US and Egypt should walk back on NGO row

U.S. relations with Egypt have sunk to a new low in a row between the Egyptian military rulers and foreign pro-democracy NGOs accused of fomenting instability in the country. Unfortunately, both sides have mishandled things and the crisis is escalating.

I’m in Cairo, where Egyptian activists say that the military authorities should have acted earlier to enforce a 2002 law providing for the registration of NGOs. But while Egyptian authorities contend that the NGOs failed to register, the NGOs say they had taken steps to do so and fear that the registration is just a pretext for the crackdown.

One activist put the blame on the international cooperation minister, Faiza Abul Naga, a holdover from the Mubarak era. She presumably informed the military rulers about her decision to go after the NGOs — she has said it was a judge who ordered the operation — but the scale and harshness of the crackdown on 10 human-rights and democracy groups was surprising. Their offices were ransacked by commandos in riot gear, computers taken away, and a travel ban imposed on Americans working for the groups. Sam LaHood, the son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and the Egyptian director of the International Republican Institute, was turned back at Cairo airport. The United States responded by rushing Americans from the NGOs to the U.S. Embassy “for their own safety” (while recognizing that they were never in physical danger).

While the headlines in the West have focused on the American NGOs, spare a thought for the Egyptian pro-democracy organizations, which don’t have the same level of publicity and protection. There is a Human Rights Council in Egypt. Is the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood — whose Freedom and Justice Party is the dominant party in the “new” Egypt after the elections — interested in human rights? Apparently not. Its priorities are tackling the indescribable poverty and endemic corruption in the country. Some here fear that the Council’s future could be in jeopardy.

Meanwhile, the military — or SCAF, as it is known here — has reacted in a clumsy and partial way. It has criticized the foreign funding for NGOs pouring into the country, blaming a “foreign hand” for trying to destabilize the country. But who is funding the extreme fundamentalist Salafists whose supporters have been going around with Tasers forcing women out of hairdressing salons? (You might call that a “bad hair day,” but who knew going to a hairdresser was a sin against Islam?) People here say that the conservative Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia — which has no interest in a successful Egyptian revolution, for obvious reasons — are among those funding the Salafists. But you don’t hear the SCAF talking about that.

This is the time for America to stand up for human rights, the “universal values” that President Obama is always talking about. But this is a complicated and murky situation, where Egyptian national pride is at stake, so the United States should tread carefully. Taking the Americans into the embassy was an overreaction. But equally so was the military’s travel ban, which exacerbated tensions. An Egyptian military delegation is due in Washington today for talks with the administration. They need to reach an understanding urgently and walk back from this row.