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Playing a dangerous game in Egypt

I've been waiting for this story to die away but it doesn't appear to want to. I'm observing its escalation with amused horror. Amused, because it looks like the Egyptian military government is effectively bullying the U.S. in a crisis neither really controls. Horror, because when all is said and done the losers will be the Egyptian people.

A brief recap: In December, the Egyptian authorities raided the offices of 17 humanitarian organizations. The police confiscated documents, money, computers. The government, basing its actions on a shameful and draconian Mubarak-era law, accused the groups of receiving illegal funding from overseas and operating in Egypt without proper registration.

Four of the 17 are U.S.-based organizations: the International Republican Institute (IRI), the National Democratic Institute (NDI), the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ), and Freedom House. One is German, the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung. Several of the groups' staffers, including such notable figures as Nasser Amin, director of the Arab Center for the Independence of the Judiciary and Legal Profession, were detained and questioned for hours on end.

The charges are ludicrous. Suffices it to say that the "revelations" publicized by the investigating judge include things like "maps of Egypt divided into four" found in the offices of one organization, cited as evidence of a nefarious plan to fragment the country. The organization in question responded that those were government-supplied maps that showed voting districts.

The funding for these groups is generally quite transparent, and all of them have filed for registration, some as early as 2005 - without ever receiving a response, positive or negative. It's also hard to claim that they've been operating out of the public eye, since they all regularly cooperate with state public institution. Both IRI and NDI were authorized to deploy election monitors to the parliamentary elections in November and January.

The only thing these organizations really did wrong was to fall in the same trap as many of us Egyptians: they assumed that freedom was on the rise. They failed to foresee the forces that were pushing in the opposite direction, or that these forces might rely on Mubarak-era dictatorial laws to prosecute them. Perhaps we should have all seen it coming. After all, the person behind this latest attack on our liberties is the minister of international cooperation, Fayza Abul-Naga, a Mubarak-era relic who has outlived a revolution and three post-revolutionary cabinets. She's the one who has been spearheading the attacks -- with the blessing of the ruling military body, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).

On Feb. 6, the Egyptian authorities announced they would refer 43 people to a criminal court for trial. Of those, 19 are US citizens. Some sought refuge at the U.S. embassy. All are banned from leaving the country.

Why now? Some members of Egyptian non-governmental organizations (NGOs) believe that the purpose is to divert attention away from the military's own shortcomings by creating a hypothetical foreign attack on national sovereignty even while intimidating the very organizations most likely to criticize them for poor governance.

The American government is understandably nervous. Its official statements have wavered between miscomprehension, delicate diplomacy, and forceful objection. On Feb. 14, the U.S. Embassy in Cairo felt compelled to issue a "fact sheet" explaining the rationale behind American support for organizations promoting democracy and human rights overseas. The whole exercise felt embarrassingly tentative.

Lately the U.S. has also been sending emissaries to Cairo to clean up the mess. On Sunday, visiting Senator John McCain, who had just met with senior officials, predicted that the Egyptian government would "find an acceptable solution" to the row.(He's shown in the photo above, during a Cairo press conference with three of his fellow senators.)

The U.S. government, of course, is not a disinterested bystander. Each year Washington pays a grant of $1.3 billion to the Egyptian military (significant amounts of which, it should be noted, are siphoned off for non-military purposes). An additional $250 million (less than a fifth of the military aid) goes to food and other economic assistance. So theoretically this should give the U.S. some leverage. Members of the U.S. Congress recently tabled bills that threatened to cut aid to Cairo if the issue isn't resolved. Earlier this month 41 members of Congress sent a letter to the same effect to SCAF head Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi.

Even though I'm one of many who believe the United States should stop bankrolling dictatorial governments, these threats won't be enough to solve the impasse. Here's why:

First, the threat to cut aid just doesn't look serious. Two congressmen submit bills to restrict assistance to Egypt, but said funds remain unchanged in President Obama's proposal for the 2012 federal budget. Washington issues threats from afar but when its envoys arrive in Egypt they're all smiles and seem intent on avoiding any serious rifts. They know that SCAF holds some good cards - 19 of them, to be exact. And in the background there's the threat that the government could annul the Egypt-Israel 1979 peace treaty, a cornerstone of U.S. regional policy as well as the main motive for American military aid to Egypt.

