Recall that in late December, Egyptian authorities raided the offices of numerous nongovernmental organizations, including the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute, which are funded mostly by US taxpayers through the National Endowment for Democracy. At the time, I wrote that allowing this to stand without tangible consequences for military aid to Egypt would be asking for trouble, and when Egyptian authorities had not fulfilled promises to return material seized in the raids a week later, I (along with some more prominent commentators) called for aid to be cut.
That didn’t happen, and, having asked for trouble, the Obama administration has indeed gotten trouble. Eric Trager of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy notes that the mistreatment of democracy-promotion groups has continued and gotten worse, with American citizens’ targeted and banned from traveling:
The Egyptian government’s recent travel ban on American democracy workers is the latest — and most grievous — attack on U.S.-funded NGOs operating in the country. Six employees are not allowed to travel, including Sam LaHood, the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. Four other non-U.S. citizens are also affected. All ten are employed by either the International Republican Institute (IRI) or the National Democratic Institute (NDI)…
The travel ban represents an escalation in the Egyptian military’s crackdown on civil society. Since assuming control last February, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has used state-run media to foster a hostile political environment for pro-democracy NGOs, accusing them of catalyzing instability and portraying as traitors the Egyptian citizens who work for them.
Trager adds that the government still hasn’t backed off from the December raids; the organizations’ Egyptian employees remain under investigation, and their offices remain closed. The administration just keeps asking nicely, to no effect:
Indeed, the Obama administration’s current approach toward the SCAF — dealing with bad behavior through communication rather than consequences — is failing. For example, the president spoke with Defense Minister Muhammad Hussein Tantawi on Friday night and, according to the White House, “underscored that nongovernmental organizations should be able to operate freely.” Yet on Saturday, Sam LaHood, IRI’s director in Egypt, was prevented from leaving the country.
It’s worth pausing to reflect on this: The President of the United States asks the defense minister of a client state to do something perfectly reasonable, and the next day the regime does the exact opposite. How can we keep sending massive piles of no-strings-attached cash to these people? Trager points out that aid money has proven useful in the past for changing the Egyptian military regime’s behavior:
Previous experience suggests that a stronger U.S. response, such as threatening to withhold at least part of the $1.3 billion in annual military aid to Egypt, could convince the SCAF to lift the ban. This is precisely what the Bush administration did in 2002, when it successfully pressured the Mubarak regime to release Egyptian American democracy activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim from prison by threatening to withhold $130 million. Given the SCAF’s recent escalation against NGOs, it is time once again to enact this strategy.
Trager concludes that that admininstration has been hesitant to withhold aid because “policymakers view such aid as vital to maintaining U.S. leverage, given the longstanding relationship between the American and Egyptian militaries, not to mention the recent election of an Islamist-dominated parliament that will be hostile to American interests.” This is an all-too-easy trap for an American administration to fall into: The military presents itself as a check on the Islamists, while meanwhile following the Mubarak playbook of suppressing the development of any non-Islamist opposition — and plays Washington like fiddle. Letting them get away with it is unacceptable. As Trager puts it, “maintaining leverage requires demonstrating a willingness to use it.” It’s past time to demonstrate such willingness.