89 percent said that American policies do not “contribute to peace and stability in the Arab World.” Americans are then an easy prey.

The last survey I wanted to mention was conducted in the US this January by jzanalytics for NYU Abu Dhabi. It shows a dramatic turn for the worse in American views of Egypt. “Now only 32 percent of Americans have a favorable attitude toward Egypt, with 34 percent holding a negative view (and 33 percent saying they are ‘not sure’)”, notes James Zogby at the Huffington Post.

I shall want to see what happens to those numbers if the American democracy workers are convicted.

Even if that happens, I will be surprised if Washington really freezes the US$ 1.3 billion in aid per year to Egypt. Assured by the Camp David Accord, Cairo is betting that it won’t. But it will not come as a shock if all of this leads to a rebalancing of the ties between the two countries. Perhaps that was inevitable anyway.


1 Comment

  • The US Government will have no choice but to apply some sort of sanction on Egypt if the courts convict any of these people. Otherwise, it will lose total credibility with the Government of Egypt. The security arrangements the US has with Egypt won’t seem very valuable if the latter government throws people in jail over what is basically a domestic political dispute.

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