x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

After the NGO fallout, Egypt is fast resembling a rudderless ship

Analysis The case of the US non-profit groups pointed to the willingness of Egypt's ruling generals to engage in brinkmanship, a gamble it may have taken too far.

CAIRO // Egypt's military-backed prime minister struck a defiant note in parliament, telling politicians that the nation would not give in to foreign pressure over the case of US non-profit groups accused of fomenting sedition.

The state media, under the sway of the ruling generals, published what both state and independent newspapers said were intelligence reports linking the groups to the CIA.

A cabinet minister who is a holdover from the Hosni Mubarak-era said the groups were part of a US-Israeli plot to prevent post-Mubarak Egypt from political and economic prosperity.

The case of the US non-profit groups has revealed the depth of xenophobia in the Arab world's most populous nation and pointed to the willingness of its ruling generals to engage in brinkmanship, gambling with their close and beneficial ties with the United States to score points against their critics at home.

In the end, Egypt backed down, lifting the travel ban on seven of the 16 Americans accused in the case who were still in Egypt. The generals said they did not order the ban lifted as many in Egypt suspect, and that the entire matter was, and still is, in the hands of the judiciary.

Last week, the judge who was trying the case stepped down, citing "uneasiness". He later said his decision was in response to political pressure.

Politicians said the lifting of the ban humiliated Egypt.

Faiza Aboul Naga, the international cooperation minister who led the campaign against the groups, said she only learnt from the media of the departure on Thursday of six of the Americans. Along with the 16 Americans, 16 Egyptians are on trial as well as Germans, Palestinians, Jordanians and Serbs.

The fallout from the case has been immense, and one thing has become clear: a year after Mr Mubarak's removal from power, Egypt is fast resembling a rudderless ship with an executive branch that often lands the nation in hot water.

The relatively long transition period - the generals have promised to hand over power by July 1, nearly 18 months after they took over - is partly to blame.

Although the country held free and fair parliamentary elections, legislators are powerless in the face of the near absolute powers of the generals and day-to-day business is run by a cabinet beholden to the military.

The case and the anti-US sentiments stoked by the media and politicians were a perfect fit with the generals' months-long campaign against reform groups that helped engineer Mr Mubarak's fall from power and now demand that the generals be brought to justice over the "crimes" of killing protesters, torturing detainees and generally bungling the transition.

Some of these Egyptian groups, the generals said, were following a foreign agenda and seek to "topple the Egyptian state", something the military said it would never permit.

The objective was to discredit pro-democracy groups so they were isolated and viewed with suspicion by the masses who responded to their calls for street protests during last year's uprising against Mr Mubarak and subsequent demonstrations. But the groups, along with the American ones, are widely credited for training hundreds of young people who later spearheaded the uprising, which the generals publicly praise as the "glorious January 25 revolution".

The Egyptian military is indebted to Washington for modernising its arsenal in the late 1970s after years of relying on antiquated Soviet-era weapons.

There are 200 to 300 Egyptian army officers in the United States at any given time attending military schools. The two nations stage joint exercises annually.

Also, the US has promised US$1.3 billion (Dh4.77bn) in military aid and $250 million in economic assistance this year - which Washington threatened to cancel during the crisis over the non-profit groups.

In view of these ties, the crisis over the non-profit groups has led many Egyptians to say the generals manufactured the tension while all along planning to back down after they had harvested all possible gains from a high-profile quarrel.

The military may have gone too far with its gamble.

Lawyers have filed dozens of independent suits against Egypt's military ruler, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, and other officials, accusing them of collaborating in helping the six Americans to flee justice.

There have also been calls to question and possibly prosecute Abdel Moez Ibrahim, a top judge who reportedly asked the judge trying the case to lift the travel ban on the Americans at the behest of the generals. Mr Ibrahim denies this.

There have also been calls for the prime minister, Kamal El Ganzouri, to step down over the case.

Mr El Ganzouri, who served under Mr Mubarak as both a cabinet minister and prime minister, will address parliament on the issue on Sunday.