Egypt and the aid backlash: Lessons for the rest of the world

"Really, our aggression is just aid we offer poor countries that are always complaining about overpopulation!" 1970s cartoon by Ahmed Hegazi

Here at Harvard Law School, eleven out of ten students will wind up in corporate practice, meaning they may never even see the inside of a courthouse. They’ll drift from office to conference room for the rest of their working lives, sucking down money like baleen whales. A few young things will end up dabbling in criminal law — mostly to defend the corporate lawyers’ clients who skimmed a bit too much krill from the till. They’ll stand before the blind, full-breasted figure of Justice in rituals as precise, time-honored, and orderly as a French bedroom farce. I envy their innocence. But you can’t comprehend Justice in its full majesty and power from the statues; you need to see it dancing half-naked on a table like a Nevada stripper bitten by a tarantula. I’d love to take those kids by the hand and lead them into an Egyptian courtroom.

lady, come to Cairo and get down and jive

The first time I stepped into one, more than ten years ago, the contrast with my procedural expectations was considerable. The court of my imaginings was a sort of competitive petting zoo. This was a fight ring full of honey badgers with rabies. Everyone was screaming. Women ululated the zaghrata till the blood froze. The defendants stood in a cage to one side; the judge’s demeanor seemed modelled on Commodus at the Coliseum.   Was that sweat darkening the dust underfoot, or someone’s blood? I was not at all surprised when a friend of mine hurled himself at a reporter and tackled him to the floor. An hour more, and I’d have done the same myself.

It seems to have been pretty much like that Sunday, when the Case of the NGO Workers went to trial in Cairo.  43 defendants, employees of five foreign nonprofits — 16 Americans, 16 Egyptians, along with Germans, Palestinians, and others — faced charges of undermining Egypt’s sovereignty: operating organizations without a license, bringing in money from abroad, and sending information to foreign countries.  Oh, yes, and a plot to dismember the country, since police found a map in one office that daringly showed Egypt divided into four zones. (It came off Wikipedia.)  Spectators and reporters mobbed the court. Fifteen lawyers showed up — out of that chaotic nowhere that usually means some prosecutor’s pocket — to claim they represented Egyptian citizens harmed by whatever the nonprofits had done. Half the audience chanted against the military regime. The other half, Salafists, demanded the foreigners be held as hostages till the blind Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman is freed from his American dungeon. The judge postponed the whole show and shebang for two months, till April 26. Nobody left happy.

all Egypt will be divided into four parts: the traitors' map, courtesy of

This case has been captivating everybody since the police raided 10 NGOs at the end of December, carting off computers, financial records, phones, and cash.   It captivates the US media because Americans were on trial. Unthinkable: Americans. While nine of the 16 accused US citizens got out of the country, seven –including an Obama Cabinet secretary’s son — huddled for refuge inside the American Embassy.  The resultant rage in Washington threatened the US’s massive aid package for Egypt, and the two countries’ longstanding alliance. Today, Egypt backed down, releasing the seven to a chartered flight at the airport, while pocketing as much as $300,000 each in bail. (The judges trying the case recused themselves in response, claiming improper political pressure.) This pretty much placates the United States, and the aid spigot is likely to turn on again; never mind the Egyptians still facing prison terms, or the Egyptian organizations raided and intimidated.

Some years back, when a Red Sea vessel sank and 1200 people drowned, the Colonel Blimpish right-wing writer John Derbyshire thought at first it might be a cruise ship packed with tourists. Then, “I learned that the ship was in fact a ferry, the victims all Egyptians. I lost interest at once, and stopped reading. I don’t care about Egyptians.” While it’s natural to take an interest in your own, few things are more contemptible than how Americans (and cranky Brits) notice history only when it’s happening to them.  Since a lot of history goes on elsewhere, this means that tourists and other travelers are its main protagonists, in the American view.  The Big Events are like dinner-theater performances where you come to watch and then get to join the show.

What happened to Lara Logan –raped near Tahrir more than a year ago — was terrible, but the fate of an assaulted American didn’t reveal some inner truth of Egypt’s revolution. And the US press reported the assault not to illuminate the sexual violence Egyptian women face, but to erase it. I feel sorry for the Cabinet secretary’s son, but Egyptian NGO workers have stared down state harassment for two decades. The 14 defendants who actually showed up for the trial are all Egyptian; but the US coverage is all about the absentees. (Meanwhile, by the way, John Derbyshire’s Stateside reputation easily bobbed back up despite his ballast of callousness. Last year, Ross Douthat, the New York Times’ most boring and conservative columnist, cited him as an authority … on Egypt.)

Abul Naga: Personally, I only want this much aid, no more

But Egyptianstoo, find the Americans’ plight captivating. It feeds the favorite cafe pastime: conspiracy theories. What the hell was the government thinking? The case was cooked up by Fayza Abul Naga, Minister of Planning and International Cooperation, one of the few holdovers the military junta kept in place directly from Mubarak’s last government.  A neatly coiffed figure vaguely resembling Meryl Streep’s latest Oscar-winning role, Abul Naga harassed NGOs under the previous regime, and is delighted to carry on under the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).  The current campaign has lent her a frenzied popularity as  a militant for Egypt’s sovereignty. She and the prosecutors have jabbed at all the xenophobic buttons, accusing the NGOs of “pandering to the U.S. Congress, Jewish lobbyists and American public opinion.” The malleable Muslim Brotherhood, the dominant party in the newly elected Parliament and an occasional SCAF antagonist, endorsed what it calls her “nationalist position” (despite the fact that it’s never opened the books on its own election funding, allegedly ponied up by Qatar).

Few Egyptians, though, see the logic to SCAF’s apparent support of the anti-US campaign. It endangered the aid trough at which the military has been feeding for more than thirty years.

Adapted from Jeremy M. Sharp, "Egypt in Transition," Congressional Research Service, 2011, at

The graph shows the disproportion between US economic aid, which has been shrinking for more than a decade (with a short spike in 2003, to reward Mubarak for his effective support of the Iraq War), and military aid, which has stayed constant. The military assistance, since the late 1970s, has been a massive bribe to Egypt not to use its military — particularly against the obvious object, Israel.  Since only so much money can be spent on unusable weapons, much of the aid greased the internal security apparatus — or lined the generals’ pockets, not just through direct embezzlement but by investment in a vast network of businesses under uniformed control.

Researchers estimate that the Egyptian military controls 25 to 40 percent of Egypt’s economy. Military firms dominate key sectors, including food (olive oil, water, pasta), cement and gasoline, vehicle production (joint ventures with Jeep to produce Cherokees and Wranglers), and construction.

The money oiling this empire would disappear if US aid dried up. Some speculate that Abul Naga has gone rogue, Sarah Palin-style, persecuting without SCAF’s permission. “This is a country of separate islands now,” one lawmaker said.  “The Foreign Ministry, the Justice Ministry, the Parliament, the generals of the military council — everyone is his own island.” Yet the Cabinet serves at the military’s pleasure; it’s hard to suppose a minister could attack their wallets without retaliation. Others, therefore, see a darker, Byzantine design on SCAF’s part.

The venerable Richard Falk sheds some light. Employees of five organizations were charged in Egypt: the US-based National Democratic Institute, International Republican Institute, Freedom House, and International Center for Journalists; and the German Konrad Adenauer Foundation. All the Americans work for the first three.  Falk points out that the NDI and NRI get all their money from the US government; Freedom House takes 80% of its funding there.

Sometimes these entities are even referred to by the media as “civil society institutions”, which reflects, at best, a woeful state of unknowing, or worse, deliberate deception. Whatever one thinks of the activities of these actors, it is simply false to conceive of them as “nongovernmental”, or as emanations of civil society. It would be more responsive to their nature if such entities were described as “informal governmental organisations”. (IGOs)

Perhaps this is in fact the key to what’s happening. From one perspective, the fact that it’s effectively US government cash that SCAF is criminalizing– a little frosting on the big $1.5 billion birthday cake they get handed every year — makes their actions seem even stranger. But SCAF probably has a different fear: that the IGOs’ activities mean more and more US assistance will go to civil society, and less and less directly to Egypt’s rulers. Fayza started her campaign last March, when the US announced $65 million in aid to pro-democracy groups in Egypt. You can easily see SCAF wondering, not just: will that largesse be used against us? — but: is that coming out of our budget? (The minister reportedly told US officials that support for the civil society sector shouldn’t exceed $20 million.) The trial is a way of warning the US: We want things the old way. The money comes to us.

No, it's not. Stay home. We'll monitor YOU.

Falk calls attention to the Cold War roots of all three organizations, and warns of “disguised intrusions by a foreign government in the internal politics of a foreign country with fragile domestic institutions of government.” A concurs: “How would we react if a foreign country came here to teach us how to conduct elections?” Living in eastern Europe from 1990 to 1996, I saw IRI’s and NDI’s work at first hand. Together with the big German party foundations (Adenauer for the Christian Democrats, Friedrich Ebert for the Social Democrats, and Friedrich Naumann for the liberals — the Greens’ foundation was not yet hyperactive), they normalized politics in the countries where they operated. I don’t mean this in a good sense. Funding and training forces ideologically in line with their own preferences, they helped impose a Western-style left-right divide on societies that, in the wake of revolution, had been open to less stereotyped possibilities: anarchist parties, youth politics, environmental and feminist movements. (They didn’t succeed in stifling far-right extremists, given how far “normal” conservatism in the region had traditionally tended in a fascist direction.)  Undoubtedly they’ve tried to do the same in Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood’s election triumph, though, has the paradoxical effect of ensuring Egyptian politics won’t be a simple left-right affair for some while. Free-market and socialist tendencies flourish on both sides of the secular-religious divide. This tends to muddy the economic arguments most urgent to a poor country; but it also makes the alleged foreign interference seem not sinister, merely ineffective.

Falk also recognizes the ominious implications to the Cairo case: that

the Egyptian government, although admittedly long concerned about these spurious NGOs operating within its territory even during the period of Mubarak rule, is itself seemingly disingenuous, using the licensing and funding technicalities as a pretext for a wholesale crackdown on dissent and human rights, so as to discipline and intimidate a resurgent civil society and a radical opposition movement that remains committed to realising the democratic promise of the Arab Spring.

This is the explanation favored by the bien-pensant liberal in Egypt. Khaled Fahmy, professor at the American University of Cairo, writes:

The real target of Abouelnaga’s crusade is not foreign NGOs receiving foreign funding. Her real targets are human rights organizations that have been campaigning to defend basic freedoms before and after the 25 January revolution. The reason is simple: it is human rights organizations, more than official political parties or even the press, which have uncovered cases of police brutality under Mubarak’s dictatorial rule, which have defended helpless victims in numerous cases of outright injustice, and which have raised public awareness of basic and constitutional rights. … it is they who have sued the SCAF for allegedly conducting the notorious virginity tests on protesters; it is they who have been pressing the SCAF to restructure the security sector; and it is they who have highlighted and documented the SCAF’s bloody practices in Maspero, Mohamed Mahmoud Street, Cabinet Street, and Port Said.

This is true as far as it goes, yet flawed on two grounds.

First: I speak as a human rights activist: human rights groups’ work shouldn’t be exaggerated.  They document; they don’t mobilize.  The  abuses that brought Mubarak down, such as the killing of Khaled Said, were atrocities that exceeded the ambit of human rights documentation altogether, and became the iconic objects of popular campaigns.  Those campaigns did the hardest work. And without masses struggling and dying in Mohamed Mahmoud Street and Suez, there would have been nothing for the groups to document. Masses made the revolution. Documentation was a tool toward revolutionary ends, but not more than a tool — just as the middle-class methods of Facebook and Twitter didn’t cause the revolution, any more than Angry Birds.

There’s been a tendency (particularly fostered by foreign non-participants in the Arab Spring, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty) to expropriate last year’s revolts as “human rights revolutions,” suggesting neither “impure” political motivations nor insistent economic demands played their part. This is absurd.  If “civil society” as Fahmy describes it here had been tasked alone with overthrowing the former regime, Mubarak would be preparing for immortality in an official pyramid, and his son would be readying his coronation as the old man’s steward on Earth. Civil society — a concept argued and idealized from Hegel to Havel — is a vital force. But it’s not revolutionary, it’s regulative.  It guards the transparency and flexibility of an open political system; it criticizes the occlusions of a closed one. It lacks the strength, though, to turn a system upside down. Only social movements can do that. It’s understandable for academics, who spend most of their time in offices, to delude themselves that other people who possess offices are the unmoved movers of the world.  (Human Rights Watch, my old employer, subscribed to similar illusions; its leaders would no more have understood a social movement that they would have invited the cleaning ladies to dinner.)  But power is in the streets; a revolution is a moment when the disenfranchised and the wretched of the earth can seize authority, however ephemeral, from those cosseted by educations and air conditioners.

Second, pointing to the undoubted virtues of rights organizations doesn’t help explain why — as Abul Naga’s sudden popularity reveals — so many people hate them in Egypt.  Rights activists themselves seem startled by the fact. After all, they defend the poor and vulnerable; why, when the cash is down and the police are knocking at their doors, does much of the population treat them as alien interlopers? But what is left out of Fahmy’s analysis is the dirty little secret of Egyptian liberalism: class. Unspeakable yet irresistible as a nasty French postcard, it’s everywhere present but nowhere discussed.

One has to weed out myth from reality. Human rights activists in Egypt, as in most places, are overworked and underpaid. Some organizations, such as the Hisham Mubarak Law Center (offering legal support to victims of violations) and the Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence (offering help to torture survivors) transcend both their express mandates and the old victim/savior dichotomy, are explicit in their political commitments, and see part of their labor as mobilizing people to act and struggle. Aida Seif el-Dawla of the latter said to me once, more or less, “Sometimes the best rehabilitation from torture is to fight back.”

1% on one side, 99% keep to the other

Still, most Egyptians regard “civil society” as a place of privilege and inanition, far from the burdens and terrors of daily life. And from the poor’s perspective, they’re right. How many workers sit in a comfortable chair in an office paid for by the US? Moreover, civil society itself — overwhelmingly staffed by the middle and upper-middle classes — reinforces the image. Many of its leaders have no idea how to speak to the lower orders, except to order them to clean something. The condescension of authority and the inflection of command come naturally. And each large desk or air conditioner produces its own pasha, sure of his superiority to those who sweat.

The two failures are connected, and are not just a matter of attitude or tone. Salaried civil society activists in Egypt don’t know how to relate to other classes; and this reinforces their difficulty in dealing with social movements, with people mobilizing for change. For most of them (there are, of course, treasured exceptions) the language of mobilization is a tongue Rosetta Stone doesn’t teach. This tongue-tiedness extends to many of the young, middle-class activists who populated Midan Tahrir. It was telling that this past summer, when it became clear that SCAF threatened all the Revolution’s achievements, their main answer was to return to the square and try to reinvigorate, on their own, the dream of classless commonality there. The effort was beautiful — I was there, in July and August, and the idealism of it was both exasperating and deeply moving– but it was remote from the rest of the country’s reality. At the same time, Muslim Brothers and Salafists were busy organizing among workers and peasants, doling out food and identifying voters. The voting showed the inevitable result.

What lessons can derive from all this?

One is: human rights are not enough. They can set the procedural norms for a changed society; but neither rights claims nor the activists who press them will, in themselves, achieve the changes that most need to happen — changes in the deep structure of societies and states, changes in how wealth is allotted and who allots it, who holds power and how. The spirit –no, not the spirit; the muscle and the nerve — of social movements is needed to accomplish that, and to amplify what rights activists do. Human rights groups have to learn to speak the languages of movements: not later, but now.

A second lesson is about aid and the dynamics of power it represents. It’s striking (and not a little self-defeating) how popular an anti-aid rhetoric is among Egyptians. Far from treating assistance as a just claim against a history of economic and political exploitation, they’re almost eager to forego it for a vaguer acquisition: dignity.

Al Azhar, the leading Sunni Islamic institute in Egypt, and a fundamentalist Salafist sheik, Mohammad Hassan, formed a group with the goal of raising up to $2 billion to replace any lost American aid. [No indication of how much would go to economic relief, and how much into the generals’ pockets.] Three days ago, the military-appointed Egyptian cabinet voted to support the effort, the Fund for Dignity and Pride, and many prominent Egyptians have pledged support. The fund has so far raised $10 million.

Some of this is the military’s vain gesturing, but some obviously strums a populist nerve. And the nerve twinges elsewhere too. The obvious analogue is the rhetoric roaring out of Africa, after the fiasco of David Cameron’s threat to tie aid to LGBT people’s human rights. The fiasco was disastrous. Loud promises to give up aid echoed from Tanzania to Zimbabwe. Legislators brought forward new and old bills against homosexuality in Uganda, Nigeria, Liberia. Cameron’s words backfired in a massive backlash — and worsened the hatred screaming against queers across the continent. The Egypt quandary further suggests that the link between aid and rights protection is complicated, requiring  tact and strategy. Aid can discredit rights movements as much as it can assist them.

We just wants the Precious for a little while. Just to make the nasty peoples stop!

As for “aid conditionality”: well, the nagging hypocrisy beneath human rights activists’ claim that they’re above practical politics is that, in fact, they love power.  They want it and dream of it in secret. Like Boromir lusting for the Ring, they know it can cause them the occasional inconvenience, but they’re convinced they’ll put it to good use. The fact they can’t acknowledge this love in public only makes the longing fester more. The fantasy of using aid leverage cleanly and simply, despite all the colonial implications and the economic impact, to make rights violations stop is one version of the festering. Instead of building and mobilizing a domestic constituency against the abuses, instead of struggling to create an international movement, the fantasy tells them that a few key governments on their side will put the squeeze on the abusers, and — like a pimple bursting — the evil will end. The extreme form of this is to invoke not money, but military might. Human Rights Watch campaigned hard for intervention in Libya last year, not so much because it seemed incontrovertible that otherwise a genocide would happen, but as a test case. If, for once, governments would bomb another state purely on the strength of  rights arguments, wouldn’t that show — for the first time and for all — that human rights had teeth? Wouldn’t it confirm that they and their exponents were a power to be reckoned with? A moral power, of course. Power almost always starts off announcing itself as moral. Then things change.

Human Rights Watch never much cared for achieving things by movement building. Its vision was always to get the right governments lined up on the right side, and go from there. That may work in certain places and for certain causes.  But in most of our lives and world, things happen through politics, and politics mean mobilization, and mobilization means cobbling together movements that voice and meet people’s needs in the concrete, not just the abstract. It’s a lesson a great many human rights groups still need to learn.