What’s behind the Egyptian Military’s Attacks on Civil Society?
In recent weeks Egypt’s interim military rulers, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), have stepped up attacks on civil society leaders and pro-democracy activists, accusing them of peddling “foreign agendas” and various other seditious activities. These attacks, while disturbing, paradoxically are a sign of progress in Egypt’s political transition. Members of civil society have become sufficiently effective and sophisticated as to warrant a concerted international smear campaign by Egypt’s highest authority.
At first blush, the attacks appear to be a rerun of the tripe authoritarianism for which former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and his fellow Arab dictators are famous. When one cannot address the people’s legitimate grievances, it’s rather expected to revert to unfounded accusations of foreign sabotage, espionage, and any other external factors that distract the population from domestic problems. Viewed through this lens, the Egyptian military exposes its true colors as simply Mubarak-lite bent on preserving the status quo with only superficial changes in leadership. And this was the motivation behind the reformers’ three-week sit-in in Tahrir Square until they were forcibly removed by the military.
It is no secret that Egypt is the second largest foreign aid recipient after Israel. Under then President George W. Bush, the United States government stopped channeling non-military foreign aid through the Egyptian government and instead distributed grants directly to civil society. President Barack Obama discontinued this practice until Mubarak’s fall from power on February 11, after which hundreds of nongovernmental organizations lined up to request funding.
Much of the money has gone to democracy promotion projects aimed at enhancing Egyptians’ ability to engage in the political process, hold their government accountable, call for transparency in governance, and other projects that serve as the building blocks of a democracy. Some projects were successful while significantly more were an embarrassing failure for reasons ranging from self-dealing to ineptitude.
Notwithstanding the mixed results, the issue of how American foreign aid — sixty-five millions of dollars worth — is distributed has become a game-changer from the military’s perspective. So much so that members of SCAF used a panel a the United States Institute for Peace in Washington, D.C. last month to publicly condemn the U.S. for violating previous understandings on foreign aid. When challenged on the double standard of accepting military aid yet rebuking economic and social aid to civil society, the military leaders blithely characterized the former as “legal” and the latter as “illegal.”
In other words, if the money goes through the military to ensure political dissenters are starved of American funds then the foreign aid is clean and most welcome. Otherwise, it is part of a grand conspiracy to destroy Egypt and prevent it from attaining its rightful place as a regional leader.
Two deductions can be made from this seemingly irrational behavior. First and foremost, the military is not interested in operating any differently than the Mubarak regime. In which case, there is no need for protesters to camp out in Tahrir Square to expose the military’s authoritarian tendencies and bad faith. The ongoing attacks against the April 6th movement and other reputable civil society groups, along with the military’s unprecedented use of military courts to try civilian protesters and imprisoning bloggers for critiquing the military, have effectively proven that point.
Second, the military’s willingness to figuratively bite the hand that feeds it, at least $1.3 billion dollars in American aid, reveals just how threatened they are by the pro-democracy movement lead by human rights groups, political reformers, and grassroots activists. Under Mubarak, the trumped-up conspiracy theories of foreign sabotage were a diversionary tactic to distract a starving public away from the regime’s domestic failures. For Egypt’s current military rulers, these tactics are about preserving their political survival to the extent that they merit a risky and unprecedented public censure of Egypt’s biggest ally.
Despite decades of oppressive practices by Mubarak, Egyptian civil society has finally become sufficiently effective to become serious political competition in the contest for power. No longer are human rights advocates and youth organizers dismissed as merely children complaining on the fringes, but rather they are feared as sophisticated and sufficiently empowered organizations diligently working to ensure the system — and not just the leaders — is reformed for the benefit of all Egyptians. That includes holding the military accountable.
The military’s propaganda campaign therefore reflects a palpable fear on its part, along with those political forces whom it has been able to co-opt, of political competition that could deny them power they seek to wield for decades to come. Not only do they want to deny political dissenters a potential source of funding and discredit them, they also likely seek to direct the foreign aid towards groups that either implicitly support them or are otherwise ineffective.
For these reasons, the Obama administration cannot and should not buckle to the military’s coercive tactics to eliminate any viable political competition. Notwithstanding the serious flaws in American foreign aid policy as described in a 2009 audit by the USAID Office of Inspector General, which certainly need to be rectified, the United States must stay true to its values of supporting democracy tailored to the needs of a particular nation.
It is up to the Egyptian people to choose who should lead them and they deserve to have diverse and meaningful choices. Cowing to the military’s threats makes that possibility less likely.
Sahar Aziz is a legal fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding and an associate professor of law at Texas Wesleyan University School of Law. She serves as the President of the Egyptian American Rule of Law Association.