x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Is Egypt biting the hand that feeds it?

Letter from Cairo Anti-West policies threaten decades of friendship and billions of dollars in aid. Youssef Hamza, Foreign Correspondent, reports.

Egyptian students hold a banner portraying a wounded revolutionary as they protest in Cairo on Saturday against the military rulers of the country.
Egyptian students hold a banner portraying a wounded revolutionary as they protest in Cairo on Saturday against the military rulers of the country.

Pro-democracy activists on criminal charges of fomenting unrest. Warnings of conspiracies to "topple the state". The American University in Cairo labelled a tool of the United States to weaken Egypt. These are part of the explosive mix of policies and rhetoric in Egypt a year after the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak.

Egypt appears to be fast abandoning decades of friendship with the US and the West and returning to the radicalism of the early years of military rule in the 1950s and 1960s.

The generals who replaced Mubarak are spearheading the campaign, particularly against the US.

Many view it as counterproductive, given that the military has benefited greatly from Cairo's strategic relationship with Washington, with $1.3 billion (Dh4.77bn) a year in aid.

The anti-West campaign has now prompted Washington to threaten to cut off aid to Egypt altogether.

Last week, Egypt referred 43 people, including at least 16 Americans, to a criminal court for trial on charges of illegally receiving foreign funds and using the money to foment unrest.

The son of the US transport secretary, Ray LaHood, is among those referred to court. Sam LaHood, head of the Egyptian office of the US-funded International Republican Institute, a non-profit that promotes democratisation efforts, has taken refuge in the US Embassy in Cairo. Mr LaHood, 36, and others referred to court are banned from travelling abroad.

Secular groups credited with engineering the removal of Mubarak want the generals to step down immediately, and not wait until the planned July 1 handover to an elected civilian government. They accuse the generals of bungling the transition, committing gross human-rights violations, of being beholden to Mubarak and not doing enough to dismantle the legacy of his 29-year rule.

Playing the patriotism card resonates in Egypt, where many people are suspicious of foreigners and see a hidden agenda in any move by the West. The generals realise that and are using these sentiments against their domestic opponents.

The generals have used the state media to discredit the pro-reform groups, exploited popular discontent with the continuing unrest since Mubarak's was toppled to demonise activists and built an image of themselves as the nation's only true patriots.

Many Egyptians, longing for stability after a year of turmoil, are buying into the military-inspired propaganda but the activists remain hopeful that what they see as the military's many political missteps and blunders will be enough to turn the people against them.

But manufacturing a quarrel with the US to serve domestic goals is a risky business. Washington could freeze the $1.3bn in military aid and $250 million in economic assistance if the crisis with the non-profit groups is not resolved. A move like that would hurt the military, even if the freeze is temporary, but it is by no means something it cannot survive. It is a small price to pay if the ploy works and the military is able to preserve 60 years of domination, privileges and near complete immunity from civilian oversight while its critics are discredited, isolated and unable to mount a serious challenge.

After all, missing the $1.3bn for a year or even longer would not pose immediate problems. Egypt is not at war with anyone.

The crisis is no small matter, especially since it now involves criminal charges against the son of a member of Barack Obama's cabinet. It could also harm Egypt's negotiations with the International Monetary Fund to secure a loan.

The two investigating judges in charge of the case held a news conference last Wednesday to reveal the details of the case against the non-profit organisations. It is a weak one. They said a map of Egypt found in one of the group's offices was evidence against it. They said the map had Egypt divided into four sections and that it was marked by letters in English. The state media, now as pro-military as it was under Mubarak, took that to mean a plan to break up Egypt. The judges also said cash had been found in the NGO offices and casually mentioned photos of churches and military facilities taken by their employees.

They said workers for the NGOs conducted opinion polls that involved questions about religion, presenting this as breaking the law or sowing divisions among the nation's majority Muslims and its Christian minority. In fact, Egypt lists the religion of its citizens on official ID cards.

In a statement on the eve of the anniversary of Mubarak's downfall, the generals warned against conspiracies that seek to topple the state and spread chaos.

The statement did not say who might be behind the plots and what motive they might have.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae