What has ultimately determined how much, and to whom the U.S. extends aid is the potential leverage it affords over another country. Officials often justify sending main battle tanks, irrigation canal grants, and baby formula overseas to promote American values. But such abstract ideals, even if they are sincerely felt, haven’t proven decisive. If they had, the U.S. would not have supported the Mubarak regime for as long as it did. Or kept the aid flowing to the Muslim Brotherhood government and its putative “civilian” successor.

On December 29, 2011, the Egyptian Ministry of the Interior raided the Egyptian offices of seventeen NGOs. Five were targeted in particular: the Arab Center for Independence of the Judiciary and the Legal Profession, the Budgetary and Human ‎Rights Observatory, Freedom House, International Republican Institute, and National Democratic Institute (the U.S. government heavily subsidizes those last three grops). Most of these groups were conducting election-monitoring work, and had been working in Egypt for years. After a year of legal wrangling and meetings between U.S. and Egyptian officials, the courts decided in June 2013 “to convict 43 civil society organizations and 16 U.S. employees of illegal use of foreign funds,” and have ordered to closure of several groups’ offices, including the International Center for Journalists and Freedom House.

The case, brought forward under the interim rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) through a law enacted by the Mubarak government, was ultimately judged under the Muslim Brotherhood government, which was removed by a coup at the end of the month. Freedom House and the other affected groups (five in all, including the aforementioned agency) described the ruling as a “disgrace”. There is no indication that the present government will move to reverse the sentences to improve ties with Washington.

The resulting contest of wills between Washington and Cairo temporarily brought into question the $1.3 billion annual U.S. aid package to Egypt’s military and whether we value democratization seriously enough to consider revoking it. Yet after securing a lifting of the travel ban on U.S. citizens (the Egyptian news site Bikya Masr reported that “Washington is said to have posted the bail – some 2 million Egyptian pounds ($330,000) – and for each of the US nationals”)the White House ahead with the aid package, without attaching conditions that some Senators wishes to see appended, by using a national security waiver to bypass Congress.

National security is the most important consideration, though, for the U.S. Even as the December raids and indictments of the staffers took place, it was becoming increasingly common to see American and Israeli officials publicly expressing concerns over the predicted electoral successes of Islamist parties with respect to the terms of Egypt’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel.

Palestinian Salafis. Ramallah, 2007.

The military governing authority, the SCAF, was seen as a bulwark against a total Islamist electoral triumph, and its ideological descendant in former Defense Minister Adel Fattah al-Sisi’s rapidly consolidating government has certainly proven itself capable of holding a “law and order” advantage against liberal and Islamist candidates. Indeed, the Brotherhood’s willingness to work with the SCAF and U.S. officials, plus its unwillingness to confront the armed forces became a sore point for many activists and helped popularize the military’s anti-Islamist campaign.

The December raids triggered a reevaluation of democratization after years of downplaying it in favor of regional geopolitics. Senators, lobbyists and the editors of the Washington Post are asking whether aid payments should be predicated on it.

Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), joined by other legislators, urged that the U.S. make aid payments to Egypt conditional on democratization: “we want to send a clear message to the Egyptian military that the days of blank checks are over.” Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Carl Levine (D-MI) are moving to form a bipartisan consensus on the matter. Other members of Congress are also calling for a reevaluation of aid. And, as the Christian Science Monitor noted, the U.S. could have decided to make it harder for Egypt to secure international loans (and non-military aid) in response to the trial.

Yet during the course of his annual budget message to Congress, President Obama asked legislators not to cut Egypt’s military aid package for 2013. Nor did the administration really threaten the Egyptian military over clear acts of police brutality and state media incitement against Copts and protesters at Maspero and in Port Said.

Aid payments and arms deliveries have for the most part continued since 2011, despite further human rights abuses and even more questionable legal decisions handed down by Egyptian courts since 2011. Egyptian generals long used the implicit bargain of aid for keeping the peace with Israel to line their pockets and silence their critics at home by any means necessary, and continue to do so, with an added dislike of Hamas and fear of revolt in the Sinai further buttressing their appeals for weapons and credits.

Despite this, or perhaps more accurately, because of these actions and U.S. temerity in the face of them, many Egyptians unsurprisingly distrusted the U.S. and its commitment to democracy. They have not failed to identify the U.S. as enabling the military’s civil society repression and gluttony. Years of largesse helped build an uncivil society, a deep state anathema to the pro-democracy line we advocated throughout the region. The Pentagon trained and armed the tormenters of the people who took to Tahrir Square, and who now sit in parliament: the police, the military, and the dreaded State Security Investigations (SSI) agency. Even the tear gas used in Tahrir Square was “Made in the USA.”

Morsi overthrow titling errors. BBC, 2013.

Though the American defendants drew the most publicity, 14 of those indicted at the start of the trial were local Egyptians working for these agencies. The Egyptian cabinet, with its close ties to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), may have been thinking that the raids on the NGOs offices and subsequent legal finagling will send a chilling message to Egyptians associated with these organizations to stay away from foreigners.

That said, the presence of foreigners was also useful for the authorities. The officials handling the NGO case drummed up the specter of foreign subversion and espionage. U.S. actions did not always help dispel that thinking: “[d]emocracy training programs with strong ties to the U.S. political parties received the biggest share,” the AP investigated in 2012, at the expense of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists, seen by these religious parties as proof of an anti-Islamist agenda. It was indeed surprising that Fayza Aboul Naga (the cabinet minister leading the NGO crackdown) was able to carry on her campaign, which at its height embarrassed SCAF’s official representatives in Washington.She and her associates were partly pushing the case, some observers felt, in order to score political points against political rivals by stoking anti-Americanism.

Yet like the overthrow of President Morsi this past summer, Naga’s actions were “legitimized” by the mood on the street. Many Egyptians see this NGO debate solely as a sovereignty issue. Sheila Carapico, professor of political science at the American University of Cairo, notes that Egypt’s compliant state-owned media outlets and the security state go after Egyptians who would work with the NGOs because “[m]any sophisticated Egyptians reason that Western political projects are ultimately more attuned to NATO security interests than Western ideals.”

In the final reckoning, it is Egyptian reformers who stand to lose the most in this contest of wills over American money, and the interests that come attached. Some of these reformers have already taken a tremendous risk, issuing a statement in 2012 condemning the raids and questioning the government’s motives. It was quite the risk for them to take because “all the prestigious, well-established, well-known human rights NGOs are currently under investigation by the government,” said Ziad Abdel Tawab, the deputy director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies.

Though a less draconian NGO governance bill is under review (a first draft proposed in 2012, and then endorsed by the Muslim Brotherhood, was even more restrictive than existing Mubarak-era legislation), the political environment that has emerged since the January 25 Revolution is even less conducive to foreign-funded groups operating in the country. Indeed, the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights, which is in part funded by private foundations overseas, had its offices ransacked almost two years to day after Freedom House et al. did.

The debate over American aid is part of a larger discussion over how the US will respond to an Arab Spring that pundits are increasingly characterizing as an “Islamic Winter.” The American NGO workers may have escaped by the skin of their teeth, but for the Egyptian activists who worked alongside them, there is no end in sight for their troubles.

 

Photographs courtesy of Jonathon Rashad, Ramallah1222007 and Gwydion M. Williams. Published under a Creative Commons License.