Imagine this: You're a member of the post-revolutionary Egyptian cabinet, one of the very last holdovers from the Mubarak era. You also happen to be a civilian, so you can't depend on your buddies in the officers' club to protect you. And on top of everything else you're a woman, in a society that doesn't exactly have a rich history of high-ranking female politicians. What do you do to shore up your career?
Why, you go after the Americans, of course.
Faiza Abul-Naga, Egypt's somewhat ironically titled Minister of International Cooperation, has vastly boosted her notoriety by placing herself at the center of a scandal involving U.S. democracy assistance. On December 29, Egyptian security forces raided the offices of 17 local and foreign non-government organizations around the country, accusing them of the illegal use of funds and various other crimes. (The photo above shows Egyptian security forces guarding the Cairo office of the U.S. National Democratic Instititue, one of the U.S. groups raided.) Several observers, including U.S. Senator John McCain, have pointed the finger at Abul-Naga, who is said to have orchestrated the crackdown on NGOs as a way of diverting attention from the poor performance of the military-led government. The minister is not making any effort dispel that impression: "Every country has pressure cards in the political field," she apparently told an Egyptian newspaper. "Egypt is no exception."
The U.S. reaction veered between indignation and disbelief. "We are very concerned because this is not appropriate in the current environment," said U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland. The raids put Egypt's ruling military junta and the U.S. "on an unprecedented collision course," puffed Newsweek. Analysts dutifully pointed out that the raids could jeopardize the $1.3 billion in direct aid the U.S. pays to the Egyptian military each year. Now the Egyptians say they're preparing to put the 43 civil society workers they've arrested (including 16 Americans) on trial for their presumed offenses.
Amid all the fuss linger several unanswered questions: Why would the generals do such a stupid thing? Are they thinking straight? Are they really in control? After all, the organizations under attack are simply trying to promote democracy and help build institutions in the wake of Egypt's chaotic revolution. Surely even the generals ought to be able to understand that such efforts are in the interest of all Egyptians.
In fact, though, the commentators should have been asking a different question about Abul-Naga -- namely, what took her so long. After all, the Americans have been deeply unpopular in Egypt for years. Washington supported Mubarak for decades. Washington is a close friend of Israel. Washington has been invading and occupying Muslim countries. A recent Gallup Poll showed that 70 percent of Egyptians were opposed to further U.S. funding to their country, which they view (without knowing much about the details) as interference in their internal affairs. It shouldn't really come as a surprise that some enterprising Egyptian politician decided to capitalize on such sentiments.
To understand Egypt's NGO scandal, it might help to look at another Arab country where the U.S. has spent billions trying to promote democratic institutions: Iraq. Earlier this month The New York Times reported that Washington is planning to slash the civilian presence at its massive embassy in Baghdad. Though the State Department pushed back against the paper's claim that the plans could mean a 50 percent reduction in the staff there, it still looks likely that the cuts will be substantial.