Second, the SCAF has complete control over the state media in Egypt, and for a year now it's been using that control to create a surge of xenophobia. These latest accusations against the NGOs give it the perfect opportunity to rail against evil American designs on Egypt. After blaming the aid workers for pretty much everything but spreading cholera or kidnapping babies, last week it turned on the long-established American University in Cairo, indirectly accusing its faculty and students of being a "tool" of the American government. Then, via its Muslim Brotherhood allies, it turned its fire on Anne Paterson, the U.S. ambassador to Egypt, accusing her of "leading a U.S.-Zionist scheme to induce sedition in Egypt as she did in [her previous posting in] Pakistan." These are a lot of fronts for the U.S. to fight on at once, and the Americans are likely to prefer resolving the issue as rapidly as possible.

It may sound irrational for a client state to play chicken with its benefactor, but from its own perspective SCAF doesn't really have anything to lose. That's because SCAF isn't betting with its own money: it's betting with Egypt's finances as well as its international reputation and credibility - but as it has repeatedly shown over the past year, these are things it doesn't really seem to care about much. Sure, the U.S. provides subsidies for wheat, a staple of the Egyptian diet. But the army produces its own bread, so there's no need to worry about that. And so what if xenophobia is on the rise, the tourism industry decimated? None of that has much bearing on the army's resources.

If SCAF wins and the U.S. folds, that will reinforce SCAF's brutal hold over Egyptian civil society while maintaining its funding.

And even if the Americans follow through on their threats to curtail aid, SCAF will win populist points (heartily supported by the state media machine) for having "stood up" to the United States. And the generals will have no scruples about making up the difference from the national budget, especially when it's controlled by their political allies from the Muslim Brotherhood, which now dominates Parliament. In fact, SCAF's cheerleaders have been suggesting raising the equivalent amount of the U.S. assistance from all Egyptians under the guise of "achieving sovereignty." (That this would primarily benefit SCAF at the expense of ordinary people goes without saying.)

And now the Muslim Brotherhood has chimed in, declaring it will seek to review the Egypt-Israel 1979 peace treaty if the United States cuts assistance to the country.

An end to the crisis is probably near. Everyone, including SCAF, realizes that the accusations are a sham, and that the whole thing is intended to intimidate civil society and thwart criticism of the government's human rights violations. The accused Egyptians and Americans will be eventually acquitted (the Americans probably sooner). The terms of their release are unknown, but they will almost certainly include maintaining U.S. aid. The main victims will be weakened Egyptian civil society, Egypt's public image in the U.S., and U.S.-Egyptian relations as a whole.

There are, however, a few signs of hope. One of them is that the congressional debate about aid to Egypt may finally help Americans to comprehend the extent to which subsidizing a military dictatorship damages U.S. standing. If that actually comes about, then this whole crisis will not have been in vain.

MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

Riots in Senegal, stubborn Serbs in Kosovo, and more protests in Tibet

Americas

For the first time in years, the Venezuelan opposition united to choose a single candidate to run against President Hugo Chavez in elections scheduled in October. After some initial disagreements, the opposition succeeded in destroying the lists of who had voted in order to assure confidentiality and safeguard the voters against possible reprisals.

In Ecuador, a court sentenced a columnist and three executives of the El Universo newspaper to three years of prison and $40 million dollars in damages for libeling President Rafael Correa.

Meanwhile, there was growing political turmoil in Panama, with violent clashes reportedly stemming from President Ricardo Martinelli's growing authoritarianism. Indigenous people in the highlands of western Panama have been protesting government plans for huge new copper mines and hydroelectric dams.

Africa

In Zimbabwe, riot police brutally assaulted members of a leading advocacy group and detained one of its members as she was leaving a meeting of the committee that is supposed to be monitoring a 2008 power sharing agreement. Zimbabwe also suspended 29 NGOs in what could be the first sign of a crackdown before scheduled elections. Under the 2008 deal, the next presidential election will take place only in 2013, once a new constitution has been approved.

In a particularly fair election, a ruling party candidate in Nigeria was elected governor in the oil-producing state of Bayelsa, ending months of political uncertainty.

Meanwhile, deadly clashes and demonstrations continued in Senegal ahead of the presidential elections scheduled for the end of the month. (The photo above shows a Senegalese policeman firing tear gas at demonstrators.)

In Malawi, an outspoken critic of President Bingu wa Mutharika was arrested and placed in a maximum security prison.

Asia

A Tibetan nun died on Saturday after setting herself on fire to protest Chinese rule in Tibet. She was reportedly the sixth Tibetan to die from self-immolation in a week. The Buddhist leader Thich Quang Do, under house arrest in Vietnam, sent a message of solidarity to the Dalai Lama and the people of Tibet. Interestingly, one Tibetan-majority area, Gartse, is relatively calm at the moment. Unlike other areas, local authorities have allowed the monks there to protest in peace.

The chief peace negotiator in Burma (Myanmar) said he expected to reach ceasefire deals with all of the country's ethnic minority rebel armies within three months. In another hopeful sign, the national election commission announced that it was lifting restrictions on campaigning in the upcoming parliamentary by-election shortly after a public complaint by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Rival factions in the Maldives appeared to have reached an Indian-brokered agreement to hold early elections in an effort to resolve the political crisis. In India, meanwhile there have been growing fears that the freedom of expression is under attack.

There was little surprise in the presidential election in Turkmenistan, where President Berdymukhamedov was re-elected with 97 percent of the votes.

Europe

Ethnic Serbs in northern Kosovo overwhelmingly rejected rule by Pristina in a referendum. The government in neighboring Serbia fears that the result could complicate its bid to join the EU.

North Africa

In Morocco, a young student was sentenced to three years in prison for criticizing the king in a YouTube video.

Libyans celebrated the one-year anniversary of the start of their uprising, and political parties started getting organized for elections in June. Commentators did not fail, however, to point out the many difficult challenges ahead: militias roaming with impunity, a judiciary in tatters, and tensions between the eastern and western regions of the country. A human rights group found evidence of human rights abuses, including widespread torture in militia-run detention centers, and urged the interim government to rein them in. There were reports of violence between tribes in the far southeast of the country. In Niger, one of Qaddafi's sons, Saadi Qaddafi, warned of a coming uprising in a TV interview before authorities confiscated his communications equipment.

Middle East

In Egypt, there was continued uncertainty amid wrangling between SCAF and the parliament over the country's vague transitional roadmap and the timing of the presidential elections and the drafting of a new constitution. There was a very low turnout for the second round of elections to the Shura Council, the parliament's upper house, which has little power but will oversee the selection of a committee to write the new constitution.

The UN General Assembly overwhelmingly passed a non-binding resolution demanding that Syria end its bloody crackdown and endorsing the Arab League plan for a political transition. Belarus, Bolivia, China, Cuba, Ecuador, Iran, Nicaragua, North Korea, Russia, Syria, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe voted against. A "Friends of Syria Group" is scheduled for Feb. 24. President Bashar al Assad announced that a referendum on a new constitution would be held on Feb. 26. Meanwhile, violent attacks continued around the country. Reports from the ground supported the view that is still little central leadership within Syria's armed opposition.

Bahraini activists and security forces clashed on the anniversary of the first demonstrations last year. The opposition reiterated its demands for fundamental change and called for direct talks with the king.

In Yemen, security was being tightened around election committee offices in advance of next week's election. On Tuesday a suicide bomber blew himself up near one of the offices.

In Iran, silent demonstrations were reported in Tehran and other big cities. The government deployed large security forces to suppress them.

And finally, this week's ecommended reads:

A report analyzes the effects of poor community policing in Indonesia (International Crisis Group) and a commentary argues for the importance of supporting police reform in Egypt and Tunisia (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace).

A commentator explores the impact of economic growth on the survival of new democracies (Dart-Throwing Chimp).

A management expert contends that 2011 was a turning point in the fight against corruption (Foreign Affairs).

Two journalists present five lessons to be drawn from the rise of the BRICs (The Atlantic.com).

An online symposium produces a range of views on possible action to be taken against Syria by the international community (The New Republic). And a leading website on the Middle East offers a new Syria page (Jadaliyya).

-- by Chloé de Préneuf

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