Yesterday, the trial began—and just as quickly adjourned—for the 43 NGO workers, 19 of them American, accused by the Egyptian government of operating illegally in the country. The groups are charged with not having proper licenses, receiving foreign funding and engaging in political activity—in other words, the government says they’re a proxy for foreign governments hoping to foment unrest in Egypt. U.S. officials have objected strenuously to the charges and have threatened to withhold $1.5 billion in annual aid for Egypt.
Now that the trial has been set back—it will begin again on April 26—Egyptian and U.S. officials have more time to resolve the issue diplomatically.
We at Latitude News are watching this because the issue has brought attention to the relationship between the U.S. and Egypt in the post-Mubarak era. But is it the right sort of attention?
Principle vs. practice
Sharif Abdel Kouddous, writing for the Egypt Independent, says the principle behind the U.S.’s complaint is vitally important to protect a free civil society. It’s just that he doesn’t think the the principle is important to the U.S. Instead he argues that the U.S. is narrowly concerned about its own citizens and interests, particularly two groups that had activists arrested – the International Republican Institute and the Democratic National Institute – that are largely funded by U.S. tax dollars.
Kouddous says that if the United States was really concerned about civil society and freedom of expression, then it would have raised a similar hue and cry over the imprisonments, deaths and injuries of protestors under the transitional government. For example, after more than two dozen protestors were killed on Oct. 9, the U.S. did not threaten to cut off aid to Egypt.
Instead, as Kouddous points out, “the day after the attack, the White House released a statement saying Obama was “deeply concerned” about the violence” and called for “restraint on all sides so that Egyptians can move forward together to forge a strong and united Egypt.”
And a couple weeks later, the Obama administration reiterated its ties to Egypt.
Kouddous also doubts the U.S. will make good on its threat to withhold aid. Beyond the fact that the U.S. needs to keep ties with Egypt, there’s the fact of where those billions end up. According to Kouddous, “Egypt has received $1.3 billion annually since 1979 in Foreign Military Financing, which contractually must be spent with US companies. Under this arrangement, the majority of US military aid to Egypt flows back to American corporations. Thirty percent of the funds are spent on new weapons with the remainder largely spent on upgrades to existing equipment, maintenance and support contracts.”
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UPDATE: Egypt lifted a travel ban on the seven American defendants in the case, including the son of U.S. Transportation secretary Ray LaHood. Although it’s unclear if the charges will be officially dropped, this indicates an end of the diplomatic crisis. Also, the three Egyptian judges presiding over the trial have resigned from it, citing “uneasiness” with the charges.